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China's Rice Economy

by Michael Gray

Chinese Food in China, Hong Kong, and/or Taiwan

Spring Volume: 2012 Issue: 19(1) page(s): 11and 14

How many times in any given day or any given week do you eat rice? How much rice do you eat on each of these occasions? Are you aware that rice is the world's most important crop and the world's most consumed staple grain?

For the eight nations with populations of more than one hundred million people, rice is indispensable for China, India, Indonesia, Japan, and Bangladesh. The people in these five countries get more than sixty percent of their daily calories from rice. This grain, however, is not indispensable in other countries with huge populations such as Russia, Brazil or the United States.

There are five excellent books by China scholars providing a lot of information on China's rice economy. Listed at the end of this article, they are by: EN Anderson, KC Chang, JM Newman, FJ Simoons and S Witter. These authors make it clear that rice dominates and is the staple grain in China where soil and water conditions are right. Furthermore, as the staple food of about half the world's people, half of this half are Chinese. Aside from eating it, the Chinese make rice stalks into superior straw for thatching, into sandals comfortable to wear, and they use it for fuel and industrial purposes as diverse as paper and people's make-up. In the food arena, the Chinese eat rice, use it to make wine and vinegar, and grind it into flour to make noodles and confections. They also use rice to make medicines, their stalks into ash to treat wounds.

The world's rice basket is located in Asia where rice is the main dietary staple for most Asians. Their dense population needs provide incentive for intensive land use when planting and harvesting this grain. Rice produces more calories per acre than any other basic food crop. Cassava, also known as yucca or manioc, is another basic starch. So are potatoes, sugar cane, and sugar beets. These also provide many calories per acre but they cannot sustain dense populations despite their yield whereas rice can. In addition, rice is simple to process, easy to digest, and tasty or tasteless as an absorbing medium, depending on the cooking process. When not polished, rice also has a substantial amount of B vitamins, some protein, and many other nutrients. Rice is unique for four main reasons. It is used almost exclusively for human consumption, having minimum value for livestock or industrial use. It is the only grain cooked and eaten as a whole grain. It is semi-aquatic and the only grain grown in standing water. And, it is the world's most widely adapted crop growing from the fifty-third degree latitude north to forty degrees south.

The Chinese started breeding rice for short grain culms or stems in the sixth century. The practice of throwing handfuls of rice on newlyweds probably originated in China as a symbolic gesture for fertility and prosperity.

Traditionally, China’s precious land was used almost entirely to produce food for human consumption. However, since 1996, this country has lost more than thirty thousand square miles of agricultural land. The remaining total of about four hundred seventy thousand square miles is getting dangerously close to the thirteen thousand square miles the government believes is baseline and the necessary amount to sustain their massive population which has recently soared to one and one-third billion people and growing.

About two percent of China’s land is pasture for animals and nine-tenths of it used for crops. In the United States, almost fifty percent of the land is pasture and four-tenths used as land for crops. Furthermore, only about eleven percent of China’s total land mass is arable while lots more that that is available in the United States.

In China, rice is produced in every province, municipality, and autonomous region. Though northern areas all consume rice, it is their least consumed staple food while southern ones enjoy and consume much more of this staple grain. In the south, the Chinese eat less wheat, sorghum, corn, and other staples than do their northern neighbors.

It is interesting to note that India has about fifteen percent more acreage in rice but China produces greater than thirty percent more rice than does India. As a matter of fact, fully thirty percent of the world's rice output comes from China where rice cultivation accounts for forty percent of their grain production. China has more than forty thousand different native rice cultivars or types of rice, certain ones resistant to disease and insects. Some of them are tolerant to alkaline land, others to acidic soils Some rice cultivars tolerate low temperatures, numerous others are suitable for and grow in areas with insufficient water

The social implications of this intensive agriculture are striking in China's rice economy. It is the backbone of Chinese life in the South and the Yangzi Valley, and it is a very labor intensive crop. One usually sees it grown in its first month in seedbeds while subsidiary crops are raised and harvested in dry fields. This is more efficient than direct seeding as it better utilizes limited land and water resources. Lots of rice is grown in terraced beds on hillsides; most of it, too, beginning life in seedbeds. After that first month, the young seedlings need transplanting, and virtually all of it is transplanted by hand into flooded fields by men and women bending over to do so.

Most young rice seedlings are transplanted into plowed fields fertilized, flooded, and readied for them. Before preparing them, ducks are sent in to eat any larvae or snails. As transplanting is largely done by human hands, one often sees rows of people bending from the waist down as they move backward planting these seedlngs. They step through ankle-high muddy water to set out these rice seedlings.

Later, when the rice has been weeded and is mature, the fields are drained and the rice crop harvested, again most often by hand. Given an unlimited supply of water and a huge supply of human labor, there is probably no way a greater yield could be gained from any given plot of land.

China is increasingly turning to mechanized transplanting and harvesting. It is thought that by the year 2015, nearly forty percent of rice planting and up to eighty percent of its harvesting will be mechanized. That is a good thing because most Chinese, southern ones at least, eat many bowls of cooked rice each and every day. With more of them moving to cities for less back-breaking work, it is a good thing machines are ready to take over. Even with Chinese, on average, eating less rice daily, the amount consumed is going from six or more bowls per person per day to close to four bowls per person each day; and that still means they need a lot of rice.

Back to the initial questions: How many times in any given day or a given week do you eat rice; and how much do you eat on each of these occasions? Keep in mind the question means Chinese rice bowls, most of which hold one and a half cups of rice. Keep track of your own consumption for a few weeks to find out exactly how much rice you actually do consume. You might want to know the number of bowls of pasta and potatoes, as well.

To learn more about rice, its use, and its role in China and in Chinese cuisine, I recommend:
Anderson, E. N. The Food of China. Yale University Press; New Haven CT, 1988.
Chang, K. C., editor. Food in Chinese Culture: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives. Yale University Press; New Haven CT, 1977.
Newman, Jacqueline M. Food Culture in China. Greenwood Press; Westport CT, 2004.
Simoons, Frederick J. Food in China: A Cultural and Historical Inquiry. CRC Press, Inc; Boca Raton FL, 1991.
Witter, Sylvan; Yu Youtai; Sun Han and Wang Lianzheng. Feeding a Billion: Frontiers of Chinese Agriculture. Michigan State University Press; East Lansing MI, 1987.

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