China has a reputation for engineering marvels. From the Grand Canal to the Three Gorges Dam, the Great Wall to the skyline of Shanghai, this is a country unafraid to bend geography to its will.
And yet for all the concrete and steel that underpins the achievements of modern China, one of her most enduring construction feats was achieved without industrial technology or tools, with the budget and resources of just a few remote mountain villages.
The rice terraces of southern China have become popular travel spots in recent years, mesmerizing visitors with undulating stairways of green and gold. Many are centuries old and have shaped their communities in much the same way the farmers themselves once honed inhospitable mountains into highly productive farmland.
Growing rice typically requires large amounts of pooled water, ideal for flat, riverine landscapes but less so for steep hilly terrain. Terracing uses complex irrigation systems to divert water from uphill streams, allowing a staggered stairway of miniature fields to be formed and flooded, creating the optimal conditions for producing China’s life-sustaining grain.
Terrace systems are sustainable, too, supporting small ecosystems and acting as dams by purifying and cycling rainwater through the environment to prevent floods, while the remote cultures that manage them are often egalitarian, sharing in land and labor. All told, China’s rice terraces make for fulfilling, multidimensional destinations for travel.
Where to go
There are several options for visiting rice terraces in China, although most lie south of the Yangtze where the climate is better suited to growing a crop which requires 2,500 liters of water for every kilogram produced.
The best known locations are the Longji, or Dragon’s Backbone, terraces in Guangxi’s Longsheng County and the Honghe Hani terraces in Yunnan’s Yuanyang County. While they have become heavily trafficked in recent years, particularly during national holidays, they remain some of the most spectacular examples of terrace agriculture anywhere in the world. Both are reachable from their respective provincial capitals Guilin and Kunming, yet far enough for their remoteness to be felt.
Nestled in the heart of one of China’s most culturally diverse regions, the Jiabang terraces of Guizhou are a great option for experiencing ethnic minority culture – primarily Miao – alongside the landscape itself. The moist weather here also makes photogenic cloud displays a regular occurrence in the early mornings year round.
For those looking to escape crowds and tourist infrastructure head to Hunan and the Ziquejie – or Purple Magpie – terraces. Transport and accommodation will be more, well, agricultural, but the rewards are a place which is only just beginning to attract the attention of tourists. The Ziquejie terraces are also unusual in that they rely on the area’s heavy rainfall to irrigate the rice paddies rather than any uphill water source.
When to go
Seasonality has a major impact on any visit to see China’s rice terraces as the landscape changes drastically in appearance throughout the year. To further complicate the issue, each region has slightly different planting and harvesting times owing to the specificity of their own mountain micro climates.
At Longji expect the illusory spectacle of recently irrigated mirror-like terraces between mid-April and late June. The hills will be carpeted green from July to September and golden thereafter prior to harvesting later in the year, usually November.
The scenery of Yuanyang is famous for the geometric patchwork of reflective pools on display between December and March after irrigation has taken place. The verdant stairways of late spring and early summer are just as beautiful, however, and will be less crowded.
At Jiabang, the terraces are waterlogged between April and June, golden from September to October, and green in between. For those headed to Ziquejie, paddies are irrigated between March and May, with green terraces until the autumn months when the fields turn gold before the harvest.
What to look for
The terrace systems themselves are a wonder of agricultural engineering, not least since those at Honghe Hani and Longji date back 1000 and 650 years respectively. The irrigation mechanisms they employ are complex and for the most part built entirely by hand, a monument to human skill and ingenuity in this part of China.
Owing to their remote, mountainous locations in the country’s southwest, many of the terraces belong to ethnic minority villages, home to some of China’s lesser known cultures. Ping’an and Dazhai, two enchanting wooden villages nestled in the Longji hillsides, are excellent examples of Zhuang and Yao architecture, just as the thatched homes in Yuanyang represent the classic, mushroom-style buildings of the Hani people.
Many of the inhabitants of these villages still live, dress and work in traditional ways, which for Yao women in Longsheng includes a range of rituals and traditions around their clothing and hair. Their locks are cut only once, when they are 18, and many are willing to show them off to curious visitors.
Look out for aquaculture among the paddies, particularly those of the Hani people, who use the flooded rice fields to raise fish, ducks, snails and eels. There have been numerous modern studies into the benefits of integrated rice-fish agriculture, many showing that it can boost yield and reduce pests, cutting labor for local farmers.
Where to stay
The style of accommodation varies dramatically everywhere in China, but the variance is especially pronounced in the remote countryside, where utilitarian lodgings can stand side by side with high-end options.
In the village of Ping’an at Longji, WildChina recommends staying at the Li-An Lodge, a stylish boutique set in a traditional Zhuang dwelling with large comfortable rooms, unforgettable views of the rice terraces and no shortage of authentic local charm.
For the Honghe Hani terraces consider the Twelve Manor Hotel, another local boutique beautifully presented within traditional Hani architecture. Rooms are tastefully bedecked and serene, with floor-to-ceiling windows that offer private views of the terraces comparable with the crowded, ticketed viewing platforms nearby.
Another exciting option in Yuanyang is the Vinetree Honghegu Tented Resort, a contemporary eco-retreat, complete with infinity pool, set amid the ruins of an ancient stone village. Perched atop the Honghe Hani terraces, the luxury tented rooms offer excellent views of the rice fields, and provide a more intimate experience of daily life in the nearby villages.
Visit the Honghe and Jianshui Rice Terraces this Spring Festival!
Join us to celebrate Spring Festival in Yunnan, where we’ll discover the largest rice terraces in the world as we dive in to the local traditions, history, and backcountry of the charming Red River Valley, its Hani people, and their ingenious ways of bringing water to their rice terraces.