China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2015/Jan


Unless a grain falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it produces much fruit (John 12:24).

Last November, I had the pleasure of attending an amazing performance, Rice, by the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, choreographed by Lin Huai-min.

With the help of superb videography, lighting and projection design, Rice transports us to the fields of Chiayi where Lin grew up.

Today, the pristine fields recorded are of Chihshang (池上) in Taiwan’s East Rift Valley.

The dancers’ varied movements against a backdrop of new green seedlings, elements of nature and mature, swaying panicles capture the life cycle of rice:

Soil: Women come onto the stage, their feet pounding the floor. They move with a heavy gait; their bodies stoop low, close to the earth.

Wind: Light, brisk movements by dancers in colourful costumes imitate the wind, to the chorus of traditional Hakka folk song.

Pollen: A pas de deux performed by a pair of male and female dancers portrays union that gives life. “Be fruitful and multiply,” that was the blessing. The alliance is fluid and wrought with passion as the two become one.

Sunlight: Giant, swaying stalks projected onto the backdrop of the stage have performers literally dancing at the grassroots level. Their movements form part of the microcosm; a growing universe.

Grain: Tall bamboo poles, pliable yet strong, are wielded by dancers with martial dexterity, as they thrash, slice and beat, evoking the threshing of harvest.

Fire: The field is burnt after the harvest. A dancer searches among ashes and broken stems. It is desolate as death – until suddenly she finds a shoot.

Water: In spring, the land is flooded again to prepare for a new crop. By chance, this process also provides a sanctuary and feeding ground for wildlife, including waterfowl.

Lin’s breathtaking visual poetry honours the way of sustainable farming and living. However, he also notes the threats:

In the past, the rural areas were the mainstay of economic production, the heart of community networking and relationships, and the very essence of humanistic qualities such as modesty, warmth, respect for nature and the land. But the rural areas of Taiwan today are facing critical challenges: the loss and abandonment of arable land, the conversion of arable land into construction sites, the downward ratio of self-sufficient food production, and ecological disasters.

Rice in China

Across the Taiwan Strait, what is the story of rice in China? Not all Chinese live on rice. About 60 per cent of the population does.

China is the top producer of rice in the world. According to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), China produced 204 million metric tonnes of rice in 2012, compared with 121 metric tonnes of wheat and 205.6 metric tonnes of maize/corn (some used for fuel and animal-feed).

Due to strong economic growth in Asian countries in recent years, more people are changing their diet from rice to richer foods such as meat, dairy, fruits, and vegetables. This is especially the case in populous China and India.

As a result, global per capita rice consumption has stayed put.

Data from the Food and Agriculture Organisation shows rice yields grew by 1.8 per cent in Asia between 2000 and 2011.

Central Asia made the fastest progress with 4.7 per cent annual yield growth. Rice yields in Southeast Asia grew at a robust 2.7 per cent. But in China, rice yield growth is almost stagnant.

Though the yield is stagnant, rice is moving in China! The centre of the annual (versus seasonal) rice area has shifted northward by some 300 kilometres from Hunan to Hubei province over 30 years.

Depending on the variety and environment, rice can yield one or two crops per year.

The centre of the one-crop-per-year rice area has shifted northeast by more than 450 kilometres into northeastern Henan province.

This is, in part, due to climate change and consumer preference.

As people become more affluent, they prefer japonica rice (a short-grain variety, with a slightly sticky texture). Now rice is cultivated in far northeastern provinces to meet the demand.

Meanwhile the area planted with two crops per year has moved south and has shrunk dramatically.

Because of urbanisation and shortages in agricultural labour, rice farming has been abandoned or has shifted from two crops to one crop per year in provinces such as Zhejiang, Anhui and Jiangsu.

Double cropping is declining everywhere in China and is now concentrated in Hunan, Jiangxi, Guangxi and Guangdong.

Rice and geo-political movements

Curiously, once a major exporter of rice, China is becoming the world’s largest importer of rice. Reliefweb, a leading humanitarian information service, examines the reasons and effects:

1)     Chinese rice production may be over-reported to boost performance records.

2)     China’s agricultural sector is now less competitive. Because the government guarantees minimum purchase prices which are higher than in the international market, it is cheaper to import.

3)     The transport, delivery and storage of grains in China is less efficient, adding to costs and waste.

4)     There is also the issue of food safety. Consumers are worried about rice contaminated with heavy metal and arsenic, and prefer foreign imports.

China’s growing rice imports take place against a background of food price volatility. World food prices have risen sharply since 2006.

China and its neighbours face common threats to food security, such as climate change, rising fuel and fertiliser prices, poor harvests, rising global food demand and low food stocks.

But instead of working together, China’s demand for imports may also trigger a race among other Asian countries to protect their access to affordable rice.

They may raise crop subsidies, cut back on exports and bring more land under cultivation.

This drive toward self-reliance can be a burden to the region as the economic and environmental cost of producing rice is much higher today.

Miracle rice

China did an amazing thing: it has halved the rate of undernourishment from 22.9 per cent in the period from 1990 to 1992, to 11.4 per cent in the period from 2011 to 2013! Feeding that many mouths is not easy. But it is at the cost of heavy soil depletion and pollution from over-use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers.

Yuan Longping, China’s Father of Hybrid Rice (credited with high-yield break-through in the 1970s) recently announced a plan to further push the yield of his super-hybrid rice. The news was greeted not with applause, but with criticism by other scientists. They warn of the unsustainable costs of land management and degradation, as well as sacrificing the crop’s resistance to weather and pests.

Of humus and humility

Let her glean among the sheaves themselves. Do not molest her. And be sure you pull a few ears of corn out of the bundles and drop them (Ruth 2:16). 

That was Boaz’s instruction to his servants in a book in the Old Testament about fidelity and compassion. The gleaners come behind the harvest workers. They bend down to pick up the grains that have fallen to the ground. Their bodies in a humble posture, gleaners are also in a vulnerable socio-economic position.

Humus is the dark organic matter (full of nutrients) that remains when plants decay. It is also the Latin word for earth or soil. Often, as we strive to feed ourselves, do we remember where we come from? What does it mean to be humble?

Unless we respect one grain, one person, the growth and life that we desire are not sustainable.

New Year rice cake (年糕 nian gau)

As Lunar New Year is approaching, I would like to include a recipe for a rice cake popular in southern China.

.170g or 6oz. brown sugar (or 3 slabs of pian tang 片糖)
.1 teaspoon vegetable oil, plus more for pan-frying
.3½ cups glutinous rice flour (糯米)
.½ cup rice flour
.1 red date
.A handful of hulled pumpkin seeds (瓜子) or sesame seeds
.1 egg, beaten until frothy

Dissolve the sugar in one cup of boiling water. Allow to cool.

Grease a round 15x5cm/6×2 inch baking dish with one teaspoon oil.

Pour the flour in a large bowl and make a well in the middle. Stir in the sugar water and knead into a dough, adding about 1/4 cup more cold water. Knead until the dough is smooth and slightly moist.

Turn the dough out into the dish and pat down until it fills the dish evenly.

Steam the cake for 35 to 40 minutes over high heat until the cake starts to pull away from the sides of the dish. (Remember to check the water level at regular intervals to make sure the water does not run dry).

Sprinkle the pumpkin seeds on top; put the date in the middle.

Remove the dish from the steamer. Let cool at room temperature.

Run a knife along the edges of the cake to loosen it. Flip the cake onto a cutting board. Cut the cake into 5 cm or 2 inch strips (about ½ cm thick).

When ready to serve, coat a frying pan with oil and heat the pan. Beat an egg. Dip each slice into the egg and pan-fry in batches, cooking each side until golden-brown, about two to three minutes. Enjoy!

May your new year be generous! May we be good stewards and share God’s bounty with one another, especially with those in material or spiritual need.