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Rice, History, Culture - The history of the Kam people is the history of their rice

A villager catching fish in the rice paddy

Pan Yongrong (Department of Language Studies, Guizhou Institute of Nationalities, China​)

The Kam people are descendants of the Baiyue, one of the earliest people to grow rice. The Kam are particularly famous for the cultivation of several indigenous varieties of glutinous or sticky rice, and it is said that the history of this rice is the history of the Kam: their love for their rice is well known throughout their homeland of southern China.

Kam food culture and customs have been passed down through the generations. In songs about the origins of the Kam people, glutinous rice always plays a key part, as does their old saying, “Rice nurtures the body, song nourishes the heart.” Simply put, the Kam cannot go without glutinous rice; it is as much a dietary habit as it is a cultural need.

The Kam’s system of rice production is deeply embedded in their culture and relies on a symbiotic relationship between rice, fish and ducks. The rice stalks are tall and adapted to deep waters, providing ideal conditions for rearing fish and ducks, which protect the crop from pests and weeds while their excreta provides it valuable nutrients. This creates an integrated system that minimises waste and the need for external inputs, and produces healthy, delicious food. The Kam discovered this relationship long ago, and have developed various techniques through the generations for growing rice and rearing fish and ducks.

Huanggang in Guizhou Province is a Kam village known for its rice cultivation, particularly a sweet variety, and is a model for the preservation of indigenous culture. The community is situated on the border between the counties of Liping and Congjiang, and has maintained Kam traditional culture to the present day, with customs, rituals and habits observed. Over 90% of the village fields grow glutinous rice – together with rearing fish and ducks – and over 90% of villagers still wear traditional clothing.

Wu Zhengguo, 76, is a respected elder in Huanggang. He helps resolve many village problems and can be considered a key figure in maintaining Kam cultural heritage in the community. Wu is proud of how Huanggang has been able to preserve more than ten varieties of glutinous rice. He remembers how these were almost lost during the 1960s and 70s, when there was a push to replace glutinous rice with non-glutinous, long grain indica rice.

“The villagers were very much against replacing glutinous rice with indica rice,” Wu says. “First, the Kam have always eaten glutinous rice: we are used to it. No one enjoys indica rice: we find it too bland, and feel hungry really quickly after eating it. Our rice fields are rather far from our homes – with indica rice, we would get hungry over these distances. It is also not convenient to take indica rice up into the hills, because at mealtimes you would need lots of dishes to go along with it.

“Second, the soil and climate we have here are suited to growing glutinous, not indica rice. Compared to other places, we don’t get good harvests for indica rice in Huanggang; we do much better with glutinous rice.

“At the time, the Han Chinese cadres thought that glutinous rice yields were too low and involved too much effort. They wanted us all to grow indica rice. The villagers realised that if we all grew indica, we wouldn’t have access to glutinous rice seeds in the future; so we secretly planted small quantities of glutinous rice in fields in the middle of forests – that’s how Huanggang still has glutinous rice seeds today.

“There’s a variety called Ju Yang Dang, which in our language means ‘fragrant rice’. When it’s steamed, the scent is so good that when one family is cooking it, the entire village can smell the aroma. Everyone in the village loves this rice variety. It is suited to growing in the depths of the forest, where water and soil temperatures are lower, the quality of the soil is poor, and fields can be muddy. It takes quite a long time to grow, more than 200 days. Back in the day, quite a few villagers couldn’t bear to part with this type of rice: they would grow it secretly in muddy paddies, and hide it from outsiders. With more of it being grown, there was more than enough to save seeds, and some households cooked it to eat in private. Of course, they were found out. The entire village was searched, and those who were intimidated obliged and handed over all of their seeds. The defiant ones kept theirs.

“I remember at the time, we had several varieties, such as Di Men, Dong La, Jiu Na, and Yang Xian. Di Men was suited to fields at low altitudes; it was lost in the seventies. Grains from Dong La did not have prickles, which is quite rare among varieties of glutinous rice. There were 20-odd types of rice back then. Several have been lost: we’ve paid a high price for the preservation of native-bred rice.”

The cultivation of glutinous rice requires that multiple varieties are grown simultaneously and also that there is exchange between the varieties. Wu continues, “Each variety suits a specific type of field. These days, youngsters’ favourite rice to grow is Lie Zhu which is broadly adaptable, suited to all fields, fragrant, has high yields, short prickles, and doesn’t jam the rice thresher. However, we old folks often tell them to select different varieties according to the different fields. We too used to hear from our elders that it’s good to grow a little of each variety. It’s like with humans: every year, some of us will fall sick, or when a plague comes along, some are sure to die while others will survive. Likewise, every year, some rice varieties will be affected by pests and diseases, while others are completely fine. It’s safer to diversify! But the youngsters often didn’t quite believe us.

“But then there was a year when pests attacked our crops: while some varieties were completely fine, Lie Zhu was severely damaged. The farmers who only grew that had much smaller yields. Since then, the younger generation tends to listen to us more.”

“Besides using large areas for growing Lie Zhu, I’m also growing Lao Niu Mao and a few other varieties. A few years ago, I was the only one growing Lao Niu Mao, but recently, people have come to realise the benefits of growing more varieties, and are exchanging their Lie Zhu seeds for my Lao Niu Mao – there are now more and more people growing it. Another elder, Wu Laodan, has grown Xiao Niu Mao for a long time, and people are swapping seeds with him. In general, households with elders grow more varieties compared to other households, because the old folks worry that seeds will be lost if no one grows them.

“We Kam often say, ‘When a cow dies it leaves its horns, when people die they leave their name.’ For an old person, it is quite a good thing to leave a legacy in this world. ‘Never kill an egg-laying duck when you’re hungry, never eat rice grains when you’re starving’ is another Kam idiom. Our lives are so good today; all the more reason we should plant more seeds and leave them for our children and grandchildren.”

Following Deng Xiaoping’s reforms which began in the late 1970s, Huanggang was able to retrieve lost rice varieties from other Kam villages. Unfortunately, some old varieties were also missing in other communities. A cursory survey revealed that Huanggang now has 19 varieties of glutinous rice, but the challenge to maintain this biodiversity in the village is daunting. Traditionally, the Kam exchanged seeds with other villages to prevent the degradation of local varieties and to promote and maintain diversity in rice cultivation. However, many of the villages that Huanggang used to exchange with no longer grow glutinous rice: the traditional seed-swapping structure can no longer fulfill Huanggang’s needs; if only one village holds on to its old varieties, these varieties will eventually degrade and be lost.

Since 2015, Partnerships for Community Development (PCD) has brought together five Kam villages with different geographical contexts with the hope that these dissimilar communities can establish a network for diverse seed exchange. The five villages include two in Rongjiang County that had abandoned growing glutinous rice for several years, but with the exchange activities organised by PCD, some households have started up again. Huanggang has also begun swapping seeds with the network, and has garnered praise from other Kam villages for their efforts to save this vital, nourishing part of their heritage. 

* This article was originally published in Mountain Futures: Inspiration and Innovation from the World's Highlands, World Agroforestry Centre, Xu et al. (2018) and has been adapted for this website.