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The Beginning of Chinese Civilisation: A Bowl Full of Rice

Rice has been known to man for more than 10 000 years, but in no other country than China has this grain made such an impact on culture and growth of civilisation!


Almost four thousand years ago a great and terrible flood swept from the Yellow River over China. Chinese mythology tells us that this terrible event lasted for two generations and some people survived by living in tree tops. When the mythical hero Yu found a way to end the flood, the old society was in shambles and the survivors were starving. Their fields were still flooded, they could not plant any of their crops and the animals had disappeared. Suddenly a dog appeared on the river bank. He carried on his fur little yellow seeds. Not knowing what these seeds would produce, the people planted these seeds and rice abundantly grew. The people prospered and built the first great state in China ruled by the Xia dynasty (ca. 2070 – ca. 1600 BC). This gives a new meaning to a man’s best friend, right?


For thousands of years, rice has been the carrier of the Chinese civilisation. Beautiful bronze vessels for storing rice have been found as early as the Zhou dynasty (1100 BCE-771 BCE) which gives us an idea how important rice was by then in the daily Chinese diet. Many ancient Buddhist inscriptions refer to rice quite often and describe it as offerings to the gods. Cultivation and harvesting techniques developed rapidly during the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 AD) and rice became so important to society that eating rice became synonymous with being Chinese.


Rice was not only being eaten or offered to the gods. Chemical analysis of pottery shows that the Chinese developed rice wine as early as 9000 years ago!


Rice is grown mostly in the fertile lands of Southern China, but demand grew in Northern China where many wars were fought and later on the capitals of the Chinese Empire were constructed. As early as 2500 years ago, the various warlords and kings build parts of a massive canal that would stretch 2000 km from Ningbo in the south all the way to Beijing in the north, mainly to supply the armies and imperial court with grains, salt and, of course, rice! Even the famous traveller Marco Polo was impressed and recounts how trade prospered along the Grand Canal in his memoirs. The old structures of the Grand Canal are still worth a visit, by the way.

Rice was soon a common trade product, but most Southern Chinese farmers traded it only in their own little town market. At the end of the Qing dynasty (1911) eighty percent of the population were farmers and lived less than a day walking from a market. Rice could be bought in bulk and locals had simple containers to measure small and big amounts of rice with. Rice was mostly held in wooden baskets and barrels that could be easily stacked and transported.


For a long time, rice was not known outside of Asia. The Bible makes no reference to the grain nor the Ancient Greeks. Alexander the Great mentioned rice as food coming from India. Europe was introduced to rice only in the Middle Ages. The Arab conquerors brought rice with them (among other nice and not so nice things) during the Umayyad Conquest of Spain and Portugal. In the south of Europe they saw the value of this crop and there was interest to cultivate it. However, the Chinese protected their rice and the people from weeds and deadly insects by letting carper fish swim in the paddies. In Italy, the rice fields quickly became known as dangerous grounds for diseases as malaria mosquitoes could breed unchallenged in the still waters! Therefore, rice cultivation in the Middle Ages and centuries after remained small in Europe and dangerous for the local population. Importing rice from Asia was seen as a Oriental luxury, like silk and porcelain.


Rice gained worldwide popularity during the European colonisation era when Westerners brought back exotic dishes to their homelands. But while we enjoy the Indian curries and Japanese sushis and Indonesian rice tables, we sometimes underestimates how much rice still means to Asian cultures. Some common greetings mean ‘have you eaten rice today’. Words meaning ‘rice’ can also mean ‘meal’ or ‘food’. The Chinese traditional character for ‘spirit, essence’ contains the character for rice! Even the names of the famous Japanese car manufacturers Honda and Toyota mean respectively ‘original rice paddy’ and ‘fertile rice paddies’!


These little grains of rice are still seen as the essence of Chinese culture. Without rice, the Chinese cultures and identities would not have survived in all those thousands of years of history. It carried culture, wars, revolutions, technological development and trade. Think about all that the next time you find a bowl of rice on the dinner table!

  • March 03, 2017
  • Margret Ressang

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