Home ChinaTravel The naked eye can really spot some of the engineering wonders of the earth from low orbit – Yuan Yang Terraces

The naked eye can really spot some of the engineering wonders of the earth from low orbit – Yuan Yang Terraces


We often say that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made object visible from space. Of course, this is not true. Most of this crumbling, overgrown structure is no wider than a country road. But if the naked eye could really spot some of Earth’s engineering wonders from low orbit, then in China they would certainly include the Honghe Hani Terraces.

Carved out of the mountains of southwestern China’s Yunnan Province, the stretches of terraces – hundreds of thousands of them – stack up to more than 160 square kilometers, creating one of the most spectacular and awe-inspiring landscapes on the planet.

What’s more, through the massive, multi-generational engineering project that created the stepped terraces, the local Hani people – one of China’s 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities – have used the local environment to benefit entire communities.

“Since ancient times, the Hani have built ditches and canals to divert springs from the mountains and forests to irrigate the terraced fields,” said A Xiaoying, a Yunnan tour guide with specialized tour company China Highlights. “The number of ditches required is enormous and requires a lot of human and material resources that neither individuals nor villages can afford on their own.”

After more than a thousand years of repeated experimentation, the rice terraces are an inspiring example of an entire community living in symbiosis with nature, with land use arranged into different ecological zones by altitude. Rain and water from the fog are collected in forested catchments high on the hillsides to replenish groundwater; springs are diverted to irrigate the terraces; the pooled water evaporates to form clouds; and the clouds gather to sprinkle rain high above the forest. The hydrological cycle then repeats indefinitely.

“The Hani people have traditionally lived in harmony with nature, forming a living environment with forests above, villages in the middle, terraced fields below and water systems such as rivers running through them, creating a unique ecosystem of the ‘four elements’ – forests, villages, terraces and water supply systems,” A says.

This strategy has brought sustainable benefits not only in rice cultivation, but in everything from timber, vegetable and fruit production to duck and fish farming and the collection of herbs used in traditional medicine. In effect, the terraces are a year-round storehouse for the Hani people.

“There has always been water flowing across the engineered landscape,” explains American ethnographer Jim Goodman, author of Yunnan: China’s Yunnan Province and with decades of experience interacting with the region’s tribal people. “Most other terracing systems in other parts of the world don’t. So in the winter, except for the rice growing season, the Hani terraces are still a great place for fish and frogs, snails and goodies the Hani can eat.”

The Hani are believed to have migrated south from the harsh, barren, and harsh Tibetan Plateau around the 3rd century AD to the Mourning Mountains region near the modern border between Yunnan and Vietnam. Fascinated by what they found there – fertile land, mild climate, abundant rainfall – they chose to put down roots.

The Hani designed their landscape democratically, using a system of channels, dividers and dikes to ensure that water flowed equitably through the space
Today, the terraces serve more than 80 villages, and water is critical not only to the survival of the Hani, but also to community cohesion. Goodman says equality of supply is the starting point for the group’s success.

“The Hani designed the landscape democratically, using a system of channels, dividers and dikes to ensure that water flows equitably through the space,” he says. “Each village has an official ‘water guardian’ who is responsible for ensuring that water is distributed evenly. Families whose land is at the bottom of the terraces receive the same amount of water as those at the top of the terraces.”

Viewed from any height, the asymmetrical terraces – some as large as a soccer field, others no larger than a randomly thrown bed sheet, and all clearly defined by compacted dark curved mud walls – resemble a giant jigsaw puzzle. In winter and spring, the terraces are filled with water to reflect the sky, and each resembles a diamond-shaped panel in a giant rotating stained glass window.

Hani farmers began terracing the hills during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), and their unique use of the land is documented in heirloom accounts. Since then, the terraces have been tended, climbing from riverbank locations less than 500 meters above sea level to cloud-covered heights of more than 1,800 meters and steep slopes of up to 70 degrees. The oft-abused description “Stairway to Heaven” is most apt here.

What is perhaps even more impressive is that the terraces have always been carved by hand and are built today in the same way as they were by the Hani ancestors.

“You can’t mechanize the terraces,” Goodman explains. “You can’t use tractors or other machines because of their shape and location. And they’re often knee-deep in water. So the Hani are still using buffalo or hand labor, using the same picks and hoes and hand tools they’ve been using for centuries.”

Despite gradual expansion each planting season, the Hani’s vast engineering marvel-cum-abstract artwork remained largely unknown to the world for centuries. a rare outsider’s account emerged in the 1890s, when Prince Henry of Orleans led a French expedition from Vietnam to Yunnan in search of the source of the Irrawaddy River, which bisects Burma.

“Here the hillsides are covered two-thirds of their height with rice fields rising in regular terraces, and the water drips down in a series of cascades that glisten like glass in the sunlight,” Henri wrote, adding, “This method of irrigation is truly a work of art, all the dykes being hand up or stepped on with their feet.”

In the early 1920s, Harry A Franck, an American and one of the foremost travel writers of his time, also infiltrated Yunnan from Vietnam, watching from his window as his train traversed the rugged landscape along the French-built narrow-gauge railroad. “There were terraces everywhere, steeper than stairs, long, but as narrow as they were high, and the surrounding mountains reflected the new rice paddies,” Franck gushed in his book Wandering Southern China (1925).

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