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You're in: Home / Writings / Art of Rice Essay:

The Art of Rice
© by Maciej Tomczak, December 2004

The surreally gargantuan rice terraces near Chinese town of Yuanyang,Yunnan are easy to miss. 

Surprisingly, guidebooks hardly mention the place.  And when they do, it seems to be out of the need for completeness.  The site is scantly promoted internationally – a far cry from the fame of Ifugao terraces near Banaue in Philippines, the Hmong structures around Sapa in northern Vietnam or the terraces of Bali, Indonesia.  Most package tours miss it too.  The spot is still mercifully below the China National Tourism Administration’s radar, though given the Administration’s growing appetite for the new, picturesque mass retreats appealing to China’s well-heeled east-coasters, the Yuanyang’s obscurity may not last for long.

Yuanyang is quiet, but vulgar and uninspiring.  The discovery of the town’s fondness for canine cuisine may easily become its only discerning feature in a westerner’s travel blog.  Coming here requires a lengthy, premeditated detour, west from the standard backpackers trail passing from Hekou – a China/Vietnam border-crossing, to Kunming, Dali or Lijang – towns where travellers congregate.  One quickly looses any reservations about going the extra mile to get here though: collectively, the nearby rice terraces, curved in the Ailao Mountains by generations of Hani farmers must be among the most spectacular landscapes on the Planet!    

Within a short hike or a public bus ride in virtually any direction from Yuanyang, there are over 100 square kilometres of intricately irrigated terraced fields of cultivated wet rice.  At elevations of almost 2,000 meters, millions of ‘groovy trays’ pepper the steep hills, some built on slopes approaching 70-degree gradient.  At places, there may be 2,000-3,000 ‘stacked pans’ sculpted on a single slope.

The ‘Steps to Heaven’ were built by Hani settlers (now-sedentary Agha relatives) who have migrated to today’s Yunnan from Qinghai-Tibetan plateau in the 7th century.  Originally nomadic, Hani were progressively pushed out and up from fertile valleys of the Red (Honghe) River by Han Chinese expansions.  Some two centuries ago, they settled in the highlands and began farming steep hillsides of Ailao Mountains, which are now home to most of some 1,250,000 Hani living in China.

In contrast to the lowlands, which enjoy up to three rice harvests a year, there is only a single yield in the mountains.  Hani families plant rice seedlings by hand around May, and harvest them in the fall.  There is no bad season for photography here: the stupendous displays of light reflections in the winter and the spring, when the terraces are full of water, alternate with stunning emerald vistas during the rice growing season.

Remarkably, the terraces are irrigated by a sustainable hydrologic cycle.  Water, evaporated from the warm lowland river valleys, condenses as fog and low clouds, which move up the hills and coalesce in the foliage of the hilltop forests above the terraces.  Collected water feeds the intricate network of channels and, cascading downhill the terrace sequences via weirs, makes its way back towards the Red River.  The forests, acting as water traps and temporary reservoirs, are sacred and strictly protected by the villages.

Most of the field-tending and irrigation upkeep is done by hand or with the help of, magically nimble for their size and clunky looks, water buffalos.  Buffalos’ dang is collected in the manure ponds in villages and, during the summer monsoons, mixed with irrigation water right on time to fertilize growing rice paddies.

The tightly-knitted Hani society, fuelled by its efficient self governance and harmonious environmental theology, have not changed much for centuries and continues to function well today.  The functional rice terraces, a communal creation on a grand scale supporting over a million souls, are the testament of the wisdom of such order.

But not all is rosy in the Ailao Mountains.  Although Chinese authorities recognised Hani as a ‘nationality’ and continue to paint the felicitous, if nostalgic, picture of this and other minorities, the southeast Yunnan remains among the poorest regions in the country.  China’s burgeoning economy only widened traditional income gap between well-educated urban elites of Han Chinese and rural indigenous populations – the latter consistently near the bottom of the social and economic ladder.  This leaves Hani increasingly vulnerable and the future of their traditional way of life and rice cultivation all but assured.

Equally alarming are the reports on China contemplating mass-scale introduction of commercialized varieties of genetically modified (GM) rice as early as in 2005.  Even if the globally controversial consumption-safety and economic issues of GM rice are ignored, such decision may disfranchise Hani farmers (all GM rice is hybrid, so Hani will have to buy new GM seeds every year) and will threaten the present mind-boggling biodiversity of rice in China – estimated at some 75,000 of distinct rice species, many of them grown in Yunnan.

Recording these spectacular vistas is not difficult.  The best light for photography is, not surprisingly, at dawn and at sunset.  But the best locations for either of the two vary: asking the locals and scouting locations during the day will help.  If the water reflections are what you are after, find the valleys looking towards the sun.  If you feel that the low sun will ignite the far slopes with a worthwhile illumination, go to the other side.  Both are easy to find, but since distances are considerable, time-coordinated planning makes sense if you hike or hitchhike.  It is worth remembering that the valleys are quite deep and are often curtailed by dark shadows when the sun is low.  The morning fog coverage changes quickly.  It moves in and out the valleys, rendering them from visually amazing to photographically mediocre by the minute.

There are two typical exposure situations that I encountered, which may prove challenging.  The first is a contrasty scene with highlights made up by specular reflections of strong sun or bright sky off the water surfaces and deep shadows elsewhere.  My technique is to spot-meter the brightest area, and compensate the reading by +2 to +2.5 stops.  Since most slide films and digital sensors have a dynamic range of some 5 stops, such exposure will make the very bright areas look indeed very bright when recorded, but without the dreaded ‘burning’ of the highlights.  For this technique to work, the rest of the scene details must fall within the 5 stops from the highlights brightness; anything lower than that will record as pure, featureless black.

For very contrasty scenes with dynamic range exceeding 5 exposure stops one could either try to deliberately overexpose water reflections (this tends to work only for small, scattered sparkles or ‘speculars’ that do not take much of the picture space) or let the shadows go black as a deliberate artistic choice.  Another, more exotic method of dealing with very high contrast is to extend the intrinsically limited dynamic range of film or digital sensor by combining parts of two separate exposures of the same scene in the darkroom (digital or otherwise): the properly exposed highlights from the underexposed slide with the properly exposed shadows from the overexposed slide.

The other situations with somewhat tricky exposure are scenes with fog and clouds.  Fog is brighter than the middle grey of the camera exposure meters, but not quite featureless white – there are objects shrouded by fog that we want to photograph not the fog itself.  Uncritically following the metered exposure will render the misty scenes too dark, with muddy details and the shadows likely descending to solid black.  I typically dial +1.5 to +2 stops compensation from what metering on clouds would indicate and +1 to +1.5 stops for the scenes shrouded in fog, to render them in desired tonalities and preserve their texture and details.

Tonality of other scenes may look straightforward to the eye, but can fool both the camera and the photographer.  Humans have a sliding-scale, adaptive vision that can accommodate more than 10 stops of brightness range in a single scene.  Recognizing the narrower range of tonalities that camera records and placing those tonalities in the desired brightness ranges on film takes thought and practice.  A simple field technique to check our senses and exposure meters is to compare the scene tones with the brightness of the palm of a hand and, if both are illuminated similarly, exposing accordingly.  Most palms are about +1 stop lighter than the medium grey – the tone that the camera light meters will insist on when advising the exposure.

Travel photography is, no doubt, satisfying.  Things look different when you are on the road and photography can add another level of meaning to vagabonding.  The downside is all that gear to ‘schlep’ for months.  It invariably weighs more than it looks and, instead of boosting an adventurer’s ego, makes one feel like a terminally geeky tourist.

If you travel independently, there is one rule to follow when choosing travel gear (and this is a serious advice): bring less.  A setup consisting of one light SLR body, 2-3 light lenses plus film is capable of covering a lot of ground and will already weigh enough to make you curse photography at times.  If batteries, cables, chargers and backups are added up, things will not weigh any less in the serious digital realm, and all the gadgets running on power and batteries will likely be more awkward and less reliable than film when taken ‘off road’.  If in doubt, use the gear that you already own – anything new is likely to make only incremental improvements to your photography, if at all.

On the bright side, travel photography is by definition situational: you never know what is going to happen next and you have no option other than coping with what comes.  This is precisely why it makes it such an exciting calling.  Light backpack will make you more mobile and adaptable.  And remember that often, quite a few plane and bus tickets can be bought for the price of another extraneous piece of gear.  Unfortunately, repeating this mantra while away is more effective than sticking to it before leaving home…

For the work shown here I used Canon Elan7e – a very capable 35mm body but still quite light thanks to the lack of heavy duty shielding and sealing found in the ‘professional’ SLRs.  Canon’s 28-135/f3.5-5.6 IS USM lens is most useful, lovely and still (barely) within my financial reach.  The other two lenses that I carry are 75-300/f4-5.6 IS USM – a so-so compromise between price, quality, usability and weight, and a straight 50/f1.8 for good measure – it’s light, fast, cheap and sharp.  I miss a truly wide-angle lens sometimes, but see the mantra above…

I recently started traveling without a serious tripod – a risky proposition that would make a purist cringe.  But what one would not do in the name of mobility!  In many cases it is quite easy to improvise camera support using a beanbag, a hanging nylon cord, a table top tripod, a motorbike seat or a folded toque.  Such makeshift solutions will not always work, but I found that with careful technique, IS and some luck, sharp slides result, many of which would unlikely even exist if a ‘fully-grown’ tripod was involved.

All the photographs in this article were taken using 35mm slide film.  The film was scanned to 48 bit TIFF files by a 5400dpi slide scanner using 4x resampling to reduce digital noise.  The image tonalities were adjusted using Picture Window Pro – a superb, fully-featured, 16bit digital darkroom application, worthy much wider recognition.  My workflow is colour-managed, though some colour compensation in Picture Window Pro is sometimes necessary to make prints look decent.  As a part of the workflow, digital scanning noise and film grain were reduced with Neat Image – another amazing piece of software, which, if used sparingly and thoughtfully, allows for printing surprisingly big enlargements from 35mm frames. ₪

(This essay was published in the March 2006 issue of the PhotoLife Magazine (Vol31_N2); Editor's selection of text and photographs differed from mine)


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