Rice Is Introduced into China

Trade from Southeast Asia brought rice to China, where it became such a staple crop that the Chinese word for “rice” is virtually synonymous with the word “food.”

Summary of Event

Rice is a cereal grain adapted to life in wetlands and probably evolved in response to the monsoon cycles of Southeast Asia (modern Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar). Most scientists believe that the original plant species from which domesticated rice developed is now extinct and that the present cultivated varieties arose from it through a process of progressive evolution over several thousand years, speeded by selective propagation by humans. The scientific name of domesticated rice is Oryza sativa. Agriculture;China
[kw]Rice Is Introduced into China (1012)
[kw]China, Rice Is Introduced into (1012)
China;1012: Rice Is Introduced into China[1520]
Agriculture;1012: Rice Is Introduced into China[1520]

Various primitive types of rice have been cultivated in southern China from prehistorical times. In even the earliest forms of the written language, agriculture is synonymous with the cultivation of rice. This correspondence of terms indicates that rice was already the principal crop of the region as early as the Shang Dynasty (1600-1066 b.c.e.). Rice was so important that a myth arose regarding its discovery after a worldwide flood, a discovery that ended the famine that followed the flood. By contrast, European food myths such as those of Ceres or Demeter deal with the discovery of wheat, Egyptian food myths center on barley, and Mesoamerican myths, including those of the Aztec and Maya, deal with maize. The rice cultivated in early China was a relatively primitive strain that took 180 days, effectively the entire growing season, to mature to the point that it could be harvested.

This situation changed in the first part of the eleventh century, with the introduction of new strains of early-ripening rice from Champa Champa;rice
Rice;Champa (modern Cambodia and central Vietnam). In 1012, following a severe drought on the lower Yangtze and Huai Rivers, the Song emperor Zhenzong Zhenzong (Song emperor, r. 998-1022) issued a proclamation ordering thirty thousand bushels of these Champa seeds to be shipped to the affected area, particularly Fujian Province. As the local peasants were unfamiliar with the new variety of rice, the emperor also commanded that pamphlets be printed and distributed throughout the area, instructing them on the virtues of the new form of rice.

According to the local histories of Zhejian and southern Jiangsu Provinces, the use of Champa rice shortened the ripening time to less than a hundred days, although later selective breeding and hybridization reduced the growing cycle to a mere sixty days by the twelfth century. As a result, farmers were able to grow two crops instead of one every year, making every acre of cultivated land doubly productive. In addition to growing more rapidly, Champa rice required less water than did earlier varieties. Not only did this feature make Champa rice more resistant to drought but it also enabled farmers to expand the cultivation of rice from the bottomland immediately beside the rivers. Higher ground and even hillsides could be planted in Champa rice and be relied on to produce a crop.

However, Champa rice was not entirely without its negative features. Because of its lower gluten content, it was less tasty and did not store as well as traditional varieties of rice. As a result, imperial taxes and levies continued to be collected in medium-gluten rice varieties.

During this period, the Chinese developed a method of rice farming that enabled them to squeeze every possible day out of the growing season. In sharp contrast to the methods used in planting almost every other grain known to humanity, Chinese peasants did not plant the seeds directly into the fields from which the rice would be harvested. Instead, they would sow the grain in smaller “nursery” fields, with the seedlings coming up as tightly spaced as possible. Once the seedlings were about eight inches tall, they were removed from the nursery field and transplanted into the field in which they were to grow to maturity. In these flooded fields, the seedlings would be individually planted into the soft mud, spaced several inches apart so that they would have sufficient room to finish their growth. As a result, farmers could get a head start on the season’s second crop while the first crop was still ripening. However, these techniques were very labor-intensive and tied large numbers of people to the land. (By contrast, the methods used in modern commercial rice farming in the United States, where labor is expensive and land is cheap, are more typical of grain farming; seeds are sown directly into the field in which the rice will mature.)

Chinese farmers also squeezed additional productivity out of limited acreage by taking advantage of the fish that often infiltrated the flooded fields. These fish would eat weeds and aquatic insect pests that would otherwise lower yields and spread diseases. Shortly before the fields were drained, the farmers would harvest the fish, adding protein to diets that were otherwise heavy in starches. Eventually they would deliberately introduce selected species of fish into the rice fields at the beginning of the flooding cycle so they could control pests during the growing season and later harvest the resulting fattened fish.

As the primary staple of the region, rice became associated with various festivals and rites of passage in Chinese culture. Even Buddhist ceremonies imported from India were adapted by the Chinese to include rice. Rice wine became the principal alcoholic beverage of the rice-growing regions of China. Although often connected with Japan, where it is known as sake, it was first brewed in China. Because of the revenues associated with the production of rice wine, several dynasties made it an imperial monopoly.

Although most Westerners tend to think of rice primarily in terms of food, the Chinese also made a large number of products from other parts of the rice plant. One of the most notable was paper made from rice straw. Rice paper was very smooth and white, with a fine grain that accepted ink very well, leading to new and more subtle techniques of painting, in particular, the Chinese forms of ink wash and watercolor. As a result, the Song Dynasty (Sung; 960-1279) saw an extraordinary flowering of the art of painting, rarely equaled and never exceeded by later generations of painters.


The introduction of rice to China had an effect on Chinese culture that went far beyond agricultural and culinary habits. Intensive rice cultivation using the two-field method and multiple crop seasons per year greatly increased the carrying capacity of the land, enabling the population of China to increase until it would become the most populous country in the world. It also led to the development of a very large class of extremely poor peasants performing intensive stoop labor throughout the year for relatively little return and, as a result, locked Chinese culture into a system of extreme stratification with a large gulf between the wealthy leisured classes and the toiling peasantry.

Further Reading

  • Anderson, E. N. The Food of China. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988. An overview of the role of food in Chinese culture and history, showing the relationships between agricultural patterns and social change, folkways, and other aspects of the culture.
  • Ebrey, Patricia Buckley, ed. Chinese Civilization and Society: A Sourcebook. New York: Free Press, 1981. A useful overview on Chinese history from ancient times to the present, including excellent bibliographies to help find more in-depth information.
  • Elvin, Mark. The Pattern of the Chinese Past. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1973. This classic ethnological study of the origins of Chinese culture and folkways includes a discussion of the introduction of short-season rice and its social consequences, both short-term and long-term.
  • Gang Deng. Development Versus Stagnation: Technological Continuity and Agricultural Progress in Pre-modern China. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. Somewhat technical, but the work places agricultural change in a historical context. Also includes a bibliography for further research.
  • Ho, Ping-ti. Studies on the Population of China, 1368-1953. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959. Develops the thesis that the introduction of short-season rice was absolutely critical to the growth of the Chinese population and its extreme concentration in the fertile lowlands of the south, which has shaped all its subsequent history. Of particular interest because of Ho’s use of Chinese sources often not available to Western scholars.
  • Roberts, J. A. G. A Concise History of China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. Basic survey of Chinese history, providing an overview of the cultural matrix into which short-season rice was introduced, and the changes throughout society that resulted from its introduction.
  • Von Glahn, Richard, and Paul Jakov Smith. The Song-Yuan-Ming Transition in Chinese History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003. This collection of essays on medieval and early modern China includes some of the latest scholarship on the role of Champa rice in the development of modern China.