An Overview of Swidden Minority Agriculture in Yunnan

In Southwest China, the ethnic minorities1) are among the Chinese peoples who practiced or still practice lifeways alternative to the increasingly universal large-scale, row-planted monocropping. I would like to examine these lifeways, since they are the often overlooked subsistence, and therefore progenitor, of the material and intangible culture of several non-Han peoples, who receive national and global attention because of the unique traits of their cultures. For the purpose of this essay, I would like to narrow my research mainly to the swidden agriculture in the southwestern province of Yunnan, where these differences can most clearly be observed.

Minority agricultures often employ more diverse methods and crops, and make what modern monocropping agriculturalists would call marginal cropland thrive. Additionally, many minority lifeways in Yunnan also usually employ some degree of animal husbandry as sources of protein, labor, and fertilizer. The predominant lifeways of minority peoples in Yunnan are agriculture partnered with animal husbandry, but these broad categories vary according to geographical and meteorological factors. Yunnan borders the province of Sichuan in the north, part of the “rice-basket” of China, but also climbs upward to the Himalayas in the south. Between these regions, Yunnan is hilly and crossed with rivers like much of southern China, all of which leads to a large variety of subsistence methods.

An obvious alternative lifeway can easily be witnessed by any casual examiner of a map of the distribution of rice growing throughout China. The cultivation of wet-rice, the archetypal food of China, is better suited to the river-strung and humid south than the arid north, where wheat is the predominant grain.2) In southwest Yunnan, where China faces India across the Himalayas, there lies a parallel strip of land where wet-rice cultivation practically ceases altogether.3) One might first assume that this region is unsuitable for agriculture altogether and that mountain peoples rely on another subsistence such as pastoralism, or hunting and gathering. One might even suggest that this area may not be populated. This absence of rice, however, cannot necessarily be taken to mean an absence of agriculture, merely the presence of something else.

It so happens that the swath of land where no wet-rice is cultivated exactly corresponds to the area where fourteen officially recognized and unrecognized minorities practice swidden agriculture. These people are the Dulong, Nu, Lisu, Jingpo, De’ang, Wa, Lahu, Yi, Hani, Jinuo, Yao, Miao, Kucong, and the Bulong.4) Of these, only the Lisu, De’ang, Lahu, Yi, Hani, Jinuo, Yao, and Miao are officially recognized as ethnic minorities by the CCP.5) Though the people of most of this area do not produce rice, several do, depending on whether they have land suitable for irrigation.

Swidden agriculture (Mandarin: she tian) is also known as ‘slash-and-burn’ agriculture (Mandarin: daogeng huozhong), a phrase which carries many pejorative connotations surrounding forest destruction, and unsustainability. More recent studies show that swidden agriculture is actually usually sustainable unless the population practicing it increases beyond the capacity of the forest's regrowth cycle. Swidden agriculture has been practiced in this area for over a thousand years, and has been remarked upon in passing by many mainstream Chinese scholar-observers. Poets described how the mountains burned when these peoples “plowed with knives and planted with fire.”6)

The phrase ‘slash-and-burn’ does provide a very accurate description of the method. People cut all trees and brush, then burn the entire area until it is completely ash, thus renewing the the nutrients in the soil and making it ready for intensive crop production. When the season is over or the soil exhausted, the people will move on to another patch, and the area will begin to naturally reafforest.7)

These cultures almost invariably have a specific cycle allocating plots of land to be rotated in order to preserve the land for future use. The factors determining this recycling combine practicality and specific culture, which also influence how strictly the cycling is enforced. Intercropping8) is widely used to prevent soil-degradation and to conserve labor.

The Jingpo in Kachang used a cycle of nine years, with nine plots of land, so that each plot was cultivated only for one year, and left fallow for eight. Using this system, they used the same land for decades with no noticeable land degradation. Alternatively, some modern Jingpo also use irrigated fields, which they recognized could be cultivated continuously for long periods of time without ill-effect (which is why they are known as “ten-thousand year poles”). In addition to plot rotation and the roughly ninety-five percent regeneration rate of burned stumps in their swidden fields, the Jingpo also practice silviculture. Planting fast-growing alder tree seeds at the same time as rice not only provides for future fertility from ash, but alder root bacteria perform valuable nitrogen-fixing. While those Jingpo who can successfully use irrigation agriculture do, all Jingpo farmers highly value the hill fields where irrigation agriculture is impossible. These fields are called their “lifeblood” and “the land of a thousand treasures” because such an enormous variety of crops can be grown there, such as hill rice,9) maize, kidney beans, tao, sunflower, cowpeas, and soybeans. Jingpo use intercropping to save labor and allow crops beneficial properties to work together. Despite the heavy emphasis on irrigated agriculture in the modern world, the Jingpo instead treasure the land of steep hills that modern agriculturalists would consider completely unsuitable for food production.10)

Some groups of Naxi people also practiced swidden agriculture, and even have an account of it in their pictograph script, dongba. Roughly translated (difficult because dongba cannot be read, and communicates ideas rather than words), it means:

“A long time ago, I skillfully cut down the trees in nine patches of forest; when I had cut them I set fire to the mountain; when the burning was done I planted the seeds; after the planting was done, I harvested all.”

Other Naxi lifeways, such as that of the Naxi and Mosuo11) in northwest Yunnan, have been influenced by majority agriculture. The Naxi people have long been known for their adaptability, happily acculturating the traits and practices of other peoples.

Originally the Naxi in northern Yunnan only cultivated the three grains flax, buckwheat, and oats, and the legume manqing. Then at the end of the 19th Century, they began growing introduced crops like corn, wheat, soybeans, sunflowers, milkweed, pumpkins, and beans. In the 1950’s, the Naxi began to grow rice in irrigated fields for the first time. These Naxi now have three main cultivation types: irrigated rice paddies, gardens, and fields on slopes. In the gardens they plant milkweed, pumpkin, beans, flax, and potatoes. On the slopes they plant crops that do not require irrigation, such as manqing, corn, and potatoes.

Both the Naxi who practice swidden agriculture, and those who have acculturated Han agriculture, also rely on animal husbandry. They began using cows and buffalo from the Han in the 1920’s, and they adopted the use of horses from Tibetans. Additionally, the Naxi in this area (including the Mosuo) will keep a flock of chickens, and pigs, which are highly valued for meat. Each household will gather and spread a bed of leaves in their barn that will gradually be mulched with the animal manure that accrues, providing a ready fertilizer.12)

Generally scholars, and one might extrapolate, the mainstream population at large, have always found swidden agriculture not to be a cultural trait and productive lifeway, but rather a primitive habit that might be reformed.13) This centuries old view became especially important after 1958 when the amount of deforested land began to increase dramatically and become grassland. Scholars and CCP officials saw swidden agriculture as backward, and were determined to eradicate it. It is only more recently that scholars have begun examining swidden agriculture as a viable lifeway and a cultural trait. As fascinating as cultural manufactures such as clothing, architecture, and art are, I believe it is important to not forget where that material culture comes from. How a society makes its living is the foundation for all its societal patterns and cultural traits. This bridge connecting lifeways to material cultures is one that has received little attention, and should be explored further.

See Also


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Citations & Notes

And other non-Han peoples who were not granted minority status upon application to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)
George B. Cressey. “Agricultural Regions of Asia. Part VI–China,” Economic Geography, Vol. 10, No. 2. (Apr., 1934), pp. 109-142.
Yin Shaoting. People and Forests – Yunnan Swidden Agriculture in Human-Ecological Perspective, trans. Magnus Fiskejo. Yunnan Education Publishing House, 2001. 84-87.
The CCP’s rejection of seven-eights of all applications for minority status is a significant issue and an interesting issue for further study.
Unless the land is not left to rest, and people move back on to the site soon after it is abandoned.
Intercropping is the practice of planting mutually beneficial crops together.
Hill rice is distinct from the more widely-known wet-rice, which requires irrigated agriculture.
Shaoting 118-130.
Officially considered by the CCP and the Naxi to be a Naxi Subculture, the Mosuo share certain cultural traits and genetic ancestry, but they consider themselves distinct from the Naxi.
Hua 40-41.

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