Granary: Sticky Rice and He Granaries in Guizhou

Granary: Sticky Rice and He Granaries in Guizhou

What is he, and why does it hold a special place in people’s heart in Guizhou’s minority communities.

Written by Chaoxiong Zhang
Published on 03/08/2021

What do granaries look like? Nowadays, many places have built modern mechanized granaries such as large steel and concrete grain silos which can store thousands of tons of grains (Fig. 1). These mechanized granaries are often equipped with intelligent monitoring systems to measure and adjust temperature and moisture. These large granaries are mainly for large-scale grain storage and further processing. However, in rural areas, farmers themselves still need to build their household granaries to secure their everyday life. In China’s southwestern Guizhou province (Fig. 2), both houses and granaries were made of wood or bamboo in the past. Nowadays, although many villagers rebuild concrete or brick houses for living instead, many of them still keep their granaries in the “traditional” form as the construction allows better preservation of grains.

Fig. 1  Steel granaries. Source: Pixabay,

Physical Construction & Major Functions

Preventing Dampness:

The design and construction of granaries are largely shaped by the local natural environment. Guizhou has a humid subtropical climate, so preventing dampness is crucial to food storage. As mentioned, he granaries often adopt a ganlan style (干栏 or 干阑, “stilted” style) which are raised on pillars. This style of architecture is common in Southwest China and Southeast Asia where the weather is humid (Fig. 3). In Guizhou, the pilings of the granaries are often made of pinewood or Chinese fir. The materials and structures of the main body of the granary vary among different ethnic groups. In Dong (侗) and Miao (苗) areas, for example, storehouses are often made of wood. Granaries in Yao (瑶) area are built in a cylindrical shape with woven bamboo wall and a conic shaped thatched roof. The primary function of such a design is to shield against the rain but at the same time facilitate airflow.

Fig. 2  Stilted houses in Laos. Photo by author. 

Fire Prevention:

As granaries are made of wood or bamboo, fire prevention is another important concern of farmers. Villagers often build their granaries together right outside their main living area to keep a certain distance from sources of flames. In addition, many granaries are built directly upon fishponds (Fig. 4). Such a design connects to another everyday technology of land use in Guizhou: the rice-fish-duck symbiotic system which cultivates fish, duck, and rice at the same time in rice paddles (Fig. 5). Farmers rear fish seeds in the tank below the granaries and later move the fish fry to paddies after rice transplantation. In this integrated agri-aquaculture ecosystem, fish and duck can enhance water flow and reduce pest and weed, and the excretion of fish and duck can also be natural fertilizer for rice. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations have listed Guizhou Dong’s rice-fish-duck system as a GIAHS (Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System) in 2011.

Fig. 3  Photo by author. 
Fig. 4  Rice-fish co-cultivation. Photo by author.

Rat Prevention:

Fish tanks below the granaries also help to stop another main enemy of stored grain: rats. Besides the tanks, there are also other features designed to prevent rats. For example, in Yao villages, there is a kind of he granary called tanjiao cang (罈腳倉, jar-footed granary) with ceramic jars covering the four wood pillars (Fig. 6). These specially made jars wear slippery ceramic glaze to stop rats from running along pilings. Smooth stone, wood discs or iron sheet are also used in some areas for rat prevention (Fig. 7).

Fig. 5  A jar-footed granary. Photo by author. 
Fig. 6  Iron-sheet-wrapped- pillars. Photo by author.

Theft Prevention:

The design of he granary also takes anti-theft function into consideration. To open the door of the storehouse, people have to use heavy objects to strike the door latch. When somebody opens the door, the whole village might hear the sound. People are not allowed to enter the granaries during night time. Besides, a set of social norms were developed to punish thieves. For example, if a person is found stealing other people’s grains, other villagers would request him/her to bring a certain amount of grains, meat, and wine to all other villagers’ homes and granaries and make a public apology.

He and Special Features Designed for He Harvest

In Southwest China’s Guizhou province, granaries are known as he cang (禾倉). In Chinese, granary is often called liang cang (糧倉). Both he and liang could mean grains or cereals. However, in Guizhou, he often refers to a particular category of grains. He is not a biological category according to the current taxonomy. Instead, he generally means glutinous rice (sticky rice, nuo 糯), or those that have to be harvested through two special processes: zhai he (摘禾) and he liang (禾晾).[1] As he is hard to be threshed, these two processes are essential. During the harvest, farmers cut the he ears one by one with a special tool called zhai he knife (摘禾刀) (Fig. 8, Fig. 9, Fig. 10). This purpose-built tool has a half-moon-shaped blade which is designed to cut individual he ear. The procedure of he liang (hanging out and dying he) is also required. During he liang, grain ears are bundled up and hung on he liang shelves (禾晾架) (Fig. 11, Fig. 12). After drying the ears in the sun for about 20-30 days, he ears would be stored in granaries. Farmers do not thresh and dehull the grains until the time of cooking.

Fig. 7  A villager harvesting he by using a zhai he knife in her right hand. Photo by Guofeng Zhang.
Fig. 8  A zhai he knife. Photo by Guofeng Zhang.
Fig. 9  Zhai he knives. Photo by author. 
Fig. 10  Bundled up he ears. Photo by author.
Fig. 11  He liang shelves (禾晾架). Photo by author. 

The Importance of He

He holds great ritual significance and has important symbolic meanings in many ethnic groups in Guizhou. It is used in various rites of passage such as birth, wedding, and funerals, as well as in many other ritual occasions, for example, fortune telling, expelling ghost and communicating with ancestors. Therefore, the way to harvest, dry, and store he within the ears is not only because of the difficulties of threshing, but also because farmers need to make sure the he seeds do not mix up with other kinds of grains to keep its “purity”. In some areas, only he can be stored in granaries in order to prevent “contamination” from other grains.

The variety of he seeds is another major concern of farmers. Guizhou is located in Southwest China and is a part of South China Karst, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2007. Karst is a special type of landscape formed by the dissolution of soluble rocks and is often characterized by rocky and barren ground. In China, Guizhou is the only province with no plain. The Karst hills landscape (Fig. 13) places severe constraints on large-scale agriculture but enables rich biodiversity. In Guizhou’s Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture (黔東南苗族侗族自治州), the center of the he culture in Guizhou, there are more than 250 different varieties of he. During harvest and storage, farmers carefully separate different kinds of he seeds to ensure they are not mixed up with each other. He seeds are important gifts for exchange and thus crucial for building connections between local communities and forming regional alliances.[2] Therefore, even if a farmer owns a variety of he that does not suit to his/her own land, he or she would preserve the seeds in case people from other places find this variety useful.

The medical value of he for both domestic animals and human is also recognized among many local groups. For example, when cows suffered from difficult calving, villagers would feed cows with he. In Shui (水族) area, when the newborns get neonatal jaundice, their parents would use a special kind of black he soaked water to wipe their children’s oral cavity. The roots of he plant are also used to treat many diseases such as to clear deficient heat.

Fig. 12  The Karst landscape in Guizhou. Photo by author.

He and He Granaries: Past and Future 

The changes of the design and construction of he granaries are also in relation to the history of governance in Southwest China. Since Qing dynasty, successive governments have started to promote high-yielding non-glutinous rice varieties, xian (籼). The process of nuo-to-xian or he-to-xian (糯改籼, or 禾改籼) involves three periods.[3] The first phase was during gaitu guiliu (改土歸流, integrating chieftain into official administration) in the Qing dynasty (1644-1912): Han people migrated to Southwest China and brought population pressure as well as the seeds and the culture of xian rice. The second stage was during Republican China (1912-1949): the Republican government continued to promote he-to-xian by providing subsidy and setting he price restriction. The largest-scale he-to-xian occurred during the People’s Republic of China (1949- ), especially during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960). During this period, to increase crop yields was not only a response to population growth but also a strict political goal. Planting he was not even allowed in some areas. Later in the 1980s, the Chinese government put intensive efforts into promoting hybrid rice. Both he production and diversity dropped dramatically after the three phases of he-to-xian transition.[4]

As xian rice does not need to be dried in the sun for a long time, and can simply be threshed by machines, he liang shelves have been integrated into the main granaries or totally abandoned in many villages (Fig. 14). Also, as seeds from hybrid rice cannot be saved for re-planting, these grains lost the function as seeds and he granaries have also lost many of their social and cultural functions. Indeed, as hybrid rice growing requires chemical fertilizers and pesticides, farmers could no longer integrate rice farming into the rice-fish-duck system. Therefore, the tanks below granaries used for fry nurturing also lost this function.

Fig. 13  Integrated he liang shelves. Photo by author.

In recent years, the Chinese government has relaxed the policy on hybrid rice growing. Farmers can decide what kind of crops they want to plant. Thus, we observed a revival of he planation, along with the rebuilding of he granaries and he liang shelves in some places. Such a revival also increasingly links to many people’s increasing awareness of their ethnic identity and the development of cultural tourism. But on the other hand, as many villagers leave for work in urban areas, agricultural activities and production decreased significantly. Many households do not need an independent granary and simply store their food inside their houses. Therefore, many granaries have been totally abandoned. In recent years, tourism companies and NGOs have transformed some of these abandoned granaries into hostels as a form of cultural conservation as well as a way to attract visitors.


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