Picturesque and Primative

From last weekend’s Wall Street Journal, an article on the not-yet-crowded heritage treasures in the world:

As dawn breaks on top of a mountain near the China-Vietnam border, hundreds of water-filled rice terraces reveal themselves, clinging to the mountainside in geometric patterns in every direction. The rising sun, reflecting off the water, turns some of the terraces bright shades of orange and gold. Then solitary figures appear, black against the rising sun — peasants with their water buffaloes hitched to wooden plows.

It’s one of the most spectacular sights on earth, and local tourism authorities have capitalized on it by building a series of viewing platforms and a big parking lot. But this morning, three cars are parked there and only six people are on the mountaintop, including one woman, from the region’s Hani ethnic minority, selling boiled eggs.

From the Grand Canyon to the Tower of London to Angkor Wat, 878 places around the world have been named World Heritage sites by the United Nations, through its Unesco agency. Each year, the World Heritage Committee names some 20 new sites, whose unparalleled cultural or natural significance makes them “irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.” The designation brings benefits including advice and sometimes funds to help protect the historic, artistic or natural treasures at each site. But fame has its price, and in this case it’s the inevitable arrival of tourist crowds, souvenir sellers and exhaust fumes, which can undermine even the most impressive place.

If ever a site deserved World Heritage designation, Yunnan’s Hani Rice Terraces would be it. China proposed them for consideration last year, but they haven’t been selected yet — making them a tourist’s dream, a majestic setting to view and photograph without a tour bus or trinket seller in sight.

Now I’ve got to say, this sounds to me like a fascinating a beautiful sight. Not only because of the fascinating geometry of the rice terraces — like a real-life topo map — but because it presents a view, to my mind both beautiful and inspiring, of how thousands of human beings have interacted with this area over hundreds of years. These rice terraces are not mere abstract shapes nor are they done for the purpose of artistic expression (though the result is aesthetically attractive). Rather, they represent the collective striving of many individual farmers over many years to provide food for their families. These shapes represent hundreds of years of men and women giving their energy and sweat to provide for their families. And out of it all emerges an order which in a sense expresses the human urge to go out into the world and subdue it in order to provide for ourselves and our loved ones. It is a concretization of the drama of survival — and a far more attractive one than an overpass or a silicon chip factory.

And yet, much though I would find it fascinating to stand where this picture was taken and look out over the rice terraces, there’s something that disturbs me a bit about the idea of preserving this area as a world heritage site. One of the things that is so beautiful about this vista is that it is a living landscape: well kept rice fields, farmers and their water buffalo already at work as the sun rises. And yet, the fact that it is a living landscape means that there are thousands of farmers living at levels barely above subsistence, grinding out a living with primitive technology.

I’m glad that this view is still beautiful, and I don’t necessarily like the idea of the overlook being crowded with fast food restaurants and trinket sellers — and yet the fact is that these farmers’ children would be better off in many wells selling trinkets and owning fast food stands than they are now wading through rice fields with water buffalo. And yet, maintaining the view would mean keeping them in the fields while someone else made a better living selling stuff to tourists from the developed world who want to come look at some primitive beauty.

The modern developed world is not necessarily attractive — though it includes un-thought-of beauties like anti-biotics, hot showers, and houses with a floor rather than dirt — and there’s a certain picturesque quality to a life lived “more in touch with nature.” However, being in touch with nature is often a romantic way of describing being in the dirt, and hungry, and prey to sickness and backbreaking work. We should be careful about wanting to see that perpetuated on people who might prefer economic development to an undeniably beautiful view.

5 Responses to Picturesque and Primative

  1. Jay Anderson says:

    I recall riding on a chartered bus tour of the Ring of Kerry 15 years ago … before Ireland’s “Celtic Tiger” really took off. The Irish bus driver, who was local to the area, stopped the bus at one particularly beautiful vista and told us that this was to be the site of a new factory.

    Several of the people on the bus gasped at the prospect. The bus driver turned around in his seat, looked at his passengers, and said of the landscape we were viewing:

    “It’s lovely. It’s green. It makes for a nice postcard. But you can’t eat it.”

    He turned back around in his seat and drove us away.

  2. Tito Edwards says:

    That is a breathtaking picture.

    I’d like to visit it when the Communist government in China is removed.

  3. e. says:


    I strongly doubt that the Communist government in China will ever be removed, especially given the remarkably considerable power that they now wield and will (unfortunately) inevitably transform their nation into The New World Power.

    Besides, don’t you know these guys hold our currency hostage?

  4. I strongly doubt that the Communist government in China will ever be removed, especially given the remarkably considerable power that they now wield and will (unfortunately) inevitably transform their nation into The New World Power.

    The communist government may be around for quite a while, due to their willingness to moderate enough to let their people develop while still holding on as what is these days effectively an oligarchic dictatorship. However, I’d very much doubt that China will ever to a hegemonic power. If the US is to pass that mantle on soon, I would imagine it would do so to India, which is another Anglosphere nation with all the global cultural benefits that entails. I’d bet more on the US remaining the world hegemonic power for a quite a while longer, though.

    Besides, don’t you know these guys hold our currency hostage?

    To an extent. But then, we hold their whole economy hostage, to a great extent. One can’t be an export based economy without having somewhere to export to.

  5. Tito Edwards says:

    I agree with Darwin. China will never become a world power due to their limited opportunities for growth. Combined with their inability to raise the standard of living outside of the coastal regions, we will see huge upheavals in the social structure of China which is already being felt. Throw in the disproportionate amount of males due to their one-child policy, we have a highly turbulent present and future awaiting communist China. Communist authorities will be spending an inordinate amount of time trying to quell their underclass in addition to crushing Islamist movements out in western China as well as Tibetan aspirations for freedom.

    It won’t be a cakewalk for the totalitarian authorities in Beijing. On top of all that mess they want to upgrade their military capabilities to match the United States and pursue the boondoggle of space travel.

    I won’t be surprised to see communist China collapse within my lifetime a la the old Soviet Union. China is not a homogeneous nation. They have competing ethnic groups (besides the Muslims and Tibetans), they still have Mongolians, Koreans, Cantonese, and various assortment of other peoples that don’t like being second fiddle to the dominate Hans.

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