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A Letter From China

The Wonders of China - Part One

Dyke-Pond Agro-ecological System

By Cynthia Muak

The Great, The Grand, The Whatever Wonders of China

As the title suggests, it is no mere idle boast when China claims that she has the greatest, the grandest, or even the oldest of things.

Chinese history has, no doubt, recorded a long list of her note-worthy inventions or cultural heritage. The Google or Wikipedia sites will of course provide more details and factual data if anyone is interested to have a clearer picture of these wonders.

As a Chinese born during the mid '40s outside of China, I had no prior knowledge of China's thousands of years of advanced civilisation, or much knowledge of her recent history. I made it my goal in 1962 to amass as large a collection of reading material on China from every known or readily available source as possible to educate myself - in other words I became a serious Sinophile. And, what I learned during the course of this self-sought journey opened not just my eyes, but my mind as well. It's truly mind-boggling and unbelievable to realise how China has contributed to the advancement of the world and modern society through her inventions and amazing, far-reaching cultural insights.

There may be many overseas Chinese like me who want to know more about China, especially our ancestral village, but because of limited knowledge of the Chinese written script, we are not able to pursue the subject more in-depth.

The great Chinese diaspora of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries led the Chinese to settle down in many countries around the globe, making their descendants now citizens of countries as near as Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and as far flung as Cuba, South America, and the South Pacific islands. In many instances because we are classified as a minority group, we were be treated like 2nd class citizens, though we have pledged our allegiance to our birth country. If you are ethnic Chinese and reading this post, let me remind you that minority groups we are; 2nd class citizens we definitely are not! Read on and you will come to understand why you should be proud of your Chinese roots and heritage.

In this series, I will share the research I have done on some of the great wonders thought up of by the ingenuity of the Chinese mind that have left a lasting impact on our society. One is actually an inherited fact of nature. The subject matters won't be in historical chronology, but rather in the order that I personally saw or came into contact with.

Here goes with:
1. Dyke-Pond Agro-ecological System

I first stepped onto Chinese soil at end of October, early November 1989 in Zhuhai, southern Guangdong. I then made, or more accurately 'ate' my way through a few Pearl River Delta townships to reach Guangzhou, my final destination on that trip.

Watching from a huge 40-seater tour bus that sped through towns and villages, the Pearl River Delta rural scenery looked like a mosaic of silver mirrors embedded in emerald: hundreds of ponds filled the spaces of the Pearl River tributaries as they meandered and fanned out into the South China sea.

The ponds were narrow rectangles, squares and irregular shapes pressed side by side into service to fit the topography. The main effect was to leave cultivated strips of land and the occasional fields between adjacent bodies of water. From certain angles, the scene reminded me visually of the patchwork bedcover I had over my bed back home in my flat in Hong Kong.

I became alert when I found out some of the big trees growing on the dykes were lychee and longan trees; lychees being one of my fav- favourite fruits, and I was wondering whether I could get hold of some later, trying to convince the guide maybe there might be a late fruiting season that year. Some boys were sitting under these trees, next to them were long fishing poles suspended over the pond on their left. This scene immediately brought to mind Tom Sawyer's Huck Finn.

What a peaceful and idyllic existence. At that moment my romantic nature took over - reminiscing half seriously and half jokingly that maybe I should have married a Guangdong farmer so I could sit and fish under my own lychee tree. Since I was already married, the guide suggested that maybe I could apply for a job as a 'lychee tree' guard. Apparently, these trees are up for tender each season. The successful bidder will want to ensure he reaps a fruitful harvest so he employs someone to look after his 'tree', so when the fruits ripen no one can steal them. And these trees thrive very well in this kind of environment because they are fertilised and watered adequately.

Seeing I was so fascinated by the whole rural scenario, the guide told me that the Pearl River delta of southern Guangdong, sprawling over 12,000 sq. km, was famous for its dyke-pond system of fish farming, combined with the cultivation of crops.
This system evolved over the past 2,000 years, perfected by generations of hard working Chinese farmers into a 'circular' economy of intensive agriculture, integrated with the poly culture of carps and other freshwater fishes, on a geographic and economic scale unrivalled elsewhere in the world.

This ecological 'circle' maximises internal inputs between land and water, optimises the efficient use of resources while minimises wastes.

The pond is the heart of the system. Various fish species live at different pond depths, and have different feeding habits, thereby making full use of the water and pond ecology. The pond mud, much enriched in nutrients, serves as fertiliser for the crops. Ponds are drained 2 or 3 times a year. The mud at the bottom is dredged up to put on the dykes thus raising and repairing the dykes and restoring the depth of the pond.

Livestock is an important link in the circle. Pigs, chickens, and ducks are reared on the dykes to provide manure to fertilise the fishponds to encourage the growth of plankton that feed the fish.

The tropical to subtropical climate provides the area with plenty of sunshine and rainfall, making it extremely productive, especially with a system that recycles and transforms all the 'waste' into nutrient resources.

When China slowly changed from a communist to a socialist capitalist society in the late '70s, the major and most welcomed change for the farmers was that they no longer worked on a collective basis. They worked on 'household' production - which incorporated elements of the free enterprise system - giving the farmers incentives to maximise production.

In this way fish production increased by large percentages, at least 50 pct beyond the 100 pct expected norm. The nation absorbed 50 pct of fish production, locals consumed 20 pct, export sales took up 80 pct, which earned the province much needed foreign currency. The yield in crop and fruit cultivation surpassed all preceding figures. This shift in policy meant rapid economic growth which in turn saw household income increased to never before imaginable possibilities making a truly 'circular' economy: more disposable income to spend on travel and merchandise, other than 'necessities', resulting in a more comfortable and enriched lifestyle for both the rural and urban families of southern China.

So, next time you order a big, fat steamed fresh water fish; a plate of succulent honey-glazed BBQ pork; a plump, tender, juicy soy-sauce chicken; a crispy piping hot roast duck; or green, lightly stirred fried tender pea shoots; just sink your teeth in when the food arrives and ENJOY!

Don't worry about toxic chemical feed. The feed for the fish and livestock, and the fertiliser for the fruits and vegetables are all almost 'organic' by default, as a result of this amazing 'circular' agro-ecological dyke-pond system.

Only in Guangdong!

Watch out for the next installment of 'Wonders': Paper.

This work including text and associated photographs is Copyright of Cynthia Muak and Jonno Morris (Unless stated otherwise), and may be reproduced for personal and private use under Collective Commons 3 Licence. An email would be appreciated in such circumstances, as would a reference link back to this website.

You are not allowed to use this information to make money from this work - regardless of how fancy or well paid your lawyers may be.

The views and recollections expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of those of China Expats. Some artistic licence has been used arbitrarily in some of these Letters, and whilst most facts are in essence correct, some personal and literary interpretation may have been employed to greater or lesser degrees.

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This Missive
Image: Typical Guangdong landscape - Click to Enlarge

Image: Farm workers, this collective rearing fish - Click to Enlarge

Image: Pond mud being harvested as fertilizer - Click to Enlarge

Image: Work was literally done by hand - Click to Enlarge

Image: Harvesting fish still happens like this in 2015 - Click to Enlarge

Image: Complementary planting of fruit trees - Click to Enlarge
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