Sticky Rice (Corina)


Rice is a member of the grass family that is cultivated in 112 countries around the world and is a staple in many different types of cuisine. [1]  There are 20 wild species and 2 domesticated species of rice: O. glaberrima, which is grown exclusively in Africa, and O. sativa, which is grown throughout the world, including in China [2].  Though anthropological and archeological efforts have not conclusively established the origin of rice cultivation, it is estimated to have begun before 7000 BCE in China, India, and other Asian countries [3].  Rice is cultivated in irrigated fields and is a very labor-intensive crop [4].  In China, rice is primarily grown south of the Yangtze River, where the warm climate allows for two crops per year [5].

Glutinous rice, or sticky rice, is a type of Asian rice with a genetic mutation that suppresses production of the starch amylose, allowing the grains to stick together [6].  This rice developed through selective breeding and is cultivated in Thailand, Laos, and China [7].  Sticky rice is a base for many sweet and savory recipes around the world, but was not only used for food.  Analysis of ancient Chinese buildings shows that the Chinese also used sticky rice for construction, mixing it into the mortar to create stronger walls [8].  It is therefore evident that sticky rice, and rice in general, was (and still is) essential to many parts of Chinese culture.  This observation is prominent in Charles Gustavus Eckeberg’s A Short Account of the Chinese Husbandry, in which he describes the process the Chinese use to grow rice, as well as providing narrative on its role in the culture of China.

Eckeberg begins his section on agriculture by stating that “In the southern parts of China, bordering upon the sea, rice, a species of corn which grows best in low and wet ground, is the principal food, and in almost all the eastern countries.” [9]  Eckeberg’s characterization of rice as “a species of corn” connects China to the New World (where corn originated) and reveals the breadth of exploration and information that European explorers had access to at that time.  The mention of rice as corn puts Eckeberg’s account in the context of other European exploration and shows a consideration of China in the context of the entire world.  

Eckeberg also discusses rice cultivation in terms of Chinese culture.  He claims that “The pitch to which agriculture, and especially the culture of rice, has been carried in China, is the principal foundation of the happiness of this country” [10].  This is because though China is highly populated, “when one comes to reflect upon their almost incredibly industry in is a convincing proof that a country can never be too full of such inhabitants” [11]  To Eckeberg, and most likely Europeans in general, the cultivation of rice led to and represented the industrious character of the Chinese people, of which they were in awe.  Indeed, the high population in China most likely made this industry necessary in order to be able to feed the entire country.  The Europeans who colonized the Carolinas also discovered the need for intense labor in rice cultivation, and solved this problem by using Native American and African slaves [12].  Though Eckeberg does not seem to recognise rice, as can be seen from his characterization of rice as “corn”, colonial Europeans were aware of this crop and imported slave labor in order to profit off of it.

 Furthermore, Eckeberg describes how husbandry is highly respected, and how “The emperor himself, to shew the value he sets upon it, and to exhibit an example to his subjects which deserves to be followed, goes annually, on a certain solemn day, into the field...takes up the plough, prepares and sows a piece of ground, and afterwards reaps the corn with his own hands.” [13]  Once again, Eckeberg writes admiringly about the Chinese respect for agriculture, indicating that this is a shared value between Europeans and the Chinese.  

The 1696 woodblock print, cut by Zhu Gui and painted by Jiao Bingzhen, is one of forty-six illustrations commissioned by the Kangxi emperor. [14]  This painting features four men working in a rice paddy, all bent at the waist and knees and reaching for rice plants.  The rice plants are painted as dark green tufts sticking out of the water, which comes up to the middle of the farmers’ calves. Behind the rice paddy is a river, separated from the paddy by short, rectangular earthen barriers, which are off-white on top and tan/very light brown on the sides with lines and rectangular shapes drawn on the sides to create texture. and on the right, two more paddies can be seen beyond the barriers.  The paddy itself is shown as flooded with water, which is a brighter white than the top of the earthen barriers and has lines, some curvy and some straight, drawn in it to show the ripples of the water.  Two more men stand on the barrier behind the four in front, pouring water from the river into the paddy with a wooden bucket attached to two long ropes.  Trees also grow to the left and right of the river behind the rice paddy.  In the background, on the riverbank, a boy plays a flute while sitting on a bull.

This idyllic image of rice cultivation is consistent with the industry and with the reverence towards rice and agriculture in general that Eckberg describes as characteristic of the Chinese.  This image, along with the others in the series, were ordered for the ceremonial opening of the agricultural season, most likely the same ceremony of which Eckberg writes. [15]  Because commissioning art required resources, as is evident from the patronage system in Europe, rice cultivation must have indeed been essential to Chinese culture to have been depicted in these artistic works commissioned by the emperor.  

This image also glorifies the industrial characteristics that Eckberg describes and displaying a model of agricultural labor for the viewer.  While the four men are clearly hard at work, they are also working close together and engaging in positive interaction (as can be seen by the smile on the third-to-right man’s face), modeling harmonious teamwork.  These four figures also demonstrate intergenerational work, as they appear to be different ages.  The two men in the back pouring water also demonstrate effective teamwork, as they are working together to manipulate the bucket.  This image shows harmony with nature as well, as it presents the rice paddies as an organized part of the natural landscape instead of a sight of domination.  The rice paddies seem to extend indefinitely to the right of the image, but that extension is shunted to the side in favor of the river, which takes up half of the image.  The river is, therefore, very important to the rice cultivation, which indeed requires large amounts of water, and agriculture in general.  The flute-playing boy in the background demonstrates the inclusion of other cultural enrichments in China, such as music and art.  Though rice cultivation was very important to the Chinese, they had an incredibly rich culture beyond agricultural pursuits.

--Corina Minden-Birkenmaier



  1. "Rice". In The Columbia Encyclopedia. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. (accessed November 11, 2014.)

  2. “Rice”

  3. “Rice”

  4. "The Song Dynasty in China | Asia Topics in World History." The Song Dynasty in China | Asia Topics in World History. Accessed November 11, 2014.

  5. "The Song Dynasty in China | Asia Topics in World History."

  6. "Sticky Rice Evolves." Accessed November 11, 2014.

  7. McMahon, Mary, and Bronwyn Harris. "What Is Glutinous Rice." WiseGeek. October 3, 2014. Accessed November 11, 2014.

  8. Ravilious, Kate. "Sticky Rice Holds Ancient Chinese Buildings Together." National Geographic. June 8, 2010. Accessed November 11, 2014.

  9. Osbeck, Pehr, 1723-1805. A Voyage to China And the East Indies. London: B. White, 1771. p. 273

  10. Osbeck p. 274-275

  11. Osbeck p. 274-275

  12. From Hands to Tutors: African Expertise in the South Carolina Rice Economy. Judith A. Carney. Agricultural History, Vol. 67, No. 3 (Summer, 1993), pp. 1-30

  13. Osbeck 275

  14. 御製耕織圖; Yuzhi Gengzhi Tu (Imperially Commissioned Illustrations of Agriculture and Sericulture)." British Museum. Accessed November 27, 2014.

  15. 御製耕織圖; Yuzhi Gengzhi Tu (Imperially Commissioned Illustrations of Agriculture and Sericulture).
Sticky Rice (Corina)