By Hongcheng Yu (Reycraft Books)
  • Non-fiction
  • Set in China

Keywords: food, farmer, jobs

Farmers weed at noon, and their sweat falls onto the field. Have you ever eaten rice? Do you eat it every day? Do you know where it comes from? It comes from a lot of hard work! What we eat are grains of rice, which are called “gu” in China. The husks of the grains are polished off, and the polished grains are called “mi.” Once those grains are cooked, they’re called “fan.” A farmer has to raise all of the rice that we eat. Let’s visit a farm together and learn more about a hardworking rice farmer’s life!

Culture Notes PDF

Hongcheng Yu positions Rice as a cultural link not only between Chinese rural life and English-speaking audiences but also between Chinese rural life and urban Chinese. That is, this book would be conducive to cultural learning experiences in both Chinese- and English-speaking classrooms.

Rice is central to Chinese cuisine. Traditionally, the Chinese say that southern people consume rice with every meal, while the northern people enjoy a more wheat-based diet (for example, steamed buns and noodles); however, food cultures have long intermingled, and rice is eaten all over China.

Rice is such an essential component of daily eating that the same word is used both for rice and for food ( fàn,饭; pronounced: fann). In fact, every meal of the day involves this word:

Breakfast ( zǎo fàn, 早饭; pronounced: zow fann)

Lunch ( wũ fàn, 午饭; pronounced: woo fann)

Dinner ( wǎn fàn, 晚饭; pronounced: wann fann)

Because nearly every meal involves rice—in the form of rice flour–based goods, sticky rice treats, rice porridge, or simply and most commonly steamed rice—the Chinese can be very particular about the rice they consume. Details such as the region where the rice is grown and the shape and size of the individual grains, these impart flavor and textural differences. One of the most significant factors affecting the variety chosen to eat at home is whether or not it is “new crop” rice, which is considered the freshest and most fragrant.

Beyond the rice itself, Hongcheng Yu’s book is laden with opportunities for further cultural understanding.

Rice Terraces. The farms in this book are set in Yunnan province amid breathtaking rice terrace landscapes, which ripple the hilltops and mountainous regions spanning southern China. The terraces planted in the Longyang region of Guangxi are the most famously visited and photographed. When filled with spring rains, reflecting clouds and sunsets and water buffalo, these step-like planting beds are awe-inspiringly beautiful. To the unfamiliar, that beauty may belie the generations of arduous, backbreaking work that brought them to fruition. A farmer spends his entire working life digging a new terrace into the mountain, while at the same time planting his own rice in the terraces his ancestors had dug before him. He will leave the growing collection of terraces to his own children, who in turn will repeat the process for their children.

Qingming Festival (清明节; pronounced: ching ming). In contemporary China, the Festival of Pure Brightness (also known as the Tomb-Sweeping Festival) is not widely observed in its traditional fashion. Still, for those who do observe it (especially in rural China), the festival involves visiting the burial sites of ancestors. Family members sweep away debris and clean up the burial site before burning incense, offering fruits and other foods along with white chrysanthemums and prayers. They also burn offerings of imitation paper money and other objects their ancestors might find useful in the afterlife, the idea being that, upon burning, the objects then move into the spirit realm.

Miao Minority Ethnic Group. China has fifty-six officially recognized ethnic groups. The vast majority of Chinese identify as part of the Han ethnic group. The community in the book is part of the Miao ethnic group. We can identify them based on the traditional celebratory clothing they wear in the illustration at the end of the book, in which they are gathered to celebrate the conclusion of the rice harvest.

Chinese Characters. The author uses red ink to write the characters for the various agriculturally significant seasons, all of which can be found in English on the circular agricultural calendar at the back of the book (p. 32). The characters used for the various seasons follow an older Chinese script, sometimes different from modern simplified Chinese.

雨水 (yǔ shuǐ, pronounced: you shway), the rains

惊蛰 (jīng zhé, pronounced: jing juh), insects awaken

清明 (qīng míng, pronounced: ching ming), pure brightness

立夏 (lì xià, pronounced: lee shah), summer begins

小满 (xiǎo mǎn, pronounced: show man), grain full

大暑 (dà shǔ, pronounced: dah shoo), great heat

立秋 (lì qiū, pronounced: lee cheoh), autumn begins

秋分 (qiū fēn, pronounced: cheoh fenn), autumn equinox

寒露 (hán lù, pronounced: hann loo), cold dew

霜降 (shuāng jiàng, pronounced: shwahng jeyong), frost’s descent

Author: Josh Foster, Educator & Learner



Curriculum Connections PDF

The picture book Rice, by Hongcheng Yu, is a beautifully illustrated exploration of the agricultural aspects of this food staple. Before writing this award-winning book, Yu spent two years living in the mountains with rice farmers to observe their planting and harvesting methods. Her deep understanding of the process is evident in the enchanting way that she writes about the planting and harvesting seasons, solidifying the book’s universal themes of environment and family along with the literary themes of the beauty of nature and the importance of hard work.

Yu uses the twenty-four solar terms, along with dates from the Gregorian (Western) calendar, to provide readers with a timeline for the planting and harvesting process. Each set of pages includes a brief yet rich description of an aspect of rice farming. These descriptions accompany elaborate illustrations that provide views of the tools used in the agricultural process. The illustrations also depict the actions of the farmers, providing insights into the labor and collaboration required to grow rice. The mesmerizing details portray a variety of native flora and fauna as well. Even illustrations of the sky hold interesting details such as rainbows and clouds shaped as animals. The final scene in the book is the most elaborate illustration: a feast with all of the farmers gathered around tables full of food.

The notes section of the book is equally detailed. Yu uses the notes to provide further descriptions about processes used to grow and harvest rice. The notes are divided according to sets of pages and include grayscale versions of the illustrations. They begin with an explanation of the lunar calendar and the twenty-four solar terms used throughout the book. Additional illustrations are found in the notes, including intricately detailed diagrams and step-by-step processes, such as the steps used to germinate rice seeds. Tools used to prepare the fields and to harvest, dry, and mill the rice are also depicted. In addition, Yu details the life cycle of rice by including pictures of germinating seeds and plant development. Nutritional information is also illustrated and explained.

This book is suitable for all students, though the notes content is more accessible to students eight years old and up. Younger children will enjoy the narrative while elementary students and middle-school students will find the intricacies of the notes section interesting. This text can serve as a springboard for numerous environmental studies. Younger students might enjoy identifying the different types of wildlife portrayed in the book, ranging from dogs and chickens to dragonflies and butterflies. The text can also be used to explore ecosystems and biodiversity. For instance, after viewing illustrations of children catching the fish that live in the rice paddy, students could learn about symbiosis and the mutualism of rice-fish farming systems. Science aspects of structure and function could be explored while examining the tools used to plant, harvest, and mill rice. Students can also try to germinate seeds and compare the process they use with the process in the text. Health and nutrition can be addressed as students examine the nutritional aspects of a grain of rice. Students can also explore different species of rice and learn which types are common in the dishes that they may eat. The tools and machines used historically in rice farming can be compared with modern automated systems. Students can learn more about the origin of the twenty-four solar terms and the lunar calendar.

Science Standards (Next Generation Science Standards):

  • K-ESS3-1. Earth and Human Activity. Use a model to represent the relationship between the needs of different plants or animals (including humans) and the places they live.
  • 2-LS4-1. Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity. Make observations of plants and animals to compare the diversity of life in different habitats.
  • 3-LS1-1. From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes. Develop models to describe that organisms have unique and diverse life cycles, but all have in common birth, growth, reproduction, and death.
  • 4-LS1-1. From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes. Construct an argument that plants and animals have internal and external structures that function to support survival, growth, behavior, and reproduction.
  • MS-LS2-3. Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics. Develop a model to describe the cycling of matter and flow of energy among living and nonliving parts of an ecosystem.

English Language Arts Standards (Common Core State Standards)

  • ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.5. Analyze the structure an author uses to organize a text, including how the major sections contribute to the whole and to an understanding of the topic.
  • ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.6. Analyze the author’s purpose in providing an explanation, describing a procedure, or discussing an experiment in a text.

Social Studies Standards (C3 Framework):

  • Geo.4.K-2. Explain how weather, climate, and other environmental characteristics affect people’s lives in a place or region.

Author: Jennifer Smith, 7th and 8th grade language arts teacher, Illinois Virtual School