YANG TINGSHUO: Ethnic groups act as caretakers of local ecology

By / 12-23-2014 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)


In the mountainous areas within the provinces of Yunnan and Guizhou and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, the high temperatures and abundant rainfall throughout the year have brought about a unique karst topography that combines clusters of peaks and low lands. On the surface, it is bumpy and stony, with depressions surrounded by rocky hills that join one another like a honeycomb while subterranean streams and karst caves crisscross the underground.

Characterized by an excess of rocks relative to the amount of soil, this environment allows woody, herbaceous and climbing plants to thrive and account for one-third of the entire ecosystem while tall trees are unable to flourish. Sheltered by climbing plants, lower plants, such as bryophyte, grow over the bedrock and gravel above the ground.

The Miao, Yao and Gelao ethnic groups have lived in this environment from generation to generation, leading to a cultural convergence among them. And field investigation has disclosed four common features in terms of resource utilization.

First, whether they are engaged in animal husbandry, forestry or farming, they try not to turn up the soil or reduce such activities as much as possible. They use small farming implements to avoid disturbing the soil layer stuck in the rock cracks for fear that the scarce soil and water would flow into underground karst caves and streams.

Second, when tilling the land, no matter if it is to cut trees down, wipe vines off or mow grass, they often retain a long section of stumps. This method follows a scientific rule that seeds dropped on the ground would have a chance of less than one in 10 million to take root once other plants occupy the cracks that have soil. Therefore the practice is a way to control the growth rate of various plants while not getting rid of other wild plants.

Moreover, the stumps left behind will regenerate so that the surface will be covered with green plants. It can also help lower surface temperature, reduce water evaporation and prevent plants and animals from being damaged by intense thermal radiation.

Third, they cultivate crops, forage grass or trees of economic value in accordance with the structure of the ecosystem to achieve coexistence among a variety of living things. There are vines, jungles and trees within the ecosystem, which is similar to the peripheral natural ecosystem.The scientific principle behind this approach is that species can endure the seasonal drought through interdependency and mutual support.

Fourth, all products are gathered once they are ripe. In addition, sowing and harvesting are staggered in turn. The approach is important not only to protect the biodiversity of the cultivated land but also to maintain a vegetation coverage rate of over 85 percent for the entire year. And another purpose is to make full use of the water and soil, which are valuable and scarce resources in the region.

Local ethnic groups have embraced these practices for generations. Their approaches to resource utilization are innovative means by which the ethnic cultures have adapted themselves to the unique ecological environment. The essence of this philosophy is to realize efficient use of resources and preserve the ecosystem at the same time.

There is an old saying in the region that the hills remain green despite the lack of water. Of course, water shortage is a natural phenomenon and cannot be changed through human efforts. However, the green hills are a result of the local ethnic culture adapting to the special ecological environment.


Yang Tingshuo is from the Research Institute of Anthropology and Ethnics at Jishou University.
The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 676, December5, 2014.

Translated by Ren Jingyun
Revised by Justin Ward