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The Origin, Spread and Persistence of Glutinous Rice as a Staple Crop in Mainland Southeast Asia

  • Louis Golomb (a1)

Various students of Southeast Asian agriculture have been at a loss to explain the peculiar distribution of glutinous rice as a staple crop throughout northern and northeastern Thailand, Laos, and neighbouring regions of Yunnan, Burma, Vietnam and Cambodia (see map).1 Moerman has observed that, “Although this crop … helps to define and isolate a continuous culture area of about 200,000 square miles, it is given scant and inaccurate mention in the literature on rice.”2 He goes on to suggest that certain “environmental factors” have probably played an important role in establishing glutinous rice in this area.3 This environmental explanation of origins is echoed with equally little elaboration by Watabe,4 but the latter denies that physical geography alone can account for the continuing preference for glutinous rice over modern non-glutinous varieties of comparable suitability. He contends that the persistent cultivation of glutinous rice, “is primarily due to an acquired preference of traditional use in the local diet.” Moerman5 and others have recognized the inadequacy of dietary preference as a sole explanation for persistence, but have so far refused to proceed beyond environmental speculations, even though they have provided a wealth of relevant ethnographic data.

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page 1 note 1 This map is a slightly revised version of one that appeared in Watabe, Tadayo, Glutinous Rice in Northern Thailand (Kyoto: Center of Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University, 1967), p. 8.

page 1 note 2 Moerman, Michael, Agricultural Change and Peasant Choice in a Thai Village (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968), p. 19. (Henceforth: Agricultural Change)

page 1 note 3 Ibid., p. 195.

page 1 note 4 Op. cit., p. 7.

page 1 note 5 Agricultural Change, p. 195.

page 1 note 6 Glutinous rice is frequently juxtaposed to “common”, “white”, “hard”, or “non-glutinous” rice. All of these terms are assumed to be synonymous.

page 1 note 7 Wickizer, V. D. and Bennett, M. K., The Rice Economy of Monsoon Asia (Stanford: Food Research Institute, Stanford University, 1941), p. 9.

page 3 note 8 Watabe (op. cit., p. 50), discussing northern Tai rice agriculture, reports that: “In fields where only glutinous rice is supposedly being cultivated, a fact worth noting is that there is often a mixture of non-glutinous rice. Glutinous populations come to be mixed with nonglutinous plants later through the medium of outcrossing by non-glutinous pollen.”

page 3 note 9 “From germination to maturity, all varieties of rice grow continuously without passing through the dormant winter stage characteristic of some of the fall-sown grains, wheat and rye particularly.” (Wickizer and Bennett, op. cit., p. 9)

page 3 note 10 See Watabe, op. cit., p. 7; de Young, John, Village Life in Modern Thailand (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1955), p. 77; Fisher, Charles A., South-East Asia: A Social, Economic, and Political Geography (New York: E. P. Dutton R Co., Inc., 1966), p. 497.

page 3 note 11 Op. cit., p. 6.

page 3 note 12 Glutinous varieties of other cereals do, indeed, occur.

page 3 note 13 See Fisher, op. cit., p. 497; Moerman, Agricultural Change, p. 195.

page 3 note 14 See Watabe, op. cit., p. 21.

page 3 note 15 Agricultural Change, pp. 196–197.

page 3 note 16 Later it will be shown how the high viscosity of cooked glutinous rice determines the manner in which it is eaten and the types of condiments with which it is eaten.

page 3 note 17 Op. cit., p. 5.

page 3 note 18 Grist, D. H., Rice (London: Longmans, Green & Co., Ltd., 1965), pp. 8788.

page 4 note 19 See Burkill, I. H., A Dictionary of the Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula (London: Crown Agents, 1935), p. 1596.

page 4 note 20 Only in a few areas in northeastern Thailand are long-grained varieties grown on a largescale commercial basis.

page 4 note 21 See Grist, op. cit., p. 87.

page 4 note 22 Agricultural Change, p. 197.

page 4 note 23 “Tai” will be used here to refer to the totality of Tai speakers inhabiting much of Southeast Asia and southern China. “Thai” will refer specifically to the Siamese of central Thailand. However, other authors may use these terms in a wider or narrower sense.

page 4 note 24 The Lao settlement of the Korat plateau is quite recent and presents an exception to the otherwise hilly nature of the glutinous zone terrain. (See also Footnote 66.)

page 5 note 25 See Wiens, Herold J., China's March Toward the Tropics (Hamden, Connecticut: The Shoe String Press, 1954), pp 113 and 116.

page 5 note 26 See ibid., p. 120.

page 5 note 27 Actually, not all Tai peoples participated in the thrust up the Yangtse into Yunnan. Wiens (ibid., p. 122) points out that one group of Tai peoples went southward, instead, from the Kuei-chou plateau into Ling-nan and present-day Kuang-tung and Kuang-hsi. The descendants of these groups still remain in southwestern China and Vietnam but play no role in the glutinous rice movement.

page 5 note 28 Ho, Ping-ti, Studies on the Population of China, 1368–1953 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1959), pp. 169ff.

page 5 note 29 Judd, Laurence C., Dry Rice Agriculture in Northern Thailand, Data Paper No. 52 (Ithaca: Southeast Asia Program, Dept. of Asian Studies, Cornell University, 1964), p. 50.

page 5 note 30 Op. cit., p. 45.

page 6 note 31 Credner, Wilhelm, Cultural and Geographical Observations Made in the Tali (Yunnan) Region with Special Regard to the Nan-Chao Problem (Bangkok: The Siam Society, 1935), pp. 34.

page 6 note 32 Cited in Wiens, op. cit., p. 117.

page 6 note 33 Halpern, Joel M., Economy and Society of Laos Monograph Series No. 5 (New Haven: Southeast Asia Studies, Yale University, 1964), p. 5.

page 6 note 34 Leach, Edmund R., Political Systems of Highland Burma (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), p. 26. (original edition 1954)

page 6 note 35 Cady, John F., Southeast Asia: Its Historical Development (New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1964), p. 11.

page 6 note 36 Op. cit., p. 120.

page 6 note 37 Izikowitz, Karl Gustav, “Neighbors in Laos”, Ethnic Groups and Boundaries, ed. Barth, Fredrik (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1969), p. 139. (Henceforth: “Neighbors in Laos”)

page 7 note 38 Adams, Inez, “Rice Cultivation in Asia”, American Anthropologist, L, 2 (April-June 1948), 278.

page 7 note 39 Op. cit., pp. 38ff.

page 7 note 40 By “moisture” here I do not mean length of wet season, but rather the percentage of water in the rice plant's immediate environment.

page 7 note 41 See Leach, op. cit., p. 22.

page 7 note 42 Interestingly, the word Tai originally meant “people”, but came to be used to mean “freeman” in contrast to the word Kha, which is also used as a prefix for the names of these tribes. Kha alone means “serf or “slave”.

page 7 note 43 Izikowitz, Karl Gustav, Lamet: Hill Peasants in French Indochina Etnologiska Studier No. 17 (Gothenburg: Etnografiska Museet, 1951), p. 28.

page 7 note 44 See Credner, op. cit., pp. 5ff; Smith, Ronald Bishop, Siam (Bethesda, Maryland: Decatur Press, Inc., 1966), pp. 15ff.

page 7 note 45 I have not totally ruled out the possibility that the Tais could have borrowed glutinous rice from some indigenous group that might have already been cultivating it before contact. But the wide distribution of the crop, always within the sphere of Tai influence, leads me to conclude that the Tais had to be instrumental in its proliferation.

page 7 note 46 See Ho, op. cit., p. 172.

page 7 note 47 Op. cit., p. 9.

page 8 note 48 Of course, there are other reasons for migrating, such as soil exhaustion from swidden farming, but Laos is still very sparsely populated. Pelzer [Pelzer, Karl J., Pioneer Settlement in the Asiatic Tropics, Special Publication No. 29 (New York: American Geographical Society, 1945), p. 47] has concluded that the Tai “would prefer to migrate to a region where level land is available rather than undertake the terracing of a hillside. …” The mobility of Tai villages seems to have left its mark on Tai social and economic structure, i.e., the extreme economic independence of traditional villages and the rather vague spatial relations within villages. There is frequent relocation of individual households within northern Tai villages. Most Tai village clusters also lack any prescribed layout.

page 8 note 49 Op. cit., pp. 19–20.

page 8 note 50 Zimmerman, Carle C., “Some Phases of Land Utilization in Siam”, Geographical Review, XXVII, 3 (July 1937), 384.

page 8 note 51 Ibid.

page 8 note 52 Lebar, Frank M., Hickey, Gerald C., and Musgrave, John K., Ethnic Groups of Mainland Southeast Asia (New Haven: Human Relations Area Files Press, 1964), p. 1.

page 9 note 53 Ramiah, K., Factors Affecting Rice Production FAO Agricultural Development Paper No. 45 (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N., 1954), p. 20.

page 9 note 54 Halpern (op. cit., p. 36) mentions that the original clearing of uncultivated Menam plains land was performed by burning off the grass and bamboo scrub, but regular swidden agriculture must have been nearly impossible in the flooded areas. Elsewhere (ibid., p. 38) he discusses the low-prestige implications of swidden farming among Tai peoples. Wherever possible, Tai villagers choose paddy farming over swidden, even on the Korat plateau and other areas where irrigation is extremely difficult. We have already seen that the Tais preferred to stay in the river valleys. Thus, instead of continuing to grow glutinous rice by changing to swidden methods far away from the rivers, the Tais here apparently opted for non-glutinous wet-rice cultivation within the river basins.

page 9 note 55 Op. cit., p. 535.

page 9 note 56 Op. cit., p. 45.

page 9 note 57 Pelzer, Karl J., “Land Utilization in the Humid Tropics: Agriculture”, Proceedings of the Ninth Pacific Science Congress of the Pacific Science Association XX, 130131.

page 9 note 58 Op. cit., p. 7.

page 9 note 59 Watabe (ibid., p. 6) mentions that glutinous rice is grown as a secondary crop today in such countries as Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Java, the Philippines, Borneo, China, Japan, and Korea — mostly in mountainous areas. “In Japan, about seven per cent of total paddy fields and about 40 per cent of total upland rice fields are devoted to glutinous varieties.”

page 9 note 60 Op. cit., p. 95.

page 9 note 61 Kaufman, Howard Keva, Bangkhuad: A Community Study in Thailand, (Locust Valley, New York: J. J. Augustin, Inc., 1960), p. 41.

page 10 note 62 Cady, op. cit., p. 145.

page 10 note 63 Op. cit., p. 3.

page 10 note 64 Seidenfaden, Erik, The Thai Peoples (Bangkok: The Siam Society, 1958), p. 106.

page 10 note 65 Op. cit., p. 48.

page 10 note 66 The Korat plateau, in this case the northern half, is not a mountainous region, but it is considerably higher than the Menam valley flood plains (as much as 4,000 feet in some places) and does suffer from a much less regular rainfall, sandier soils, and consequently a shorter growing season. For centuries this region served as a wide border area between the Lao and Thai kingdoms of Lan Chang and Ayudya. Its sparse population was culturally Lao. See Keyes, Charles F., Isan: Regionalism in Northeastern Thailand Data Paper No. 65 (Ithaca: Southeast Asia Program, Dept. of Asian Studies, Cornell University, 1967), p. 7.

page 10 note 67 Op. cit., p. 193.

page 10 note 68 At present, I do not have adequate ethnographic data on Burmese ethnic groups to make any definitive statements about the whole area. What sources are available indicate that non-glutinous rice is the staple crop of the Burmese and many Shans.

page 10 note 69 Later I will introduce two relevant examples from such contact situations.

page 11 note 70 These remarks do not apply to recent arrivals in the glutinous rice zone like the Miao (Meo).

page 11 note 71 See Moerman, Michael, “Ethnic Identification in a Complex Civilization: Who are the Lue?”, American Anthropologist, LXVII, 5, Part 1 (October 1965), 1225. (Henceforth: “Ethnic Identification”)

page 11 note 72 Op. cit., p. 188.

page 11 note 73 Tambiah, S. J., Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-East Thailand, (London: Cambridge University Press, 1970), p. 30.

page 11 note 74 The dialects of this area are conspicuous for a paucity of Cambodian loan-words.

page 11 note 75 Op. cit., p. 215.

page 11 note 76 Op. cit., p. 521.

page 11 note 77 Op. cit., p. 19.

page 12 note 78 There exists in the literature considerable confusion regarding the referents of the Siamese term Lao. Seidenfaden (op. cit., p. 105) refers to it as a name given by the Siamese to the Tai (Yuan) of northern Thailand. He discusses H.R.H. Prince Damrong's hypothesis that Lao is a contraction of the word Lawa or Lwa. The term Lawa was probably used originally by the Mons of southern Burma and central Thailand to designate their rustic Mon-Khmer cousins in northern Thailand. Others believe Lao should only refer to inhabitants of northeastern Thailand and Laos: “When the French extended their political control to the banks of the Mekong, they took over this Siamese term for the Tai-speaking inhabitants and adopted the term for the protectorate they created. In this sense, the term Lao is practically synonymous with the Tai-speaking population of what was once the old kingdom of Lan Xang [Lan Chang] founded by Fa Ngoun in the mid-fourteenth century.” (Lebar et al, op. cit., p. 188)

page 12 note 79 Lebar et al., op. cit., p. 188.

page 12 note 80 “Neighbors in Laos”, p. 142.

page 12 note 81 Nor do they approve of being called “Lao”: “The term ‘Lao’ today is resented by these Northern peoples, who consider themselves purer Thai than their Southern brothers.” (Kaufman, op. cit., p. 4)

page 12 note 82 Op. cit., p. 13.

page 12 note 83 Traditional “urban” centres in the Central Mekong area, like in ancient Cambodia, were almost exclusively small religious centres or shrines. They seldom witnessed any substantial commercial activity. Luang Prabang, even in 1964, had a population of only 7,600. See Coe, Michael D., “Social Typology and the Tropical Forest Civilizations”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, IV, 1 (October 1961), passim.

page 12 note 84 Op. cit., p. 17.

page 12 note 85 Ibid., pp. 13–14.

page 13 note 86 Janlekha, Kamol Odd, A Study of the Economy of a Rice Growing Village in Central Thailand (Bangkok: Ministry of Agriculture, 1955), p. 148.

page 13 note 87 Janlekha (op. cit., p. 148) relates: “A story had it that a Thai student of an aristocratic family wrote home objecting to the proposed marriage between his sister and one of his Thai friends in America. One count against the man was that he had been observed to have taken too much “with rice” while dining at a Chinese restaurant in New York!”

page 13 note 88 Hanks, Jane R., “Reflections on the Ontology of Rice”, Culture in History: Essays in Honor of Paul Radin, ed. Diamond, Stanley (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), p. 200.

page 13 note 89 See Moerman, Agricultural Change, p. 195; Burkill, op. cit., p. 1598.

page 13 note 90 Agricultural Change, p. 11.

page 13 note 91 This may be partly due to poverty, especially in the Northeast.

page 13 note 92 Zimmerman, Carle C., Siam: Rural Economic Survey 1930–1931 (Bangkok: The Bangkok Times Press, Ltd., 1931), p. 275.

page 13 note 93 Naturally such figures can only be trusted to indicate basic trends in consumption.

page 13 note 94 Op. cit., p. 77.

page 14 note 95 Kingshill, Konrad, Ku Daeng — The Red Tomb: A Village Study in Northern Thailand (Bangkok: Bangkok Christian College Press, 1965), p. 52.

page 14 note 96 See Gouineau, André-Yvette, “Laotian Cookery”, Kingdom of Laos, ed. de Berval, Rene (Saigon: France-Asie, 1959), p. 221; Moerman, Agricultural Change, p. 196. Central Thai villagers have also used their hands for eating, especially before Western influences penetrated the countryside, but their handling of the non-glutinous rice is quite unlike the kneading and dipping of the northerners.

page 14 note 97 See Thompson, Virginia, Thailand: The New Siam (New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corporation, 1967), p. 713 (originally published in 1941); Halpern, op. cit., pp. 79–80.

page 14 note 98 Agricultural Change, p. 11.

page 15 note 99 “Ethnic Identification”, p. 1225.

page 15 note 100 Op.cit., p. 13.

page 15 note 101 Dodd, William C., The Tai Race (Cedar Rapids, Iowa: The Torch Press, 1923), p. 46.

page 15 note 102 My fieldwork has indicated, however, that length of growing season is still the most important distinction made between different varieties of glutinous rice. This may be true because of the modern concern for double-crop planning. Furthermore, early-ripening varieties are often grown to tide farmers over until later varieties can be harvested. See Judd, op. cit., pp. 49–50; Watabe, op. cit., p. 44.

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