We’re pushing the envelope
to the rice paddies of Jilin
province this month. When
I get the chance to get in a rice field, I
pull on the wellies and wade in. Even
if they are way too small.
‘You’d better not use the sickle,’
Zhou Jun, the overseer for the team
I’ve joined, suggests kindly. He
swiftly takes it off me and throws it
onto the embankment to underline
his point. This is because I can’t
even stand up and just one step into
the paddy I’m flailing around with a
blade on a stick.
The second step is worse and
I lurch into Zhou’s arms. Who
knew the water was so deep, the
mud so soft and my balance so
The photographer is faring no
better and pretty much has to throw
his camera to someone on the bund
before staggering out to take his
wellies off. Barefoot, he re-enters
the muck hoping not to drop his
livelihood. Or drown.
My arrival at the rice farm had
been dramatic in a different way.
Approaching at 4.30am, I was
treated to a splendid sunrise over
the paddy fields and was still having
breakfast of rice (in congee form,
zhou), mantou and pickles when
my colleagues waded into work at
5.30am. They’ve made excellent
progress by the time I join them, and I quickly see that with only 97
percent of my body covered up, I’m
‘Stand between the plants, not
between the rows! No, don’t stand
where I’ve just stood!’ pleads Zhou.
Once steady enough to bend over
and get hold of a weed, I realise I
can’t tell the weeds from the rice.
This doesn’t matter for most of
it, as anything growing in the furrow
between rows is by definition a weed
and can be ripped out. Those
growing alongside the rice
are cunningly disguised,
but Zhou points out
There’s also a right
way and a wrong way
to grasp the base of a
weed, FYI. I was doing
it the wrong way. ‘Just
use your thumb and two
fingers and twist the weed
away from you,’ Zhou explains.
We throw the weeds onto the
embankment. I’ve now been sinking
into position long enough for water
to start pouring over the top of my
wellies, which is concerning as
the dragonfly larvae alone look big
enough to eat me. I tell Zhou I’m
taking on water and he replies,
‘Don’t worry, in this paddy there’s
no [Chinese word I don’t know]’.
I decide against clarification. It
doesn’t matter – right now I wouldn’t be able to get out of the way of an approaching glacier.
The job I’m doing only exists because it’s an organic rice farm. The only one in China, in fact. ‘It’s more traditional as other places use herbicides and pesticides,’ Zhou tells me. Here they employ ladies and ducks.
It’s time to move down the row, and with the grace of a cow in cardiac arrest, I take one step forward. I get a bit overzealous with the weeding. Zhou leans over and we both realise I’ve got a fistful of actual rice plants. He’s too polite to say anything and shows me how if you’re further away from the edge, you tie the weeds into a knot and push them underfoot into the mud. Leaning on Zhou I give it a go, hiding the evidence, by which point the other labourers have worked along the whole paddy and caught up with us. All the workers are women, because ‘men aren’t suited to it’.
We engage in a polite-off about them overtaking and as we review the patch I’ve been working, it’s clear to everyone that I’m trampling rice plants at a faster rate than I’m removing weeds. And then ripping out a few more.
‘I think you’ve got the hang of it,’ concludes Zhou. ‘Maybe you should get out of the paddy now.’ I agree. He helps me out and I wash my boots and feet in the stream on the other side of the bund, sitting among the handbags of the ladies who will carry on all the way to 5pm.