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A tale of an uncle, a water ox and rice

By Joss Eikenburg | China Daily | Updated: 2019-04-26 11:18

One evening in May, while spending a summer break at my in-laws' home in their rural Zhejiang village, I returned from a walk around the village to discover a dusty brown water ox tied to a tree just outside the gate of their house.

It stood perfectly parallel to the road, much like a parked vehicle, apart from grazing the grass at its hooves and eyeing me with a stony gaze that suggested I best keep my distance.

The water ox signaled to me, long before I even entered the house, that we would have dinner that evening with a distant relative long appointed as my husband Jun's godfather, a man I simply referred to as "uncle". A tiger in the Chinese zodiac, this uncle often joked of how much he embodied the sign, calling himself "fierce".

But you could believe it, given his thunderous voice that even the ox minded, his ability to move beehives, and the fact that he made a living slaughtering livestock, with some dubbing him the finest butcher in town.

Upon settling into my stool at the table, I soon learned why the uncle had brought along his bovine companion. He had spent the afternoon leading the water ox through my in-laws' square plot of land in the terraced fields, plowing it in preparation for growing rice.

This uncle never shied away from grueling tasks, such as working the rice fields, and his face bore witness to this "fierce" side to him, weathered and tanned from years of labor outdoors, in all sorts of conditions.

Watching him and the water ox trundle through the sunny fields, as I did later on, proved fascinating. The ox, strapped with a harness fitted with a large, metal V-shaped plow, trudged forward through the muddy plot.

The uncle, barefoot with his pants rolled up above his knees, followed behind as he steered the animal back and forth, part of the slow, timeless dance of man and beast in agriculture.

This scene actually represented only one of the multiple, arduous steps for cultivating rice. The process also involves irrigating the field, transplanting rice plants into the land, fertilizing, weeding, removing pests, cutting the golden stalks in the fall, extracting and winnowing the grains, sun-drying the grains prior to storage, and then polishing the grains into rice at a processing station. Each stage demands a large amount of time and painstaking efforts.

It's no wonder that the process of growing rice has become a metaphor for the hardship behind every great accomplishment, immortalized in the line from the legendary poet Li Shen. Shui zhi pan zhong can, li li jie xinku: How many know that every grain in a dish results from hard labor?

Through observing this uncle and his water ox in the fields, I've gained more of an appreciation of what it takes to supply us with some of the most common and yet vital things in our lives, like rice.

When we come to understand that much of our world has been built through intense labor, we're more willing to work harder — and won't just give up when life challenges us to "plow ahead".

And if you can do that, it won't matter whether you're a tiger. You'll be fierce too.

Jocelyn Eikenburg is a copy editor for China Daily. She has written extensively about cross-cultural topics, including for The Wall Street Journal and The Huffington Post. A US native, she has called China home for over nine years and is fluent in Mandarin Chinese.

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