The Water Flows, the Rice Grows: Professor of Music Hao Huang Studies Traditional Environmental Practices in Asia

An Asian man wearing glasses and black traditional clothing smiling in front of a nature background.

“For over a thousand years, the cycle of rice-growing in Bali was managed through water temples and organized in watershed districts, each self-governed by associations of farmers who shared the use of irrigation water for their rice fields. Water from fresh springs and crater lakes flowed through rivers, irrigation ditches, and tunnels, picking up the phosphates of the volcanic rock for natural fertilization. There were two harvests per year. It came down to the mantra, ‘the water flows, the rice grows, the pests move,’” explains Hao Huang, professor of music and Bessie and Cecil Frankel Endowed Chair in Music.

However, guided by the Western agricultural ‘Green Revolution,’ “which has an unhappy hegemonic history in Asia,” says Huang, the Indonesian government was pressured, as a condition of international loans and aid, to convert from the Subak irrigation system to modern Western agricultural practices that relied heavily on the use of fertilizer for high-yield grains. Within a few years, the rice fields were plagued with an enormous pest problem requiring widespread use of poisonous insecticides, and the fertilizer-enfeebled soil yielded less and less, necessitating additional chemical fertilization that polluted water and killed life downstream.

This trend of abandoning local practices in favor of Western ones is what’s taking Huang to Bali and inner Mongolia in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) this summer to take part in an interdisciplinary research project titled “Nature and the Spirit: Sacred Artistic Practices and Ecology in Bali and China.” Huang will be joined by fellow researchers Joti Rockwell, associate professor in music/music theory and faculty coordinator of Giri Kusuma, the Balinese gamelan ensemble at Pomona College; Melinda Herrold-Menzies, professor of environmental analysis and associate dean of faculty at Pitzer College; and Zhihe Wang, professor of philosophy in PRC and executive director of the China Project, a program of the Center for Process Studies affiliated with the Claremont School of Theology (also guest scholar-in-residence at Scripps College from 2017 to 2019).

During a several-weeks-long fieldwork research trip, Huang and colleagues will interrogate how local, traditional community activities, particularly in the arts, facilitate the promotion of sustainable ecological practices in China and Bali.

“We already know that both Daoism and some forms of Buddhism advocate nonintrusive relationships with nature and the universe,” says Huang. “While visiting the PRC, we will go to a trailblazing organic farming cooperative in Shaanxi founded by an elementary schoolteacher in a small village, and the Hulunbuir grasslands in Inner Mongolia to interview environmental leaders there who are indigenous Mongolians, notably traditional musicians and shamans engaged in rituals that maintain the balance of nature by speaking to nature spirits. In both locales, we will focus on learning some ‘local truths’ about how people in Shanxi province and Inner Mongolia PRC are approaching environmentalism and ecological consciousness.”

The team is supported by a $25,000 grant from Envirolab Asia, a 5Cs initiative anchored at Claremont McKenna College and funded by the Henry Luce Foundation’s Luce Initiative on Asian Studies and the Environment. This mission of EnviroLab Asia is to explore what comes out of the intellectual exchange between the humanities and social sciences, environmental analysis, and various other fields to generate new scholarship about environmental issues in Asia.

In addition to learning more about traditional, local approaches to environmentalism, Huang has the additional goal of cross-cultural education. As part of this aim, Huang and collaborators have scheduled a performance at Scripps for this fall that will focus mainly on Balinese gamelan music, particularly those works that are associated with the Subak water temples, in tandem with a spoken word narrative about what the team experienced and learned in Bali.

“Gamelan music pervades traditional Balinese society; it not only reflects traditional values, it is the preeminent traditional cultural practice there. One could propose that making gamelan music is a way to make the world come into being again and again with each performance. It is sacred, it is thoughtful, it is about the core of Balinese religious beliefs and cultural identity,” says Huang.

As for the Subak rice irrigation system, it was reinstated after 25 years, with the result that organic Balinese rice is again recognized as one of highest quality in Asia. However, now it is threatened by the environmental damage and pollution caused by another phenomenon: mass tourism. Says Huang, “Bali is being loved to death.”