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Salt: A World History

Salt: A World History Cover

 

 

Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

A Mandate of Salt

Once I stood on the bank of a rice paddy in rural Sichuan Province, and a lean and aging Chinese peasant, wearing a faded forty-year-old blue jacket issued by the Mao government in the early years of the Revolution, stood knee deep in water and apropos of absolutely nothing shouted defiantly at me, “We Chinese invented many things!”

The Chinese are proud of their inventions. All Chinese leaders, including Mao Zedong, sooner or later give a speech listing the many Chinese firsts. Though rural China these days seems in need of a new round of inventions, it is irrefutably true that the Chinese originated many of the pivotal creations of history, including papermaking, printing, gunpowder, and the compass.

China is the oldest literate society still in existence, and its 4,000 years of written history begin as a history of inventions. It is no longer clear when legends were made into men and when living historic figures were turned into legends. Chinese history starts in the same manner as Old Testament history. In the Book of Genesis, first come the legends, the story of the Creation, mythical figures such as Adam and Eve and Noah, generations of people who may or may not have lived, and gradually the generations are followed to Abraham, the beginning of documented Hebrew history.

In Chinese history, first was Pangu, the creator, who made humans from parasites on his body. He died but was followed by wise rulers, who invented the things that made China the first civilization. Fuxi was first to domesticate animals. Apparently an enthusiast for domesticity, he is also credited with inventing marriage. Next came Shennong, who invented medicine, agriculture, and trade. He is credited with the plow and the hoe. Then came Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor, who invented writing, the bow and arrow, the cart, and ceramics. Several centuries after Huangdi came Emperor Yao, a wise ruler who passed over his unqualified son and named a modest sage, Shun, his successor. Shun chose his minister, Yu, to succeed him. In 2205 b.c., according to tradition, Yu founded the Xia dynasty, and this dynasty, which lasted until 1766 b.c., enters into documented history.

Chinese salt history begins with the mythical Huangdi, who invented writing, weaponry, and transportation. According to the legends, he also had the distinction of presiding over the first

war ever fought over salt.

One of the earliest verifiable saltworks in prehistoric China was in the northern province of Shanxi. In this arid region of dry yellow earth and desert mountains is a lake of salty water, Lake Yuncheng. This area was known for constant warfare, and all of the wars were over control of the lake. Chinese historians are certain that by 6000 b.c., each year, when the lakes waters evaporated in the summer sun, people harvested the square crystals on the surface of the water, a system the Chinese referred to as “dragging and gathering.” Human bones found around the lake have been dated much earlier, and some historians speculate that these inhabitants may also have gathered salt from the lake. The earliest written record of salt production in China dates to around 800 b.c. and tells of production and trade of sea salt a millennium before, during the Xia dynasty. It is not known if the techniques described in this account were actually used during the Xia dynasty, but they were considered old ways by the time of this account, which describes putting ocean water in clay vessels and boiling it until reduced to pots of salt crystals. This was the technique that was spread through southern Europe by the Roman Empire, 1,000 years after the Chinese account was written. About 1000 b.c., iron first came into use in China, though the first evidence of it being used in salt making is not until 450 b.c. by a man named Yi Dun. According to a passage written in 129 b.c., “Yi Dun rose to prominence by producing salt in pans.” Yi Dun is believed to have made salt by boiling brine in iron pans, an innovation which would become one of the leading techniques for salt making for the next 2,000 years. The legend says that he worked with an ironmaster named Guo Zong and was also friendly with an enterprising wealthy bureaucrat named Fan Li. Fan Li is credited with inventing fish farming, which for centuries after was associated with salt-producing areas. The Chinese, like later Europeans, saw that salt and fish were partners. Many Chinese, including Mencius, the famous Confucian thinker who lived from 372 to 289 b.c., were said to have worked selling both fish and salt.

Throughout the long history of China, sprinkling salt directly on food has been a rarity. Usually it has been added during cooking by means of various condiments—salt-based sauces and pastes. The usual explanation is that salt was expensive and it was stretched by these condiments. A recurring idea throughout the ancient world from the Mediterranean to Southeast Asia, fish fermented in salt was one of the most popular salt condiments in ancient China. It was called jiang. But in China soybeans were added to ferment with the fish, and in time the fish was dropped altogether from the recipe and jiang became jiangyou, or, as it is called in the West, soy sauce.

Soy is a legume that produces beans, two or three in a two-inch-long furry pod. The beans can be yellow, green, brown, purple, black, or spotted, and Chinese cooking makes a great distinction among these varieties. Jiangyou is made from yellow beans, but other types are also fermented with salt to produce different pastes and condiments.

In China, the earliest written mention of soy is in the sixth century b.c., describing the plant as a 700-year-old crop from the north. Soy was brought to Japan from China in the sixth century a.d. by Chinese Buddhist missionaries. Both the religion and the bean were successfully implanted. But the Japanese did not make soy sauce until the tenth century. Once they did learn, they called it shoyu and industrialized it and sold it around the world.

Though jiangyou and shoyu are pronounced very differently and appear to be very different words in Western writing, the two words are written with the same character in Japanese and Chinese. Maos 1950s literacy campaign simplified the language to some 40,000 characters, but a pre-Mao character for the soy plant, su, depicts little roots at the bottom which revive the soil.

Soy puts nutrients back into the soil and can restore fields that have been exhausted by other crops. The bean is so nutritious that a person could be sustained for a considerable period on

nothing but water, soy, and salt.

The process by which the Chinese, and later the Japanese, fermented beans in earthen pots is today known as lactic acid fermentation, or, in more common jargon, pickling. Optimum lactic fermentation takes place between sixty-four and seventy-one degrees Fahrenheit, which in most of the world is an easily achieved environment.

As vegetables begin to rot, the sugars break down and produce lactic acid, which serves as a preservative. Theoretically, pickling can be accomplished without salt, but the carbohydrates and proteins in the vegetables tend to putrefy too quickly to be saved by the emerging lactic acid. Without salt, yeast forms, and the fermentation process leads to alcohol rather than pickles.

Between .8 and 1.5 percent of the vegetables weight in salt holds off the rotting process until the lactic acid can take over. Excluding oxygen, either by sealing the jar or, more usually, by weighting the vegetables so that they remain immersed in liquid, is necessary for successful lactic fermentation.

The ancient Chinese pickled in earthen jars, which caused a white film called kahm yeast, harmless but unpleasant tasting, to form on the top. Every two weeks the cloth, board, and stone

weighting the vegetables had to be washed or even boiled to remove the film. This added work is why pickling in earthen jars has not remained popular.

In Sichuan, pickled vegetables are still a staple. They are served with rice, which is never salted. The salty vegetables contrast pleasantly with the blandness of the warm but unseasoned rice gruel that is a common breakfast food. In effect, the pickles are salting the rice.

South of the Sichuan capital of Chengdu, lies Zigong, a hilly provincial salt town that grew into a city because of its preponderance of brine wells. The crowded, narrow, downhill open-air market in the center of town continues to sell salt and special pickling jars for the two local specialties, paocai and zhacai. A woman at the market who sold the glass pickling jars offered this recipe for paocai:

Fill the jar two-thirds with brine. Add whatever vegetables you like and whatever spice you like, cover, and the vegetables are ready in two days.

The spices added are usually hot red Sichuan peppers or ginger, a perennial herb of Indian origin, known to the Chinese since ancient times. The red pepper, today a central ingredient of Sichuan cooking, did not arrive until the sixteenth century, carried to Europe by Columbus, to India by the Portuguese, and to China by either the Indians, Portuguese, Andalusians, or Basques. Paocai that is eaten in two days is obviously more about flavor than preserving. After two days the vegetables are still very crisp, and the salt maintains, even brightens, the color. Zhacai is made with salt instead of brine, alternating layers of vegetables with layers of salt crystals. In time a brine is formed from the juices the salt pulls out of the vegetables. When a peasant has a baby girl, the family puts up a vegetable every year and gives the jars to her when shes married. This shows how long zhacai is kept before eating. The original medieval idea was to marry her after twelve or fifteen jars. Today it usually takes a few more vegetables. The Chinese also solved the delicate problem of transporting eggs by preserving them in salt. They soaked the eggs, and still do, in brine for more than a month, or they soak them for a shorter time and encase them in salted mud and straw. The resulting egg, of a hard-boiled consistency with a bright orange yolk, will neither break nor spoil if properly handled. A more complicated technique, involving salt, ash, lye, and tea, produces the “1,000-year-old egg.” Typical of the Chinese love of poetic hyperbole, 1,000-year-old eggs take about 100 days to make, and will keep for another 100 days, though the yolk is then a bit green and the smell is strong.

In 250 b.c., the time of the Punic Wars in the Mediterranean, the governor of Shu, today the province of Sichuan, was a man named Li Bing. The governor was one of the greatest hydraulic

engineering geniuses of all time.

The coincidence of hydraulic engineering skills and political leadership does not seem strange when it is remembered that water management was one of the critical issues in developing China, a land of droughts and floods.

The Yellow River, named for the yellowish silt it rushes through northern China, was known as “the father of floods.” It and the Yangtze are the two great rivers of Chinese history, both originating in the Tibetan plateau and winding toward the sea on the east coast of China. The Yellow runs through arid northern regions and tends to silt up, raising the riverbed, which causes flooding unless dikes are built up around its banks. The Yangtze is a wider river with many navigable tributaries. It flows through the green and rainy center of China, bisecting the worlds third largest country, from the Tibetan mountains to Shanghai on the East China Sea. The rule of the wise Emperor Yao is said to have been a golden age of ancient China, and one reason for this was that Emperor Yao had tamed nature by introducing the concept of flood control.

Li Bing has taken on some of the mythic dimensions of Yao, a god who conquered floods and tamed nature. But unlike the mythical Emperor Yao, Li Bings existence is well documented. His most extraordinary accomplishment was the building of the first dam, which still functions in modernized form. At a place called Dujiangyan, he divided the Minjiang River, a tributary of the Yangtze. The diverted water goes into a series of spillways and channels that can be opened to irrigate in times of droughts and closed in times of flooding. He had three stone figures of men placed in the water as gauges. If their feet were visible, this signaled drought conditions and the dams gates were opened to let in water. If their shoulders were submerged, floodwaters had risen too high and the dams gates were closed.

Because of the Dujiangyan dam system, the plains of eastern Sichuan became an affluent agricultural center of China. Ancient records called the area “Land of Abundance.” With the dam still operating, the Sichuan plains remain an agricultural center today. In 1974, two water gauges, carved in a.d. 168, were found in the riverbed by the site of Li Bings dam. They seem to have been replacements for the original water gauge statues. One of them is the oldest Chinese stone figure ever found of an identifiable individual. It is a statue of Li Bing. The original gauges he had used depicted gods of flood control. Four centuries after his death, he was considered to be one of these gods.

Li Bing made a very simple but pivotal discovery. By his time, Sichuan had long been a salt-producing area. Salt is known to have been made in Sichuan as early as 3000 b.c. But it was Li Bing who found that the natural brine, from which the salt was made, did not originate in the pools where it was found but seeped up from underground. In 252 b.c., he ordered the drilling of the worlds first brine wells.

These first wells had wide mouths, more like an open pit, though some went deeper than 300 feet. As the Chinese learned how to drill, the shafts got narrower and the wells deeper. But sometimes the people who dug the wells would inexplicably become weak, get sick, lie down, and die. Occasionally, a tremendous explosion would kill an entire crew or flames spit out from the bore holes. Gradually, the salt workers and their communities realized that an evil spirit from some underworld was rising up through the holes they were digging. By 68 b.c., two wells, one in Sichuan and one in neighboring Shaanxi, became infamous as sites where the evil spirit emerged. Once a year the governors of the respective provinces would visit these wells and make offerings.

By a.d. 100, the well workers, understanding that the disturbances were caused by an invisible substance, found the holes where it came out of the ground, lit them, and started placing pots close by. They could cook with it. Soon they learned to insulate bamboo tubes with mud and brine and pipe the invisible force to boiling houses. These boiling houses were open sheds where pots of brine cooked until the water evaporated and left salt crystals. By a.d. 200, the boiling houses had iron pots heated by gas flames. This is the first known use of natural gas in the world.

Salt makers learned to drill and shore up a narrow shaft, which allowed them to go deeper. They extracted the brine by means of a long bamboo tube which fit down the shaft. At the bottom of the tube was a leather valve. The weight of the water would force the valve shut while the long tube was hauled out. Then the tube was suspended over a tank, where a poke from a stick would open the valve and release the brine into the tank. The tank was connected to bamboo piping that led to the boiling house. Other bamboo pipes, planted just below the wellhead to capture escaping gas, also went to the boiling house.

Bamboo piping, which was probably first made in Sichuan, is salt resistant, and the salt kills algae and microbes that would cause rot. The joints were sealed either with mud or with a mixture of tung oil and lime. From the piping at Sichuan brine works, Chinese throughout the country learned to build irrigation and plumbing systems. Farms, villages, and even houses were built with bamboo plumbing. By the Middle Ages, the time of the Norman conquest of England, Su Dongpo, a bureaucrat born in Sichuan, was building sophisticated bamboo urban plumbing. Large bamboo water mains were installed in Hangzhou in 1089 and in Canton in 1096. Holes and ventilators were installed for dealing with both blockage and air pockets.

Salt producers spread out bamboo piping over the countryside with seeming chaos like the web of a monster spider. The pipes were laid over the landscape to use gravity wherever possible, rising and falling like a roller coaster, with loops to create long downhill runs.

In the mid-eleventh century, while King Harold was unsuccessfully defending England from the Normans, the salt producers of Sichuan were developing percussion drilling, the most advanced drilling technique in the world for the next seven or eight centuries. A hole about four inches in diameter was dug by dropping a heavy eight-foot rod with a sharp iron bit, guided through a bamboo tube so that it kept pounding the same spot. The worker stood on a wooden lever, his weight counterbalancing the eight-foot rod on the other end. He rode the lever up and down, see-saw-like, causing the bit to drop over and over again. After three to five years, a well several hundred feet deep would strike brine.

In 1066, Harold was killed at Hastings by an arrow, the weapon the Chinese believe was invented in prehistory by Huangdi. At the time of Harolds death, the Chinese were using gunpowder, which was one of the first major industrial applications for salt. The Chinese had found that mixing potassium ni-trate, a salt otherwise known as saltpeter, with sulfur and carbon created a powder that when ignited expanded to gas so quickly it produced an explosion. In the twelfth century, when European Crusaders were failing to wrest Jerusalem from the infidel Arabs, the Arabs were beginning to learn of the secret Chinese powder.

Li Bing had lived during one of the most important crossroads in Chinese history. Centuries of consolidation among warring states had at last produced a unified China. The unified state was the culmination of centuries of intellectual debate about the nature of government and the rights of rulers. At the center of that debate was salt.

Chinese governments for centuries had seen salt as a source of state revenue. Texts have been found in China mentioning a salt tax in the twentieth century b.c. The ancient character for salt, yan, is a pictograph in three parts. The lower part shows tools, the upper left is an imperial official, and the upper right is brine. So the very character by which the word salt was written depicted the states control of its manufacture.

A substance needed by all humans for good health, even survival, would make a good tax generator. Everyone had to buy it, and so everyone would support the state through salt taxes. The debate about the salt tax had its roots in Confucius, who lived from 551 to 479 b.c. In Confuciuss time the rulers of various Chinese states assembled what would today be called think tanks, in which selected thinkers advised the ruler and debated among themselves. Confucius was one of these intellectual ad-visers. Considered Chinas first philosopher of morality, he was disturbed by human foibles and wanted to raise the standard of human behavior. He taught that treating ones fellow human beings well was as important as respecting the Gods, and he emphasized the importance of respecting parents.

Confuciuss students and their students built the system of thought known as Confucianism. Mencius, a student of Confuciuss grandson, passed teachings down in a book called the Mencius. Confuciuss ideas were also recorded in a book called The Analects, which is the basis of much Chinese thought and the source of many Chinese proverbs.

During the two and a half centuries between Confucius and Li Bing, China was a grouping of numerous small states constantly at war. Rulers fell, and their kingdoms were swallowed up by more powerful ones, which would then struggle with other surviving states. Mencius traveled in China explaining to rulers that they stayed in power by a “mandate from heaven” based on moral principles, and that if they were not wise and moral leaders, the gods would take away their mandate and they would fall from power. But another philosophy, known as legalism, also emerged. The legalists insisted that earthly institutions effectively wielding power were what guaranteed a states survival. One of the leading legalists was a man named Shang, who advised the Qin (pronounced chin) state. Shang said that respect for elders and tradition should not interfere with reforming, clearing out inefficient institutions and replacing them with more effective and pragmatic programs. Legalists struggled to eliminate aristocracy, thereby giving the state the ability to reward and promote based on achievement.

The legalist faction had a new idea about salt. The first written text on a Chinese salt administration is the Guanzi, which contains what is supposed to be the economic advice of a minister who lived from 685 to 643 b.c. to the ruler of the state of Qi. Historians agree that the Guanzi was actually written around 300 b.c., when only seven states still remained and the eastern state of Qi, much under the influence of legalism, was in a survival struggle, which it would eventually lose, with the western state of Qin.

Among the ideas offered by the minister was fixing the price of salt at a higher level than the purchase price so that the state could import the salt and sell it at a profit. “We can thus take revenues from what other states produce.” The adviser goes on to point out that in some non-salt-producing areas people are ill from the lack of it and in their desperation would be willing to pay still higher prices. The conclusion of the Guanzi is that “salt has the singularly important power to maintain the basic economy of our state.” By 221, Qin defeated its last rivals, and its ruler became the first emperor of united China. China would continue to be ruled by such emperors until 1911.

The proposals in the Guanzi, which became Qi policy, now became the policy of the Qin and the emperor of China. The Qin dynasty was marked by the legalists tendency for huge public works and harsh laws. A price-fixing monopoly on salt and iron kept prices for both commodities excessively high. It is the first known instance in history of a state-controlled monopoly of a vital commodity. The salt revenues were used to build not only armies but defensive structures including the Great Wall, designed to keep Huns and other mounted nomadic invaders from the north out of China. But the harsh first dynasty lasted less than fifteen years. The Han dynasty that replaced it in 207 b.c., ended the unpopular monopolies to demonstrate better, wiser government. But in 120 b.c., expeditions were still being mounted to drive back the Huns, and the treasury was drained to pay for the wars with “barbarians” in the north. The Han emperor hired a salt maker and ironmaster to research the possibility of resurrecting the salt and iron monopolies. Four years later, he put both monopolies back into place.

China at the time was probably the most advanced civilization on earth at what was a high point of territorial expansion, economic prosperity, and trade. The Chinese world had expanded much farther than that of the Romans. Rome had an empire by conquest, was at the zenith of its power as well, but was menaced by the Gauls and Germanic tribes and even more threatened by internal civil wars. The Chinese had first learned of the Roman Empire in 139 b.c., when the emperor Wudi had sent an envoy, Zhang Qian, past the deserts to seek allies to the west. Zhang Qian traveled for twelve years to what is now Turkistan and back and reported on the astounding discovery that there was a fairly advanced civilization to the west. In 104 b.c. and 102 b.c., Chinese armies reached the area, a former Greek kingdom called Sogdiana with its capital in Samarkand, where they met and defeated a force partly composed of captive Roman soldiers.

In China the salt and iron monopolies, whose revenue financed many of these adventures, remained controversial. In 87 b.c., Emperor Wudi, considered the greatest emperor of the four-century Han dynasty, died and was replaced by the eight-year-old Zhaodi. In 81 b.c., six years later, the now-teenage emperor decided, in the manner of the emperors, to invite a debate among wise men on the salt and iron monopolies. He convened sixty notables of varying points of view from around China to debate state administrative policies in front of him.

The central subject was to be the state monopolies on iron and salt. But what emerged was a contest between Confucianism and legalism over the responsibilities of good government—an expansive debate on the duties of government, state profit versus private initiative, the logic and limits of military spending, the rights and limits of government to interfere in the economy.

Though the identities of most of the sixty participants are not known, their arguments have been preserved from the Confucian point of view in written form, the Yan tie lun, Discourse on Salt and Iron.

On the one side were Confucians, inspired by Mencius, who, when asked how a state should raise profits, replied, “Why must Your Majesty use the word profit? All I am concerned with are the good and the right. If Your Majesty says, ‘How can I profit my state? your officials will say, ‘How can I profit my family? and officers and common people will say, ‘How can I profit myself? Once superiors and inferiors are competing for profit, the state will be in danger.”

On the other side were government ministers and thinkers influenced by the legalist Han Feizi, who had died in 233 b.c. Han Feizi, who had been a student of one of the most famous Confucian teachers, had not believed that it was practical to base government on morality. He believed it should be based on the exercise of power and a legal code that meted out harsh punishment to transgressors. Both rewards and punishments should be automatic and without arbitrary interpretation. He believed laws should be decreed in the interest of the state, that people should be controlled by fear of punishment. If his way was followed, “the State will get rich and the army will be strong,” he claimed. “Then it will be possible to succeed in establishing hegemony over other states.”

In the salt and iron debate, legalists argued: “It is difficult to see, in these conditions, how we could prevent the soldiers who defend the Great Wall from dying of cold and hunger. Suppress the state monopolies and you deliver a fatal blow to the nation.” But to this came the Confucian response, “The true conqueror A Mandate of Salt 33 does not have to make war; the great general does not need to put troops in the field nor have a clever battle plan. The sovereign who reigns by bounty does not have an enemy under heaven. Why do we need military spending?”

To which came the response, “The perverse and impudent Hun has been allowed to cross our border and carry war into the heart of the country, massacring our population and our officers, not respecting any authority. For a long time he has deserved an exemplary punishment.”

It was argued that the borders had become permanent military camps that caused suffering to the people on the interior. “Even if the monopolies on salt and iron represented, at the outset, a useful measure, in the long term they cant help but be damaging.” Even the need for state revenues was debated. One participant quoted Laozi, a contemporary of Confucius and founder of Daoism, “A country is never as poor as when it seems filled with riches.”

The debate was considered a draw. But Emperor Zhaodi, who ruled for fourteen years but only lived to age twenty-two, continued the monopolies, as did his successor. In 44 b.c., the next emperor, Yuandi, abolished them. Three years later, with the treasury emptied by a third successful western expedition to Sogdiana in Turkistan, he reestablished the monopolies. They continued to be abolished and reestablished regularly according to budgetary needs, usually related to military activities. Toward the end of the first century a.d., a Confucian government minister had them once more abolished, declaring, “Government sale of salt means competing with subjects for profit. These are not measures fit for wise rulers.”

The state salt monopoly disappeared for 600 years. But it was resurrected. During the Tang dynasty, which lasted from 618 to 907, half the revenue of the Chinese state was derived from salt. Aristocrats showed off their salt wealth by the unusual extravagance of serving pure salt at the dinner table, something rarely done in China, and placing it in a lavish, ornate saltcellar. Over the centuries, many popular uprisings bitterly protested the salt monopoly, including an angry mob that took over the city of Xian, just north of Sichuan, in 880. And the other great moral and political questions of the great debate on salt and iron—the need for profits, the rights and obligations of nobility, aid to the poor, the importance of a balanced budget, the appropriate tax burden, the risk of anarchy, and the dividing line between rule of law and tyranny—have all remained unresolved issues.

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

ISBN:
9780676975352
Subtitle:
A World History
Publisher:
Vintage Canada
Author:
Kurlansky, Mark
Location:
Toronto
Subject:
Salt industry and trade
Subject:
Salt
Subject:
Sel
Subject:
General History
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Series Volume:
DREO TM 2001-069
Publication Date:
20021015
Binding:
Paperback
Grade Level:
General/trade
Illustrations:
Yes
Pages:
496
Dimensions:
8 x 5.35 x 1 in .8 lb

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