The history of the salt industry in China begins with Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor, who invented writing, transportation and weapons. He is also said to have lead the first war in history that was over salt. In the province of Shanxi, although it is arid and has dry, yellow earth and desert mountains, it also has a lake called Lake Yuncheng, which bears salty water. In ancient times, since water often meant a source of water, salt, food, and other animals who would find their way to the water, Lake Yuncheng became an area of constant war over control of the lake.
By 6,000 BC, Chinese historians believe that each year the lake’s waters would evaporate in the summer due to the peak heat of the sun, and people were able to harvest the salt crystals on the surface of the water. Salt production that occurs either through evaporation or harvesting, predates the salt substitute of soy sauce Salt production dates back to almost 2,000 BC, whereas soy predates to only 1,300 B.C.
Written records of the production of salt in China dating to 800 BC, describing the trade and production of sea salt during the Xia dynasty, at least a thousand years prior. This production of salt occurred by filling clay vessels with ocean water and boiling the water to leave the remaining salt crystals. Although iron was available in China around 1,000 BC, the first evidence of iron being used in salt production was in 450 BC by a man named Yi Dun. However, the story of Yi Dun was not recorded until a writing in 129 BC, claiming that, “Yi Dun rose to prominence by producing salt in pans.” It is said that he produced salt by boiling brine in iron pans, which became the main technique for salt production for the following 2,000 years. The story goes that Yi Dun was in cahoots with an ironmaster by the name of Guo Zong, as well as the rich minister Fan Li, who is believed to have invented fish farming. Fish farming was associated with areas that produced salt for centuries, after realizing that salt and fish made excellent life partners. Many people worked selling a combination of fish and salt, including Mencius, the Chinese Philosopher, who lived from 372 to 289 BC.
The Chinese, the Venetians, the French, the Romans and many other governments throughout history would tax salt as a means to publicly fund wars. It was not uncommon for soldiers and workers to be paid with salt and salt was often interchangeable as a form of currency.
If you think about Chinese cuisine or other East Asian cuisines in general, it is difficult to even picture one of these chefs going all salt bae on their dishes. Sprinkling salt onto food has never really been a practice within these regions of the world, since most of the salt within the dish has already been added during the cooking process, usually through salt-based sauces, pastes, or other condiments. Understanding that the salt monopoly caused massive taxation, salt was considered an expensive and luxury-type food item. Infusing condiments, sauces and pastes with salt, would allow you to stretch the salt use, mainly through fermentation that would enhance that saltiness, as well as other umami flavours within the condiments.
Sichuan has been known to be a salt-producing region since 3,000 BC.
Until this point in time, the states had been in a constant state of war for centuries. Finally, salt elicited a unification of China by solving the debate of government and the rights of rulers, since salt was so heavily taxed for centuries, even as far back as 20th century BC. The ancient written character to depict salt is called, “Yan,” and is essentially a pictograph, displaying tools, an imperial official, and brine. Therefore, even the written character used to describe salt demonstrated the control of the state over its production. Salt is a necessary dietary substance for all humans and essential to our survival. Since everyone was required to purchase salt to survive, the government placed heavy taxes on salt to support the state. This tax took roots in Confucius’s time, from 551 to 479 BC, wherein the rulers of the states of China organized a meeting of the greatest minds, including Confucius himself, advising the current ruler and debate. A hot topic for these debates was the salt tax. Since Confucius was considered the first moral philosopher, his goal was to improve human behaviour, teaching others that treating other people well, was just as important as showing respect to the Gods and respecting ones’ parents.
The students who followed Confucius and his philosophy created a way of thinking called Confucianism. Mencius, another philosopher was a student of the grandson of Confucius, who passed down his philosophy through a book called the Mencius. The Confucian way of thinking was recorded in The Analects, a book that became the source of several Chinese proverbs, as well as the general ideology of the Chinese way of life. China was essentially a bunch of states that were constantly at war, during the two and a half centuries between Confucius and Li Bing. Essentially, powerful rulers and their kingdoms would fall and become a part of more powerful kingdoms, in turn causing the other smaller states to be at odds with the new rulers. The role of Mencius within Chinese history is important because he would travel throughout China to speak with rulers, explaining to them that they were only rulers due to a “mandate from heaven,” relying on morals and that if the rulers were unwise and did not follow the moral mandates, the gods would strip them of the mandate, resulting in the ruler falling from power. At this time, another philosophy also emerged called legalism. According to legalist belief, the state’s survival was based on earthy institutions effectively wielding power. A man called Shang, an advisor for the Qin (CHIN) state, was one of the legalists who stated that respect for elders and tradition should not prevent reform. Shang believed that inefficient institutions should be replaced by efficient and pragmatic institutions. However, these legalist thinkers were unable to demolish the aristocracy, which allowed the state to merit individuals based on accomplishments.
The first writing about salt administration in China is called the Guanzi, which relays the financial and economical advice from the minister of the ruler of the state of Qi, who lived from 685 to 643 BC. Historians believe that this text was written somewhere near 300 BC since it describes seven of the states from the eastern state of Qi. The minister suggested that if the salt was priced higher than its original purchase price, the state would have been able to import salt to sell it for a profit. At the time, some individuals still had a severe lack of salt in their diet, resulting in illness and therefore, would still be willing to purchase salt at a higher price. The thought was that salt could save the economy of the state. Qi was under the influence of legalists, who had formed new ideas regarding salt administration. Qi was in a state of struggle for survival and was eventually conquered by the western state Qin. The ruler of Qin became the first emperor of a united China by 221 BC, and the empire remained in effect until 1911. The ideas of the Guanzi became the foundation of the ruling of the new emperor of China and the Qin dynasty became known for its public works endeavours, as well as its very strict laws. The monopolies on the salt and iron industries allowed the government to raise the cost of salt and iron to ridiculous prices. This was also the first occurrence of a monopoly on a product that was essential to the survival of humans. However, the Qin dynasty existed for less than 15 years, before it was replaced by the Han dynasty in 207 BC. The Han dynasty decided to stop the monopolies on salt and iron to prove themselves as a wiser form of government, but since armies were still being deployed to push the Huns away from China in 120 BC, the Han dynasty had to drain the treasury in order to pay for the cost of the wars. As a result, the emperor of Han had tried an ironmaster and salt maker to resurrect the industrial monopolies, in order to recover what had been lost from the treasury. Within the next four years, both the iron and salt monopolies were implemented again. For its time, China was essentially the most advanced civilization on earth, and the Chinese world expanded even further than the world of the Romans. When the emperor Wudi sent Zhang Qin on a quest to discover allies in the west, past the deserts, he discovered the fairly advanced civilization of the Roman Empire in 139 BC.
Zhang Qian travelled to what is now Turkistan and back for twelve years and reported on an incredible discovery: a modern western civilization. Around 104 B.C. and 102 B.C., the Chinese armies entered the city, the former Greek kingdom called Sogdiana, with its capital in Samarkand, where they encountered and defeated a force partially comprised of captured Roman soldiers. In China, the salt and iron monopolies, whose profits funded many of these adventures, remained contentious. In 87 B.C., Emperor Wudi, considered the greatest emperor of the four-year-old Han dynasty, died and was succeeded by the eight-year-old Zhaodi. In 81 B.C., six years later, the now teenaged emperor agreed to invite a debate among wise men on salt and iron monopolies. He summoned 60 notable people with varying opinions and philosophies from all over China to discuss state administrative policies. The central concern was the state monopoly on iron and salt. But what resulted was a contest between Confucianism and legalism about the roles of good governance—a wide-ranging argument over the obligations of government, state profit versus private initiative, the logic and limits of military expenditure, the privileges and limitations of government to engage in the economy. While the names of most of the 60 participants are not known, their claims have been preserved from the Confucian point of view in written form, the Yan tie lun, the Debate on Salt and Iron.
On the one hand, Confucians, influenced by Mencius, when asked how the state could make money, responded, "Why should Your Majesty use the term 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 my self? 'Once superiors and inferiors are competing for profit, the state will be in danger.' From the other extreme, ministers and philosophers were inspired by the legalist Han Feizi, who passed away in 233 B.C. Han Feizi, who was a pupil of one of the most prominent Confucian teachers, did not feel that it was realistic to base the state on morals. He claimed that it had to be focused on the exercise of authority and the moral code that enforced harsh penalties on the lawbreakers. Rewards and fines should be immediate without any unreasonable interpretation. He claimed that laws should be enforced in the interests of the state and that citizens should be governed by fear of retribution. If his method was pursued, "the state will get rich and the army will be strong," he said. "Then it will be possible to succeed in establishing hegemony over other states." In the argument concerning salt and iron, the legalists concluded, "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."
The Confucian reply, however, was that "The true conqueror 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? Which elicited the response, ” 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.”Borders were argued to have been permanent military camps that caused inner misery for citizens. “Even if the monopolies on salt and iron represented, at the outset, a useful measure, in the long term they can’t help but be damaging.” Even the need for state revenues was debated. A participant quoted Laozi, a Confucian contemporary and Daoist founder, as saying, "A country is never as poor as when it seems filled with riches." However, Emperor Zhaodi maintained the monopolies, as did his successor, but Zhaodi only ruled for 14 years and lived to the age of twenty-two. In 44 B.C. the monopolies were repealed by the following emperor, Yuandi. The treasury was emptied by a third western voyage to Sogdiana within the following three years after, wherein the monopolies on the salt and iron industries returned once again.
The monopolies have been revoked and periodically reinstated, usually in conjunction with military operations, and in compliance with budget requirements. 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's salt monopoly vanished for six centuries. It was reinstated again, though. Half of the income for the Chinese state was collected from the salt monopoly during the Tang dynasty, which lasted between 618 and 907. Aristocrats presented their abundance of salt in a luxurious, adorned salt-cellar, whilst also displaying their salt wealth by serving pure salt at the dinner table. This was rarely done in China since the salt became so ludicrously expensive due to the salt monopoly that peasants would create fermented salt condiments, pastes and sauces to get the most possible use of their salt. This ornate display of pure salt at the dinner table was practiced strictly among the wealthy. Over the ages, several common uprisings vehemently opposed the monopoly of salt, notably the violent uprising that seized the city of Xi'an, slightly north of Sichuan, in 880. Yet the other major legal and ethical problems that have remained unanswered throughout this huge controversy over salt and iron — the need to benefit, privileges and duties of the aristocracy, relief for the poor, the value of a stable currency, the correct budgetary pressures, the possibility of tyranny, and the boundary between the legal system and dictatorship - are all still unsolved problems.
Like that of the Sichuan Chinese, the Egyptians were thankful for vegetables stored in brine or salt. "There is no better food than salted vegetables" were the words scribed on ancient papyrus. The Egyptians often made a sauce of fermented fish or fish entrails in brine, similar in nature to the Chinese precursor of soy sauce. The Egyptians might be the first to have cured meat and fish with salt. The early Chinese record of salted fish preservation ages from about 2000 B.C. Salted birds and fish were discovered in Egyptian tombs from much earlier than the Chinese varieties of salt curing and fermentation.
The Chinese have pickled and fermented vegetables for thousands of years, wherein cabbage was among the first crops used.
It turned out that salt was the manifestation of one of the most timeless beliefs in life and the universe's order from the 4th century B.C. Chinese belief in yin and yang energies is present in most of the world's philosophies, science, fundamental concepts of cookery, and there has always been a belief that two conflicting forces have come to completion —one obtaining a missing piece and the other shedding an extra piece.
Ancient China ended in February 1912, when the last of the Chinese emperors relinquished the throne. For China, the next century was a time of transition, reform and re-evaluation. After 1912, the nascent Chinese republic became financially strained as World War I drained Europe's treasuries, barring loans that would have otherwise been readily available to a budding and battered country. As a result, China used one of its oldest tactics to replenish its treasuries: salt. The new government received a Western loan of 25 million dollars from the Quintuple Bankers Association in April 1913. The salt administration's revenue became collateral to ensure repayment of the loan. The salt administration that the republic inherited from the Emperors was intricate and unethical. The Chinese put a nonnative in command to purge the regime to recover legitimacy in Western bankers' eyes. The Chinese administration appointed Irishman Sir Richard Henry Dane, the Chief Foreign Inspector, who became aptly named the 'salt King.'
Salt was taxed from producer to buyer under the former salt administration. One had to pay 42 separate taxes to enter the province of Hubei. Salt production was a government monopoly, but China was too large to regulate the production, trading, and transport of all the countries' salt. As a result, the government began regulating trade by allowing an elite group of traders to transport the salt from its production site, then taxing the transportation rather than the salt itself. These elite businesses, known as Yuen Shang, were traditionally family-owned and could lease or retain these privileges between generations as a family monopoly. The salt smuggler is a frequent hero mentioned in Chinese folklore who battles salt's wicked and oppressive administration. More often than not, the tale's protagonist not the government, but Yuen Shang.
Salt merchants gathered and loved exhibiting their riches. The province Shaanxi and Shanxi province are renowned for luxurious homes designed by the salt traders of the 17th century. Salt traders founded the garden that is now one of China's most popular tourist attractions in Suzhou, a city of waterways roughly 50,000 miles west of Shanghai, best known for its silk merchants.
Salt trafficking was common. Dane discovered that smuggled salt accounted for half of the salt purchased in China. Since there was no standard unit of measurement, the Yuen Shang brought back undocumented salt and sold the excess on the black market. Boaters and cart drivers bribed inspectors and profited from the salt trafficking. Dane believed that the salt trafficking ring on the Yangtze river alone consisted of at least 40,000 smugglers, so he coordinated the Salt Preventive Service at strategic locations with salt police stations, but it did not stop the trafficking. Dane asserted that "it is the salt revenue that has been safeguarding the credit of China… Salt has always formed one of the principal sources of government revenue but since June 1913, when the reform administration was inaugurated, it has leaped into first place." The leading source of government revenue was maritime customs until 1915. However, after the salt administration's reinstatement in 1915, Dane reported that salt sales rose by 100 percent compared to the year before.
Dane observed that the Chinese consumed more salt than even the Indian average. He claimed that China and Japan were the world's primary salt consumers, at approximately 20 pounds of salt per capita. Neither Chinese nor Japanese consumption is as high as American consumption, and Japan has relatively inadequate salt production conditions. Dane observed that the Chinese also "use a great deal of salt for soaking and preserving vegetables, salting fish, pickling and preserving meat,” which is why it is such a salt-dependent country.
Dane arrived in China when the majority of salt production involved windmills pumping salt into evaporation ponds. However, Dane said, "The best salt in China is that produced from the salt wells of Sichuan." Sichuan produced about one-fifth of Chinese salt, and Dane had arrived at the end of the Golden Sichuan Salt Age, which had begun in the 18th century. Salt wells surrounded Zigong city, and it had 1,700 salt merchants between 1850 and 1877, where four families accrued some form of mythical capital, which accounted for 20 percent of the salt supply.
Zigong grew along the Fuxi River, a gracefully winding Yangtze branch, crowded with shallow oar-powered boats transporting salt to Central China. The Yangtze River is a 3,700-mile waterway from the Tibetan Mountains to Shanghai Harbour, splitting China's north and south. It is the world's third-longest river on Earth, yet China had such a lack of transportation infrastructure before its communist triumph in 1949 that there were no bridges built to cross the river. The Yangtze was the most extensive transportation passageway through China and was the only link between Northern and Southern China.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, salt merchants frequently visited Zigong, a small provincial town. A guild-hall was built in Zigong in 1736 for salt merchants outside the province of Shaanxi. The hue of a bride at her wedding was a sign of pleasure. Thus, salt traders created the red palace of the Daoist storeys, with gold-coloured carvings. Envious of the flashy new guild-hall, the salt merchants of Zigong constructed their own building with red-pillars and winged roofs, a temple built on a high bank of the Fuxi, overlooking the river's the congested traffic of boats rowing salt cargo to the Yangtze.
Until 1902, shortly before Dane's arrival, the Chinese used oxen until coal-fired steam engines came into play. Zigong ox herd was usually about 100,000 heads in the ninth century. Because of oxen, beef was part of the working-class diet in Zigong, unlike most of China. Salt employees will boil the rough old ox meat on the rig they laboured until it was soft and then apply the most famous Sichuan seasoning, ma-la.
Unique to Sichuan, ma is the fiery flavour of a wild tree peppercorn named huajiao - with a taste like a peppercorn, caraway, clove, but powerful enough to numb the lips. In Sichuan, two types grow, clay red peppercorns and more perfumed brown peppercorns. La means hot spice" with tiny burning red peppers. The combined seasoning, ma-la, encompasses the flavour profile of Sichuan cuisine.
Another Zigong salt staff specialization was huobianzi. The rough thigh of an old salt well ox was sliced in a steady, paper-thin slice by slowly rotating the leg. Slices can be up to two yards long, flavoured with soy sauce and salt, dried and grilled at low heat fueled by burning ox dung. Modernly, they use gas heaters, but huobianzi cured over ox dung supposedly has a unique flavour. The huobianzi gets served in vegetable oil with hot peppers. Zhang Jianxin, managing director of Sichuan Zigong Tongxin Food Company in Zigong, a manufacturer of modern huobianzi, complained that oxen's old working legs are hard to get nowadays, but some farm animals too old to function are satisfactory.
Meanwhile, affluent salt dealers opted for more exotic food. The stranger the ingredients and the more intricate the process is, the more prestige the dish has in China. "Soaked frog" was Zigong salt merchants' favourite. A few bits of wood will float in a large brine container. Live frogs will be placed in the pot, perching urgently on wood bits and then the pot was locked. The container would open after six months, and the frogs would be dead and dry on the wood but cured due to the salt, and would then get steamed. Salt traders often fancied stir-fried frog stomachs. Unfortunately, the stomach of a frog, though tasty, is not a valuable source of nutrients. The inhabitants of Zigong claim that a chef would have to sacrifice 1,000 frogs to get one serving of stir-fried stomachs.
The beginning of the end for the ancient Sichuan salt industry came late in 1943 when a rotary drill first bore a well in Sichuan. It took another twenty years to see the improvement. Zigong was already a backward rural town of over 300,000 inhabitants residing amid feudal brine derricks in 1960. That year, the construction of Sichuan's last percussion-drilled shaft finished. Sichuan salt manufacturers soon used vacuum evaporators and early rotary drills, and rock salt mining, producing modern white salt with uniform crystals.
Zigong received its first "modern" mass transport in the 1960s. As brine boiling diminished, Sichuan engineers made new use of natural gas at wells. Giant grey bladders were placed on the roofs, loaded with local natural gas. They continued their routes with the sizeable rectangular bladder approximately as wide as the truck. As the bus turned corners, the large bladder shook and jiggled like Jell-O and eventually deflated, the grey bag falling from the roof as the gas emptied from the bladder. Locals call the qi bao buses, meaning "big bag of gas." Busses required regular refuelling. Today, with Zigong tripled in population, the old buses are a humiliating eyesore, and the remaining are stuck with the unwanted rural roads.
Zigong is now a sprawling community with 1,000,000 inhabitants, including suburban residents. Stone-edged gaps are all that remains in several wells. Just a few derricks exist in the hilly municipality, but several existed until the 1990s, and some as recently as 1998. Scholars struggle quixotically to preserve them, but these are not ideal times for landmark preservation in a modernization-loving China.
Two twin derricks, Zigong's symbol, one 290 feet high and the other 284 feet high, were demolished in 1993. They became dangerously decrepit, and the government did not invest in restoring them. "They didn't understand the value, that these things are only in Zigong," said Song Liangxi, a Zigong historian.
Still operational is the Shen Hai Well, an old rigid device made of tree trunks and rocks. Like hundreds of wells once drained into Zigong, the front gate's threshold is two-foot-high—to symbolically retain the riches inside. The well has ten staff, who hold it twenty-four hours a day. A cable steadily lowers into the soil for several minutes, then emerges with a long wet bamboo tube placed over a tube by a worker pressing the leather valve at the bottom of the tube, releasing several bucket-loads of brine. The brine evaporates in well-heated dishes. Upon the drilling of the well, it had approximately 8,500 cubic metres of petroleum. Operators claimed it left 1,000 cubic metres in 2000.
The Shaanxi guild-hall remained a guild-hall until the last emperor's collapse. Then, Chiang Kai-Chinese Shek's nationalist campaign became district headquarters. Since the Communists came to power, Deng Xiaoping, a Sichuan-born secretary-general of the Chinese Communist Party, wanted to make it a salt museum.
Today in Zigong, there are still some decaying tile-roofed Chinese houses with southern-style rooftops, but most of them are in disrepair, obviously pending demolition. As in Beijing, the government instructed the removal of ancient landmarks to make room for perpetually unfinished structures that remain concrete and exposed steel rods since the companies that constructed them collapsed. The guildhall is a national landmark.
Locals are invested in the tiny amount of salt still produced at the Shen Hai well. They name it flat pan salt and claim that the salt is better for pickling and is more refined than commercial salt produced in vacuum evaporators. The Zigong market sells the flat pan salt, but outside of Zigong, this medium-grained, untreated salt is hard to find.
Sichuan Province is twice France’s population. As the Chinese population increased at an unparalleled pace in the mid-twentieth century, the number of Sichuan inhabitants rose to its present 100 million, much of them crammed into the eastern half of the province. Sichuan also has a bamboo mountain park, home to the world's only surviving wild panda population. However, several provinces are subtropical, like the American South.
The Sichuan ecosystem is a testament to Li Bing's third-century B.C. water conservation efforts. The government implemented waterways into lush green quilts of flooded rice paddies, dark-soiled patches of vegetables, cypress groves and bamboo shoots. Soil degradation is rarer and much rarer. Nevertheless, even with all this rich farming, farmers are poor. They grow massive quantities of grain, but many people in the villages are along dirt trails that link paddies and fields. They dwell in patched, decaying mud-and-straw homes; some even adorned with Mao's massive posters.
Children travel miles to school around the dikes connecting rice paddies and mountains. Women with brightly coloured parasols bear children on their backs in wicker strap-on chairs. A frequent sight in the Sichuan countryside, seen in Marco Polo's China, is noodles about seven feet long, hanging on a line to dry like laundry.
Although the government instructed the removal of most large derricks, several minor brine wells remain. One in Dayin, west of Sichuan's capital, Chengdu, had a single post at only 1,000 feet deep. It was a considerable depth by any standards other than those of the Chinese, but the brine was insufficient with only 10% salt at that comparatively shallow depth. That is why the Chinese mastered deep drilling.
There was a stone stool next to the Dayin pole. A lone farmer would sit on the stone with his feet peddling a bamboo wheel, raising a bamboo tube into the 1,000-foot hole. The brine is piped into a tank, with a bamboo wheel about ten feet high above it, and bamboo cups lashed to its rim. A man walking cautiously inside the wheel, a simplified variant of Salsomaggiore's medieval wheel, rotated this larger wheel. The wheel scoops the brine on top of a dry branch wall. The brine dribbles down the trees, harnessing the wind and sun to become more concentrated. Since pouring into the tank below, it was able to evaporate. Since this well had no natural gas, regionally abundant coal was used for heat.
The government salt corporation sealed the well in 1998, capping the small hole in the ground with concrete and several other wells in the region, claiming that selling non-iodized salt was inferior and prohibited.
By Chinese historical norms, salt producers are no longer closely regulated. Tax is on sale, not manufacture, and is no longer a significant source of profits. However, the iodine necessity is now considered a different form of salt regulation by the government, and that is why they capped the Dayin well. World Health Organisation and UNICEF advise salt manufacturers to use iodine to avoid goitre and thyroid gland enlargement. When everybody uses salt, it is an ideal delivery vehicle. They say that 1 billion people worldwide fear iodine deficiency. Besides thyroid enlargement, iodine deficiency signs can include nervousness, elevated and rapid heart rate, and muscle fatigue. Iodine deficiency may also induce childhood psychiatric disorder.
Iodine healed goitre until it was understood to be iodine. Humphry Davy, among others, speculated that iodine was an ingredient, but it was Jean-Baptistes Dumas, the French chemist and creator of one of France's first industrial colleges, who in 1819 proved that iodine was present in a natural sponge, a traditional treatment for goitre.
Again, China was generations ahead of the west in handling goitre. In the 4th century A.D., Chinese physician Ko Hung recommended alcoholic extract from seaweed to treat goitre. Many seaweeds are high in iodine, and the Japanese, who consume plenty of seaweed and fertilize crops with it, have had minimal contact with the disease. Goitre has no experience in coastal regions in China but has been troublesome in mountainous interior provinces, like Sichuan.
American salt is iodized. Having few goitre instances, the British do not iodize their salt for the most part. What was once Burma and is now modern-day Myanmar has an iodized salt policy, but the tribesmen in the remote highlands do not have access to the iodized salt and have to purchase it illegally over the Chinese frontier. They sell uncommon, threatened wildlife species in return for Chinese salt, which they think will help their epidemic. The Chinese esteem these folk medicine creatures. Antelope-like serow's tongues are said to relieve headaches, and goat-like gorals' nimble legs are ground into a substance used on aching knees. Rare Himalayan black bears hunted for gall bladders are used to cure liver and abdominal illnesses. Trade across the Myanmar frontier is particularly tragic since most of this Chinese black-market salt is not iodized and will not relieve Myanmar of its goitre epidemic.
Iodized salt has been contentious in developed countries where salt regulation by the government exists. The transition heeded success with health officials, physicians, and scientists but remains unpopular with small independent salt producers.
As China modernized its state, its salt also became modern with small, standardized grains and added iodine. As a result, the Chinese began looking for more irregular salts, even if the quality was less pure. Impurities are stuff left in, though they often still tend to contain additives. Ironically, the debate about iodized salt is the mistrust of chemicals.
Wary consumers in Sichuan insist iodine provides a strange flavour. However, small producers still believe the iodization is a conspiracy to force them out of the trade and grant a monopoly to state salt firms. Like the family at the tiny foot-operated well capped in Dayin, salt workers have limited information and resources to follow iodized salt regulations. The Chinese authority is reluctant to repeal its decision to prohibit non-iodized salt.
China was reluctant to part with its emperors, along with many ancient philosophies. Among modern China's remaining ancient ways are food attitudes about salt and seasoning and preparation methods.
The Chinese are delighted to eat wherever. Avenues and roads scattered with market stalls are found all across the country. On the trans-Siberian railroad travelling from Moscow to Beijing, the Chinese use the furnace at the end of cars used by the Russians to produce tea to cook meals. They crowd into the dim, closet-like room, chop vegetables, spread seasonings. They not only prepare food and eat regularly; they speak about the value of their meals. Food sometimes seems like an addiction in China, and the communities themselves are also food-centric.
Southern food, mainly Cantonese cuisine, is said to be the greatest in China. However, after 1949, when Hunan's Mao Zedong and Sichuan's Deng Xiaoping came to power, hot spicy rice, la, from southwest China, came into play. "If you don't eat la, you are not a revolutionary" became a common phrase.
In 1959, a restaurant was founded in a Beijing house of gardened courtyards for an emperor's son in the 17th century. It was, unsurprisingly, a Sichuan restaurant and was called Sichuan Restaurant. Long-time Premier Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping were regulars. It was considered one of the only decent restaurants in Communist Beijing for years.
The restaurant remained an icon of the times until a Hong Kong billionaire purchased its antique setting in 1996, converting it into a private members-only club with a gentlemanly operation reminiscent of the British colonial era.
Chinese cuisine plays a crucial role in combining the primary flavours. There is even a musical jingle about Sichuan's six foods: "ma, la, tian, suan, xian, ku." Ma, the spicy huajiao, is Sichuan's sixth flavour, while la, hot peppers, is also typical of the region. Tian, meaning "Sweet," suan, meaning "sour," xian, meaning "salty," and ku, meaning "bitter,"
Each dish has a flavour, or combination of flavours, ma-la being Sichuan's most popular combination. Xian, salty, is the most commonly used flavour, which balances the other flavours. Salt can pull out sugar and mild sweetness within a dish. After salt and ginger were introduced to Sichuan in ancient times, salt and spicy, xian-la, became such a standard Sichuan mixture that bottled soy sauce and hot peppers became a household staple.
In China, these variations counterbalance meals by creating a full taste by mixing opposites. The Chinese philosophy of the two opposing forces, yin and yang, have long been associated with cooking. The Chinese classify their foods as either warm or cold due to their characteristics instead of temperature. Not all cooks agree on which foods are considered hot or cold, but fat meat, hot spices, and alcohol are usually hot, whereas plain vegetables and fruit are cold.
Ancient ideas, including hot and cold foods, are also debated in China. Ma-la or very salt dishes contrast with bland dishes. Tian, sweet, is also an excellent counterbalance to ma-la. Tian shao bai, meaning "sweet white stew," consists of thick bacon strips filled with sweet bean paste on sweet rice, sprinkled with sugar. Tian shao bai is an excellent counteractant when a bite of a ma-la dish is flaming the lips.
In China, a course is typically a variety of foods in the centre of the table, usually presented on a lazy Susan of sorts, so that all the dishes are readily available. People sit around the table with just a tiny plate or bowl and chopsticks to take bites from multiple dishes to combine different flavour combinations. In all of the courses within a meal, vegetables are the star. Wild mountain vegetables such as mushrooms are a Sichuan delicacy, as are various varieties of fresh, fried or salted bamboo shoots.
The first course typically contains cold-temperature foods, the second course contains warm foods, and the last course, particularly in Sichuan, is bland, typically, a bland soup to soothe the palate. Occasionally, they serve white rice before the soup with a somewhat salty paocai. Typically, they do not eat rice with other courses. Most meals, except among the poor, do not contain rice.
Historians argue about why food the Chinese flavour their food with items that are fermented or pickled in salt, rather than directly salting the food itself.
The Chinese cook fresh pork and have a long history of salt-curing pork to make bacon, hams and sausages. In 1985, China's pig population was projected at 331 million, higher than any other nation in the world. According to a study conducted between 1929 and 1933, pork and pig lard accounted for 70% of meat-derived calories eaten in rural China. A mixture of sesame, peanut, and other vegetable oils is the primary cooking oil used in Chinese cooking and is a modern, healthier alternative to pork fat.
According to Huang Wengen, a cooking instructor at China's only certified cooking school in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, "You can't cook Sichuan food without douban," he claimed, after trying to teach Sichuan cuisine in France during a cultural exchange program for cooking teachers. "[...] But it was impossible to teach Sichuan without the products. Huajiao, for example. We brought what we needed that was practical to carry: huajiao, douban, dousi, zhacai." All of these ingredients, bar huajiao, are salt-based items. Zhacai is vegetables fermented in salt. Douban is a bean paste from a large, flat soybean dried until it turns hard and yellow, fermented with salt and hot pepper. Dousi is a black paste of fermented yellow beans, very salty, with no chilli.
Another item used as a salt substitute is MSG or monosodium glutamate. Although it has no flavour of its own, MSG accentuates existing flavours in foods, particularly salty flavours, for reasons not fully understood. MSG has a long history within Chinese cuisine and is a bacterial fermentation product, similar to making yogurt and vinegar.
In the food background, MSG swam upstream, from Japan to China, unlike most other Asian foods. Traditionally, the Japanese extracted it from a seaweed known as kombu. In 1908, Japanese scientists isolated MSG from the glutamic acid sodium salt of the kombu. Since the 1950s, wheat gluten carries out this fermentation process instead. Chinese cooks use MSG since Chinese foods are not directly salted.
Chinese salt and bean condiments like douban and dousi come in many varieties, but Chinese cuisine's essential condiment is soy sauce. School children in China learn a jingle from the Middle Ages with seven basics required every day: firewood, rice, gasoline, salt, soy sauce, vinegar, and tea.
There is an ancient tradition of peasant-made soy sauce in China, but such sauce is becoming scarce. Today, the manufacture of soy sauce occurs in factories in China and Japan. The Chinese claim that it is a complicated operation and the factories do just as good a job as the peasants. However, anyone who has sampled the incomparably more potent peasant commodity may challenge that statement. Dayin farmers stopped soy sauce production in the early 1990s, although they were still pumping brine with pedals. They claimed it was too much effort and factories could manufacture it too cheap to compete.
However, an odd economic twist still allows an artisanal soy sauce in Lezhi's Sichuan region. The Lezhi Fermented Food Company was a nationalized private factory during the Communist overthrow, recognized as "the liberation," in 1949. However, in 1999, the state declared that Lezhi would no longer make soy sauce. Since nobody was interested in purchasing the firm, its 100 employees got severance pay and left unemployed. Ten of them used the company's compensation funds to purchase the plant and relocated to a three-flight outdoor mud-and-stone stairway to a storage area on a town edge hilltop. They no longer had the machinery or resources, so they began producing their soy sauce the way peasants used to make it.
Some factories use crushed soy oil refuse to produce soy sauce, but the current Lezhi firm uses fresh whole beans, steamed until smooth. Beans are then put on flat, oval, straw trays and placed in storage. Then they introduce yeast. The trays are left for three days in the concrete storage room until mould develops on top.
At this stage, factories accelerate the fermentation phase by holding the beans in heated bins before adding salt. However, in Lezhi, the mouldy beans are mixed with salt and water, then stored in huge crocks. Depending on atmospheric factors, the pots are left outside to ferment for six months or more. If it rains, they cover the pots with large cone-shaped lids made of sewn palm fronds. Eventually, the paste feels like dirt. Water is applied, a pipe filters the mush and it is steamed to sterilize the final product.
Some sauces are deeper, brighter, thicker, or thinner. Lezhi's best sauce is not as thick as its number two offering, but it is has a rich colour and flavour. The differences between the sauces happen during the fermentation of the sauce and the water applied at the end. Soy sauce is marketed the old-fashioned way in Lezhi: BYOB and get some crock-ladled sauce. Wo Bo is a space in the factory with a shiny new rig that manufactures this same concoction under the Wo Bo brand. The machine computer seals soy sauce into plastic bags for out of town sale.
If we should consume more or less salt has been an ongoing controversy since ancient times, between those who think salt is beneficial and those who think it is unhealthy. Both might be correct. Inevitably, the body requires salt. Most studies suggest a link between elevated blood pressure and health complications with consuming significant amounts of salt. The Yellow Emperors Classic of Internal Medicine, 1st or 2nd century A.D. novel, cautioned that salt would induce elevated blood pressure, contributing to strokes. Not coincidentally, low blood pressure can be attributed to a salt deficiency.
Now, trendy chefs are cooking with more salt. They will serve food on a salt bed, cook it in a salt crust, render it crunchy with big Maldon salt flakes. Over 1,000 years ago, the Chinese baked with a salt crust. Chicken fried in a salt crust is an old dish traced to Canton, but it may have stemmed from southern mountain peoples known as the Hakka.
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