Excerpt from Salt by Mark Kurlansky, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A World History

by Mark Kurlansky

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  • First Published:
    Jan 2002, 352 pages
    Feb 2003, 496 pages

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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 Harold’s death, the Chinese were using gunpowder, which was one of the first major industrial applications for salt. The Chinese had found that mixing potassium nitrate, 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 state’s 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 Confucius’s 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 advisers. Considered China’s first philosopher of morality, he was disturbed by human foibles and wanted to raise the standard of human behavior. He taught that treating one’s fellow human beings well was as important as respecting the Gods, and he emphasized the importance of respecting parents.

Confucius’s students and their students built the system of thought known as Confucianism. Mencius, a student of Confucius’s grandson, passed teachings down in a book called the Mencius. Confucius’s 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 state’s 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.

Salt by Mark Kurlansky. Copyright Mark Kurlansky 2001. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Walker Books. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher.

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