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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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 lake’s 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.

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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