Early Salt Production along the Yangzi River in Comparative Perspective: An International Symposium

Lothar von Falkenhausen
Professor, Art History
University of California, Los Angeles

Project description:


Funds are sought to prepare and to hold a scholarly meeting that will bring together an interdisciplinary group of scholars and graduate students from Chinese, American, and European institutions to study recently excavated remains of prehistoric salt production near Chongqing (China) from a comparative perspective. It is proposed that a planning meeting take place in China in the fall of 2001. A larger symposium in the fall of 2002 will bring a larger number of participants to UCLA for intensive discussion. The proceedings will be open to the general public. The results will be published in 2003 as part of the newly inaugurated Salt Archaeology Monograph Series jointly published by UCLA and Kexue chubanshe (Beijing).


Human beings need salt. Although the amounts people consume on a daily basis vary greatly due to climate, strenuousness of work, and cultural habits, specialists are in agreement that the human diet has required a supplement of salt ever since the transition to an agriculture-based subsistence. Historically, salt production and salt trade played a tremendously important role in the political, social, and economic development of all major culture areas.

Salt is present almost everywhere on the globe. Yet salt resources were by no means equally accessible under conditions of premodern transport and with traditional technology. While the sea offers a virtually unlimited supply, conditions for extracting sea salt were not everywhere equally propitious, and transporting it to distant inland areas could be prohibitively expensive. All over the world, therefore, those inland areas where salt could be obtained from salt lakes, from mines that were close to the surface, or from brine springs, were economically privileged.

Throughout the history of Imperial China, from 221 BC to AD 1911, the salt monopoly was a major source of state revenue. Textual sources on salt administration are plentiful and have been a major topic of research. By contrast, the material remains of early salt manufacture have been little studied until recently-unlike other areas of the world such as Central Europe, Japan, and the Americas, where "salt archaeology" has a long and distinguished history. The archaeological study of early salt production in China thus provides an ideal topic for an interdisciplinary scholarly collaboration.

A collaborative project on "Landscape Archaeology and Ancient Salt Production" was initiated in 1998 by Peking University (Beida) and UCLA. It focuses on the rich brine springs in the Sichuan Basin and along the soon-to-be-submerged stretch of the Yangzi River valley downstream from Chongqing. Written records concerning salt production in this area go back to the fourth century BC. The site of Zhongba (in Zhong Xian, Chongqing Municipality) is the first major salt-manufacturing site ever to have been excavated in China. In its two seasons of excavations at Zhongba, the joint Beida-UCLA Project has aimed (1) to trace the prehistoric roots of the local salt industry; (2) to gather materials that will help reconstruct ancient salt-producing technologies; (3) to reveal how salt production was organized and administered; (4) to assess the volume of the area's salt production during different periods; (5) to determine the industry's impact on the physical environment; and (6) to investigate the impact of salt production and salt trade on social processes. The excavations are scheduled to end in mid-2001, and the results will be published in a major archaeological report, to be complemented by various monographs.

The excavations at Zhongba have generated a vast amount of data. As the finds are unique in their Chinese context, it has been found difficult to integrate them into a regional archaeological synthesis. While we are reasonably certain that they relate to ancient salt production, they are difficult to understand in isolation and by archaeological means alone. At the same time, it has become increasingly evident that the prehistoric salt-making equipment used at Zhongba was similar in many ways to finds known from other parts of the Pacific Rim, as well as Europe. To arrive at a convincing interpretation will necessitate collaboration among scholars in different disciplines and with expertise in different areas. For this purpose, the present proposal requests funds for a symposium that will present the rich, important, and so far unique data generated in the course of this research to an international scholarly audience. By studying the data from Zhongba from a wide-ranging comparative perspective, we hope not only to improve our understanding of the genesis of a large-scale salt-producing industry in our study area and its impact on social developments, but also to bring these archaeological remains to bear on a wide variety of issues related to economic history, the history of technology, and environmental developments, to name only a few.

The Data

Rising as an isolated mound in the center of the valley of the Ganjing River, a tributary to the Yangzi, Zhongba is a multiperiod stratified site spanning an almost continuous series of occupations from Neolithic (3rd millennium BC) to modern times. For much of that time, Zhongba was not a settlement; instead, the excavated remains seem to reflect industrial activity that was probably linked to nearby brine wells known to have been exploited right through the mid-twentieth century. Zhongba will be flooded in 2003 as a result of the construction of the famous Three Gorges dam. Since 1997, the Sichuan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology has undertaken large-scale rescue excavations at the site, in connection with which the joint Beida-UCLA Project has been conducting its own separate excavation in a ten-by-ten meter area. The two excavations complement each other. While the Sichuan team is mainly concerned with the complete exposure of the buried remains and recovery of complete artifacts, the more diversified data generated by the joint Beida-UCLA project has been collected with a view of being representative for the purpose of enabling statistically-based quantitative analysis that will be representative for the site as a whole.

Most prominent among the plentiful remains unearthed in the course of excavations at Zhongba are overwhelming quantities of pottery shards. Most of them belong to a single vessel type, the round-bottomed jar, which we believe was the premier salt-making implement at prehistoric Zhongba, possibly from Neolithic times onward all the way until iron boiling-pans came into use around 200 BC. Significant amounts of animal and fish bones, as well as plant remains, have also been recovered, raising the possibility that the locally-produced salt, or some of it, was processed into some kind of preserved food (e.g. fish or meat sauce).

The finds from Zhongba have pushed back the dates for the origins of salt production in this part of China by over 2000 years, to the third millennium BC. Moreover-much to the surprise of historians, who had traditionally regarded this area as culturally backward and marginal-the enormous volume of salt-making pottery (our minimum estimate for the number of round-bottomed jars from the Late Bronze Age alone [ca. 800-200 BC] is ca. seven million) also shows that, during much of prehistoric times, salt production went on at a quasi-industrial scale, involving sophisticated division of labor. Clearly, salt was not merely produced for local consumption, but for trade, probably down the Yangzi river to the salt-poor areas of Chu in the present-day provinces of Hubei and Hunan. In spite of being located outside the purview of the early Chinese dynasties, this area obviously was a major economic center. Such findings invite a reevaluation of the cultural and historical importance of the Upper Yangzi area, as well as its relationship with the Shang and Zhou states and with early cultures in Southeast Asia.

Themes for Discussion at the Proposed Conference

During a planning meeting at Zhongba to be held in late 2001, the joint project's Principal Investigators, Professors Li Shuicheng and Sun Hua from Beida and the present writer, will work on how best to present the field data to an international scholarly audience. We will invite two of the Project's collaborators from nearby institutions to assist in these preparations. Different from some experiences with other Chinese institutions, the Chinese side of the Beida-UCLA joint project has been consistently very eager to provide any interested scholar access to the project's unpublished field data although original specimens cannot leave China due to government regulations. We will try to gather as complete as possible a visual and statistical record of the data so far generated. This record will then be presented at the international symposium planned to take place in Los Angeles in the fall of 2002; the Project's preliminary reports will have been pre-circulated. At that symposium, we hope that outside specialists will bring in their own field data for comparative purposes, speak on pertinent research they have done, and comment in detail on the materials from Zhongba. Subsequently, the result will be written up in a set of essays to be published in book form.

Some of the major research questions to be addressed, and the collaborators to be involved in the work, are the following:

1) How does the prehistoric salt-manufacturing technology at Zhongba compare to salt-manufacturing technologies elsewhere? While the masses of ceramics found at Zhongba are so far unique in China, ample parallels for ceramic-using salt-making technologies are known from prehistoric cultures and contemporary ethnographic contexts in other parts of the world. We plan to bring in two specialists for an in-depth study of the Zhongba salt-making ceramics: Prof. Ian W. Brown (University of Alabama), a specialist on Native North American salt-making traditions, and Dr. Olivier Weller (CNRS, Paris), who has studied in depth contemporary salt manufacture among the indigenous populations of New Guinea. Weller and the present writer are, moreover, familiar with pertinent archaeological materials from Europe, and one of the UCLAbased graduate student members of the project, Pochan Chen (UCLA) is well-read in the Japanese literature on salt archaeology, as well as being knowledgeable on sea-salt production in Taiwan. Jointly, we expect to arrive at a convincing reconstruction of the ceramic-based salt-making technology used at Zhongba, which we will then proceed to test by experiment. For that purpose, copies of the prehistoric salt-making vessels will be produced at a still-functioning traditional pottery-making kiln in the immediate vicinity of Zhongba.

2) How did the prehistoric occupants of the Zhongba site live? Could the local agriculture have sustained the specialized salt-making industry, or did food have to be brought in from outside? How do the local living conditions compare to those of saltmaking communities elsewhere? Since Zhongba itself does not, at least during long periods, appear to have been a settlement, the people-doubtless full-time artisans-who worked there must have lived at separate village sites in the vicinity. Some of these sites will hopefully be located in the course of surveys to be undertaken after the end of the current field season at Zhongba. The aims are (1) to establish the settlement pattern during prehistoric and historic periods; (2) to assess the nature and size of early village settlements in this region; (3) to find additional data about the inhabitants' subsistence (we are particularly interested in assessing the area's carrying capacity, which must have changed as agricultural technology changed); (4) to determine the availability of any natural resources such as clay sources, stone quarries and, possibly, coal mines; and (5) to gather geomorphological data enabling the reconstruction of changes in the natural relief. We hope to have these data evaluated in a comparative perspective; for this, we are planning to invite two scholars who have had a great deal of experience with regional archaeological survey in China: Dr. Zhichun Jing (University of Wisconsin) and Gwen Bennett (UCLA).

3) How did the prehistoric inhabitants of the Zhongba area exploit the local faunal and plant resources? Did they do so merely for their own consumption, or for industrial or trading purposes? To address these questions, the voluminous animal and plant remains retrieved from our excavations will be classified, counted, and submitted to statistical analysis at the end of the current field season. We are, moreover, planning to retrieve a pollen core, to be analyzed at the Chengdu Municipal Archaeological Team under the supervision of Mr. Jiang Cheng. We are specifically interested in establishing the species diversity during different periods, knowledge of which will not only allow us to discuss standardization of diet and subsistence resources, but can also be used in conjunction with geomorphological data to assess changes in climate. Additionally, the data might speak to subsistence patterns as well as other activities at the site; for instance, a serious underrepresentation of fish vertebrae at the site might be related to the salting of fish. To evaluate the data in a comparative perspective, we are inviting Dr. Thomas Wake, director of the Zooarchaeology Lab at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA, who has extensive experience in other areas of the world, especially in North and South America. He will help supervise the publication of the data, which is entrusted to Rowan Flad (UCLA). this portion of the research.

4) What influence did the salt production at Zhongba have on the local environment? And how did the site of Zhongba take the form it now has? Since wood fuel must have been used for boiling the brine (this was still the case in recent times), it stands to reason that the large-scale salt-production observed at Zhongba depleted the forest resources of the surrounding area. Both the pollen analysis data and the geomorphological survey data should speak to the extent to which deforestation might have brought about soil erosion from the neighboring hillsides. This work should also help establish when the Zhongba site was cut off from the northeast bank of the Ganjing river, and whether this was the result of natural or human action. Should it be found that it was indeed humans that turned Zhongba into an isolated mound-perhaps in order to make the salt workshop easier to defend (or the workers easier to control?)-this would throw an interesting light at the socio-political circumstances of the local salt industry, lending itself to comparisons with early salt-industry management practices elsewhere. We are eager to hear the opinion of Profs. Weller and Brown on these issues.

5) How does this area's prehistoric salt production relate to evidence concerning salt production in China during later periods, textual and otherwise? We are planning to bring in the foremost Western specialist on Chinese Salt History, Prof. Hans Ulrich Vogel (Universitat Tubingen) to speak on parallels, possible relationships, and differences in technology, organization, and social context. Additionally, if possible, we hope to bring in Prof. Franciscus Verellen (Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient), a historian of Chinese religion whose work on salt-related myths and cults has been of great interest to our project. Moreover, Prof. Li Xiaobo (Sichuan Normal University, Chengdu) has worked under the auspices of the Beida-UCLA joint project on the relationship between the salt industry and the genesis of urban forms in the Upper Yangzi area; the results of his research will also be presented in the course of the conference.


By actively involving specialists on other Pacific-Rim areas such as Japan, Taiwan, New Guinea, and North America, the work here proposed promises to exploit some of the potential of the Zhongba materials for the assessment of inter-area parallels and differences with respect to such factors as manufacturing technology, workshop organization, scale of production, and environmental impact. Particularly important is the potential of the data to contribute to general theories explaining economic and social growth in pre-modern societies in relation to the exploitation of local resources. We would cautiously anticipate that, while Zhongba was probably unique in scale and intensity-as well as sophistication of labor organization-many of the technological parameters and solutions to specific problems in salt-manufacture may have been similar to those in other areas.

This research will be the first in China to apply the research strategies of Landscape Archaeology-a new paradigm that moves the focus of archaeological research away from individual sites and periods to the longterm history of a geographical unit, attempting to trace its transformation from a natural into a human-made environment. The Ganjing River valley and its salt industry at Zhongba provide a highly appropriate focus for such a study, the results of which not only can serve as a model for future work elsewhere in China, but are immediately comparable to work already done elsewhere around the Pacific Rim-in Japan, Southeast Asia, Oceania, and the New World. Through such comparisons, we anticipate to find significant differences with respect to the extent, and to the specific ways, of human interference with the environment conditioned by industrial activity-differences that may prove significant to present-day, policy-oriented research involving various parts of the Pacific Rim.

Publication plans

According to Chinese government regulations, the results of collaborative field projects must first be published in China. We have therefore initiated a Monograph Series, to be co-published by Science Press (Kexue Chubanshe) in Beijing and UCLA's Asia-Pacific Institute, through which fully bilingual reports on all stages of the joint Beida-UCLA project will be made available. The first volume, on the Spring, 1999, field season, is now under preparation. Complementing the final archaeological report on the Zhongba site (which will be written by archaeologists from the Sichuan team), the proceedings of the symposium that is here being proposed will also be the subject of a volume in this series, to be compiled during the six months or so following the symposium. We hope the book will be ready to go to press in mid-2003. 

Published: Thursday, November 14, 2002