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The Three Gorges: Salt and History

The Ba people built their Ba Kingdom in southwest China's Sichuan-Chongqing area. Though located in a barren mountainous area, the kingdom defeated their enemies in many wars and prospered, owing to the precious resource it owned - salt. At sites in the Three Gorges area on the Yangtse River formerly inhabited by the Ba people, archeologists found cultural relics used in primitive salt-making, providing proof to the assumption that salt industry developed very early in this area.

Salt production in ancient times

The land of Zhongxian County lies in the middle section of the Three Gorges, between  Fengdu, the Ghost City, and Wanzhou of Chongqing. Though the water level of the river is rising, as planned for the Three Gorges project, there is no threat for the main area of Zhongxian County. The small and humble county seat situated on the mountaintop indicates both the town's once prosperous history and its current downhill fate. that told us this little city came into being just because of some special function in a special historical period, and once it lost the functional status, it might probably face a fatal downfall.

The cultural site that archeologists called Zhongba is an hour's drive from the county seat of Zhongxian. A hill lies between the site and the Yangtze River. But because the nearby gully will become a branch of the Yangtze River and be filled with water in the first phase of the Three Gorges project, the area will be soon submerged.

By now, archeologists have finished excavation work at Zhongba, leaving many big and small pits on the site. Standing by a pit of more than 10 meters deep, Sun Zhibin, head of the archeologists' group, said this pit has a clear deep cut, showing a perfect distribution of relic layers of different periods, from Paleolithic era and Neolithic era through to the Xia, Shang, Western Zhou Dynasty, Spring and Autumn period, Warring States period and the dynasties of the Han, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing. The colors and qualities of the earth in varied layers are distinctively different.

Sun said that Zhongba is the most important cultural site in the Three Gorges area. It's a rare case in the archeological history that one site contains such a rich variety of cultural relics representing such a long period of history. The great value of the cultural information sent out by these relics is immeasurable. It's the epitome and evidence of Chongqing's history of more than 5,000 years.

What attracts archeologists most are the instruments for salt-making. The many pointed-bottom cups and rounded-bottom pots indicate that primitive salt industry developed very early in this area.

The pointed-bottom cups of red pottery are about a dozen centimeters high, with a mouth of about six to seven centimeters in diameter. Their walls are thin and the pottery is coarse. The rounded-bottom pots have thicker walls with veins on the out side. From the big quantity and coarse quality, archeologists conclude that these two kinds of wares were not used in daily life, but for salt production. 

The Ganjinggou area, where Zhongba is located, abounds with brine. Actually, a large-scale salt industry existed in Ganjinggou until the early 20th century during the Republic period. On the opposite bank of Zhongba site, ancient brine wells can still be found. Before the Iron Age, potteries were the most available instruments to be used to boil brine and get salt. 

Archeologists believe their findings show that Zhongba was one of the three ancient salt-making sites in this area, the other two being Wazhadi and Shaopengzui. But still, as exploration is going on, they say more evidences are needed to confirm their conclusion.

If their conclusion is confirmed, then the history of China's salt industry will be ascended to the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600-c.1100 B.C.) and Western Zhou Dynasty (c.1100-771 B.C.) of 3000 years ago.

Salt and the Ba Kingdom

In Records of Mountains and Seas, the Wu Kingdom in the Three Gorges area is depicted as having been connected with the salt industry. According to the Houhanshu (The History of the Later Han Dynasty), the Ba Kingdom played a very important role in the Three Gorges area, and almost all of the kingdom's activities were related to the production of salt and fishing.

Most of the Three Gorges area is covered by high mountains and torrential rivers, not suitable for farming. But there were salt, a rare and expensive material at the time, and fish. With salt, the fishermen could preserve the fish they caught, making it possible for them to store it as commodity for exchange. Owing to these two vital resources, the Ba Kingdom thrived and became increasingly powerful during a certain period of history.

According to existent records, until the later Shang Dynasty, the Ba Kingdom remained as an important political power in the Three Gorges area. It took part in the war to help King Wu (the first ruler of Zhou Dynasty) attack King Zhou (the last ruler of Shang Dynasty). The brave Ba people made their contribution in the establishment and development of the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1100 B.C.-221 B.C.).

Various discoveries and studies show that salt production was a great part of the mightiness of the Ba Kingdom in the later Shang and early Zhou dynasties. As some scholars concluded: the Ba Kingdom was built out of salt-making and developed on the basis of salt-making.
During the Spring and Autumn Period (770 B.C.-476 B.C.), the Ba was surrounded by the various states on all sides, the Chu to its east, the Shu to its west, and the Qin to its north. Compared with the other three, who fought frequent wars against one another, the Ba was a much weaker force. Finally, the eastern Three Gorges area, the salt producing center, was occupied by the Chu, which rendered the Ba to an even weaker position. Then in 361 B.C., the Qin State wiped out the Ba and Shu, and fought with Chu in the Three Gorges area. Scrambling for salt was obviously the main aim of the more than 300 years of continuous wars. It was the situation of salt production that decided the final fate of the Ba Kingdom.

The Daning saltworks

Daning used to be one of the famous salt producers in the Three Gorges area. With brine springs running down from the mountaintop, it's easy to tap the natural resources and develop salt industry in Daning, making it one of the earliest salt centers in the area. 

In high days, Daning salt was sold to a wide range of areas, including Sichuan, Shaanxi, Hunan, Hubei and Guizhou provinces. Today, in the county town of Daning, assembly halls left by businessmen from Hubei, Jiangxi, Sichuan and Guangdong can still be seen. 

According to the Annals of Wuxi County, in the Qin (221 B.C.-206 B.C.) and Han (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) dynasties, there was always an official in charge of salt assigned to Wuxian. In later dynasties, although the organizational system changed, the imperial court never relaxed its control of salt. In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the local administrator built the Longchi (Dragon Pond) at the foot of the mountain for the reservation and distribution of brine. Today, the pond is still there, but salt production has stopped. Brine, running through the holes on the control board, eventually joins the Daning River.

With the improvement of communication, the low-price and quality well-salt produced in Zigong, Sichuan Province, and the sea-salt from the southeast coast gradually replaced the Daning salt. Daning salt lost its market.

In fact, brine of Daning contains only about 5 percent of salt, and the percentage is not much higher even in the dry season of winter. This means that more fuel is needed to boil it, and the cost of salt will certainly go up. And, the high percentage of sulfur and fluorine in the water affects the salt's quality. The local salt industry could have flourished in the ancient time only because of the poor communication.

In 1996, all of Daning's saltworks were closed - which indicated the total disappearance of salt industry in the Three Gorges area.


About 200,000,000 years ago the Three Gorges area was a sea. The Asia-Europe continent, where China locates now, had a totally different topography, higher in the east and lower in the west. After a series of geological movements, the Himalayas rose up, and the southwest area, including the Sichuan Basin, became land. The sea water held in the earth became condensed and gushed out as brine springs.

The southeast coast, the salt lakes in the northwest and the salt-wells in the southwest have been China's three major salt providers. The salt in the Three Gorges area was discovered far earlier than the well salt in Sichuan. This gave the area a better chance to develop its salt industry.

(China.org.cn translated by Chen Lin August 12, 2003)

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Hanging Coffins a Clue to Ba Mystery
Tomb of Mysterious Ancient Kingdom Discovered in China
Songs, Instruments and Homes of Ancient Ba People
The Enigma of Ba �Salt
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