Luoquan --- A Salt Fountainhead in the “Navel” of Basin
By Xiaobo, Li
On the way to Luoquan, the first thing came to welcome me is the flavor of fish. Departing from Chengdu, a 2-hour around drive along Chengdu-Chongqing expressway took me to Qiuxi rest station. Qiuxi River, from where the well salt of Luoquan came into Tuojiang and was exported in history, is a branch of Tuojiang River. But today what intrigues people most is its delicious river food. Qiuxi River abounds with chubs which have neither bone nor scale but tender-smooth flesh. People passing by are attracted by the delicious smell and stop the car to have a taste. The long line of chub restaurant signs could tell the popularity of this business. Qiuxi town has developed chub as an industrial economy that it has run hundreds of chub restaurants of various types around the country. Chub has already become a specialty of Qiuxi town.
Qiuxi chub is easy to cook, usually braised in soy with garlic. Cut the chub into small pieces, pickle it with salt, cooking wine and thick broad bean. Preheat the cooking oil, fry chilies, and pepper until a peppery taste comes out. Then add scallions, ginger, and garlic, sauté them until the flavor comes out. Put the pickled chub pieces into the wok and fry them several times, add some soy sauce, and then pour the soup into the wok, add some sugar and chicken essence. Put green and red chili pieces into the wok before the soup dries. Finally, thicken the soup before dishing up. This soup looks gleaming, smells fragrant and tastes good. After finishing the chub, people can add various vegetables to boiling, delicious while practical.
Qiuxi chub has become a famous dish in Sichuan cuisine. Tracing back to its origin, it might have something to do with salt. In ancient China, the benefit of fish and salt are closely connected. Fish is easy to decay, but with salt, this problem no longer exists. So fish and salt is a common combination in the early development of the salt industry. Meanwhile, as salt is exported and external goods (food, commodity etc.) are imported, people streamed here and gave birth to all sorts of taste. Qiuxi chub is easy to cook and very substantial, so it was a popular homemade dish among salt traders at that time. Its fame today also owes to those drivers and passengers passing by. A small dish, a walking society.
Luoquan town is covered by the continuous green valley alongside Qiuxi River. The town was still out of sight as the car drove near. Finally, I saw the whole town in a green mist: a dragon-like street swimming in the deep valleys, no wonder people name it as “the first dragon town in Sichuan”.
Luoquan is renowned for its millennium salt. According to historical records, Luoquan well has been dug since Qin Dynasty. From Qing Dynasty to the Republic of China, the number of it has reached to more than one thousand and two hundred. It was quite a big scale and a spectacular sight. The well salt it produced has been sold to Yunnan, Chongqing, Guizhou and Xizang etc. Because Sichuan basin is surrounded by mountains, so the stream degrades and salt mine is easy to be exposed and exploited. Luoquan, situating inside the basin, just looks like the “navel” of Sichuan basin. Fortunately, the lowland Qiuxi River, as well as its branches, give rise to the underground salt. Once the river surges, the salt comes out. Thus a broad benefit is yielded.
Due to terrain restraints, Luoquan has narrow streets. But the sigmate “dragon town” does have a structure, it is fine to visit it from the end to the beginning.
The lower street is composed of a closed dragon tail and an opened dragon waist. Between the streets are austere houses and a pleasant life. Most stores are restaurants. Unlike Qiuxi town, Luoquan is characterized by “Tofu feast”, such as stuffed tofu, pocket tofu, tofu in sauce and so on. There is nothing can’t be made, only things you couldn’t imagine. Luoquan tofu feast relates to salt. Luoquan salt is so refined that it won the gold medal in Paris Exposition in 1925. The local people are often very proud to tell you that the best way to examine the quality of the salt, that is, put the salt over the overlapping tofu, the deeper the salt penetrates, the better the salt is. It is said that salt from Luoquan can penetrate seven and a half pieces of tofu, which ranks first in Sichuan. Therefore, Luoquan tofu is tasty both inside and outside. The palatability of tofu depends on the high quality of salt.
The middle street is made up of a closed dragon body and an opened dragon throat. The dragon body street with all sorts of goods demonstrates the liveliness and prosperity in the mountains. In the dragon throat, there is a small square. Across the square is a gospel hall whose pattern is a combination of Chinese and Western style. In 1911, members of Tung Meng Hui discussed business with local Paoge (members of Ge Lao Hui, a non-governmental organization is Sichuan) there. They opposed Qing government selling railway sovereignty to imperialism and prepared an armed insurrection, which is called “Luoquan conference” in history. This conference fueled the Protection Movement and promoted 1911 Revolution. The righteous deeds of the salt trader and Paoge also add some lofty sentiments to Luoquan town. Today’s gospel hall has nothing left but a sign reads that “State Cultural Relics Protection Unit” and visitors imagination.
The upper street is the essence of Luoquan town, with a closed dragon neck and an opened dragon head. The temple of salt, Town God’s Temple, Main Temple of Sichuan and Zi Lai Bridge compose the entrance of the town, playing as the dragon head and leading the millennium prosperity of the salt town.
Walking on the “Zi Lai Bridge” always reminds me of the “Song Zi Lai Feng Bridge” in Xitang Ancient town. No matter in Jiangnan or Bashu, a large population is still the common end of every ancient town. On the bridgehead, a couple of stone carved dragon heads which are of three meters height vigorously bite two huge balls in the mouth. Crossing the bridge, I came to The Temple of Salt.
The Temple of Salt is the symbol of Luoquan town and the origin of its development, build up by salt traders in Luoquan in the seventh year of Tongzhi, Qing Dynasty. The couplet hung on the door is rather self-content. It writes “the top quality, a peerless sight”. Certainly, salt is the most important one among all tastes and the main seasoning of all dishes. But to quote a small town like Luoquan as “peerless”, it still seems a little arrogant.
Guanzhong, a politician of the Spring and Autumn Period, is enshrined in the temple. He utilized the advantage of salt, assisting Duke Huan of Qi in achieving political success. It should be noticed that how to generate Luoquan people are to worship Guanzhong as a lord god, regardless of regional prejudice. Besides the tablet of Guanzhong are the tablets of Guanyu and the Fire God. The former blesses love and wealth, the latter assures the development of salt industry, such a perfect combination.
The Temple of Salt has kept a complete ancient building structure so far. Numerous folk legends, opera stories, countryside traditions and beautiful scenery are carved on the pole. It has a roof with five spires pointing to sky joining both falling gables, mixing square with a circle, stiffness with softness harmoniously. Such design not only looks beautiful and grand but also indicates good luck and the coherence of the five elements. Though the temple is old and shabby now, it can still display its former glory. The weathered sandstone shines golden under the sun, which lightens the grey wall. The couplet hung in the main hall tells something. The salt industry brings wealth and luxury to the mountain as well as elegance. Zizhong, where Luoquan belongs to, cultivated the first Number One Scholar of Sichuan Luo Chengxiang who has a sharp-cut style of writing in Qing Dynasty. Desire and morality coexist successfully side by side in the salt town, which seems like being built in the clouds.
The Luoquan salt industry has declined. Several Taoist priests also move into the temple and always preach in public. People could only give a soft smile on the great changes. Maybe in the residents’ eyes, the temple of salt has already become a spot where people can pray. What people really need is whoever can protect the world. Today the ancient town is filled with self-employed industrialists, out of order. What we can seek is only the memory of the past, but it seems that the memory is dying away. Walking into the sunset, I feel something inside me is lost.
Bus: Chengdu Shang Mao Cheng Station --- Luoquan, departure time: 09:00, 13:00, and 15:00
Chengdu Dong Railway station bus stop --- Luoquan, departure time: 10:00, 14:00, and 16:00
Self-driving: about 2.5 hours