Sugar: The Eternal Sweet Tag of a City
Author: Bo Yang
The Sinuous Tuojiang River witnessed the history and changes of Neijiang in Sichuan province. However, people almost forgot the splendid cultural history of sugar in this Sweet City because of various reasons. When walking into the famous downtown area Tuojiang Village, strolling along the old wharf of Longmen Town, chewing sugar cane beside the Tuojiang River, we all are the best witnesses of Sweet City, home of sugar cane. Black bricks and roof tiles, row upon row, as precious parts of the culture of sugar industry become distinct with the light of winter sunshine.
There is a magical Chinese character “wei” (which means taste) in both Chinese and Chinese food. The future which can be tasted (“wei” is composed of one character meaning “mouth” and the other meaning “future”) seems to be full of infinite possibilities. In Chinese culture, apart from what people taste and smell, the sensation and definition of “taste” originate from food and drink as well as beyond them. In other words, not only tongues and noses can truly sense the “taste”, but also Chinese people’s hearts.
As same as other countries in the world, “sweet” in Chinese also means happy and joyful. It is because that the first taste sensed by human’s tip of the tongue is sweet and this kind of taste, in most cases, comes from the same material—sugar.
In the late fall and early winter, nearly ten million acres of cane grove is growing vigorously in the south of China. At the latitude of 30 degrees north, with moderate sunshine and moist air, the fertile land in Chengdu Plain area and Tuojiang River Basin becomes the north boundary of main producing areas of sugar cane.
Sweetness in sugar cane comes from glucose and fructose in molecules through photosynthesis. In rainy season of cold winter, sugar cane secretly accumulates sugar which not only provides energy for human body but also soothes people during cold winter days lack of sunlight. Furthermore, sucrose provides basic sweetness for local food in China.
According to the distribution of regions producing sugar in Sichuan province, the fundamental ones lie in coastal areas with convenient transportation centered on Tuojiang River basin. Regions with Neijiang at its core and Zizhong, Fushun, and Jianyang alongside Tuojiang River produced brown sugar long time ago. Brown sugar is a kind of raw sugar extracted in a simple way from sugar cane. It nearly keeps all nutrients of sugar cane juice because of rough machining. In China, brown sugar is usually regarded as nutrition, but its manufacturing technology came from distant India.
The earliest record of producing sugar with sugar cane dates back to 300 BC in Vedas from India. India is the earliest country to plant sugar cane around the world, the birthplace of producing sugar with sugar cane, and also plays an important role in the early history of producing sugar in the world.
In China, the earliest record of sugar cane plantation traces back to the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-256BC). From then on, sugar cane, the raw material of sucrose, was gradually introduced from India to southern China. Yuan Qu wrote in Chuci Zhaohun, “胹鳖炮羔，有柘浆些”(“Eat turtle meat and roast lamb with sugar cane juice”). It suggests that Chu State was capable of primitively processing sugar cane in Warring States Period. In the Eastern Han Dynasty(25-220), Heng Zhang also noted in Qibian “沙饴石蜜” which means sugar with tiny crystals and it can be considered as rudiments of granulated sugar.
Although after the improvement of sugar cane through localization, Chinese people still made little progress in producing sugar. From extracting fluid sugar cane soup from sugar cane juice in Pre-Qin period to producing sugar with tiny crystals in the Eastern Han Dynasty, Chinese people only master the skill of primary processing from liquid to solid after thousands of years. However, brown sugar was introduced to Central Plain from India through the Silk Road as early as in the Period of Wei, Jin and Southern and Northern Dynasties. At that time, the rich and powerful would kill for such reddish violet crystals with high-sweetness and vegetal aroma.
In 647AD, Emperor Taizong of Tang sent people to learn the method of the decoction of sugar in India. As recorded in Xintangshu,” In the 21st year of the reign of Emperor Taizong of Tang, envoys sent by him presented India king with a kind of cotton tree similar to white poplar and brought back the method of the decoction of sugar. Taizong then ordered Yangzhou people to squeeze sugar cane juice as the dosage of the method, the color and taste of which turned out to be far better than the western regions.” It shows that the experience exchange of the technology of producing sugar was included in the frequent exchanges of culture and technology between two countries.
India’s technology of producing sugar spread through gradually mature Southern Silk Road from Jiaozhi(Vietnam now), across Nanzhao and Dali, to Sichuan Basin. Some new technologies appeared successively in areas producing sugar in Sichuan. In 674AD, workshops of the sugar industry in Sichuan invented a local method of leaking to produce white sugar. With a set of funnel-shaped pottery, a crock, and other small facilities, people boiled sugar cane juice to high concentration, poured it into the pottery, and sprinkled yellow mud from the top which helped to absorb and bleach the juice. The appearance of white sugar symbolized that the technology of producing sugar has reached a new level. People continued to use this local method for more than a thousand years. At the meantime, in the period of Dali, people in Suining, Sichuan began to use sugar cane to produce crystal sugar which added as unique products to the sugar industry.
As a result, Neijing, the Sweet City, became famous. As an important part of Southern Silk Road transmitting India’s technology of producing sugar, Neijing shouldered the responsibilities of technology renovation in areas producing sugar in Sichuan. In Northern Song Dynasty, Zhuo Wang from Suining, Sichuan traveled around Tuojiang Basin and fully grasped the technology of producing sugar along with the banks. In 1130 AD, he wrote the first monograph in Chain on sugar production—Tangshuangpu. A method noted in the book uses cattle dragging stone wheels to squeeze sugar cane multiple times and collect juice, the principle of which is similar to our modern one. The book also summarized for the first-time lime clarification process to clarify sugar cane juice and it is still used in the modern sugar industry.
While China’s technology of sugar production achieved fast progress with India’s wisdom, Indian people were stumped by the dark color of sugar for a long time. They couldn’t figure out a way to make the color of sugar lighter. Then, the culture exchange between China and India through Southern Silk Road, again, showed its great creativity. China’s technology of producing white sugar and crystal sugar passed to India and the experience exchange of the world’s two greatest sugar production countries immediately changed “sugar history “of the human being. Consequently, sugar industry of Sichuan represented by Neijiang played an important role in the process of the meeting of minds, and the position of “Sweet City” was far more than “sweetness” in the mouth in the cultural exchange history between China and other countries.
At one time, Buddha Sakyamuni expounded Buddhist doctrine on Gridhrakuta Mountain, picked up a golden pineapple flower and showed it to people. Only Kashyapa smiled, so Buddha passed his holy robe of Shaolin Temple as evidence of preaching on to him which signified that Kashyapa shall be his successor. In Northern and Southern Dynasties, as the 28th successor of Buddha, Bodhidharma came to China with the holy robe and then the robe became a halide for the inheritance of Bodhidharma and his successor. When the holy robe was passed along to Daman Hongren, the Zen Buddhists split and fought for it. Finally, Empress Wu Zetian got the holy robe and consecrated in the palace, and then she granted it to Zhishen, the chief disciple of Daman Hongren.
Zhishen received the holy robe unexpectedly, so he secretly returned to Zizhou, Sichuan (Zizhong, Neijiang now) and hid it in the main hall of Dechun Temple in Zhuxi. Dechun Temple is what we know as Ningguo Temple and it is said that the holy robe is concealed within the temple.
A Buddhist halide with sweet aroma seemed to drive Neijiang once more to the cultural exchange between China and other countries. Apart from Southern Silk Road and sucrose, Buddhism also helped to connect the city famous for its sugar in the history with the world. Therefore, people here live in a state of happiness because of the sweetness of cane sugar as well as Buddhism’s delight, wisdom and satisfactory.
Sweetness is not the first taste of Tuojiang, but the most profound. It seems to be ever-changing in the history of Tuojiang which provides Tuojiang people with special means of expression when they look back and taste different stages and circumstances of their own. People always eat sugar cane along the Tuojiang River from top to the bottom, the best sweetness of which is not standing out against other flavors, but keeping a balance between them in harmony, and becoming deeper and deeper sweetness from mild to strong. The sweetness of Sweet City is particularly different: it is innovation after the exchange, tranquility in helpless, persistence in difficulties, and a popular idiom—sweet are the uses of adversity.
1. Chengdu—Jianyang—Ziyang—Zizhong—Neijiang around 183km.
2. Chengdu—Chengdu-Luzhou Freeway—Weiyuan County—Neijiang around 202km. Public transportation: All bus stations in Chengdu have nonstop buses to Neijiang.