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Traditional salt-making method reflects Sichuan artisans’ wisdom

Author  :  Lü QINGFU     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2017-06-28

The huge shelf is established to draw and carry brine at the Shenhai salt well in Zigong City, Sichuan Province.

The deep-drilling and drawing technique involved in extracting Zigong well salt in Southwest China’s Sichuan Province is a traditional manual skill. Sichuan well salt has a long history. According to textual records, Zhuotong Well in Daying County, Sichuan Province, was built around 1041 and 1048 under the reign of Zhao Zhen in the Northern Song Dynasty, which was more than 800 years earlier than its Western counterparts. The Zhuotong Well refers to wells that draw underground brine via long, straight and thick bamboo. It is a living fossil of manual salt making methods and can boast of being the fifth great invention of ancient China. Compared with Daying County, the exploitation of well salt in Zigong City was known far and wide for its immense scale of production.

The deep-drilling and drawing technique is actually a percussion drilling skill, which utilized people, animals and machines to move the drill bit to crush rocks and drill a well deep in the ground in order to get underground brine. It is a masterpiece of ancient Sichuan people and the fruit of their wisdom.

Significant invention

“Right now, the Shenhai salt well still reflects the arrangement and scene of salt making in old times,” 65-year-old Liu Hanchao said to the reporter as he stood in front of the Shenhai salt well in Zigong.

Liu is a provincial intangible cultural heritage inheritor of Zigong’s deep-drilling and drawing technique. He was born in a family of salt workers and is engaged in the forefront of studies into the deep-drilling and drawing technique.

When taking about the techniques involved in well salt, Liu indicated that well salt production in Zigong started in the Eastern Han Dynasty, became famous in the Tang and Song dynasties and flourished in the Ming and Qing dynasties. During the reign of Xianfeng and Tongzhi in the Qing Dynasty, Zigong became the center of the Sichuan well salt industry and Zigong well salt was sold in Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, Hunan and Hubei provinces, which provided salt to 10 percent of the country’s population.

During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the deep-drilling and drawing technique was developed in the Zigong area and sophisticated technology involving percussion drilling accompanied it. “The Shenhai salt well, with a depth of 1001.42 meters, was dug in 1835 and marked the technical maturity of China’s percussion drilling method, which left a significant step on the history of human civilization and the development history of science and technology,” Liu said.

Craftsmanship spirit

Zhou Xiangsheng, office director of the Conservation Center of Sichuan Provincial Intangible Cultural Heritage, said that only when we respect predecessors’ intellectual achievements can we better carry forward the spirit of craftsmanship.

He said that in 2005, the State Council initiated the proposal stage of the first batch of national intangible cultural heritage, but for some reason the well salt making technique wasn’t on the list. Zhou used his own money to collect materials and visit experts and scholars of Zigong salt history and salt workers in order to get their support. His efforts finally paid off. In May, 2006, the deep-drilling and drawing technique of Zigong well salt was included on the list of national intangible cultural heritage.

Further development

Zhou elaborated that since the introduction of mechanized well drilling in the 20th century, this traditional technique has gradually lost its dominant position and function in salt well drilling and preservation efforts are stalling.

“With the aim of protecting and preserving this technique, Zigong works on protecting the original production scene, tools and techniques of the relics of the Shenhai salt well and show them to public visitors both at home and abroad and allow them to experience the whole process of drawing brine and producing salt,” Liu said. He added that although the traditional method is obsolete, predecessors’ pursuit of innovation and dedication to quality should be maintained and further promoted.

Editor: Yu Hui

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