Lake Salt – Vi­tal In­gre­di­ent in Chi­nese His­tory

China Scenic - - Front Page - By Xiao Ming Trans­la­tion by Pavel Toropov (GBR)

Salt ob­tained from lakes is one of the ear­li­est types of ta­ble salt used by man. Lake salt has greatly in­flu­enced the de­vel­op­ment of the Chinse civ­i­liza­tion and fea­tures promi­nently through­out Chi­nese his­tory. The pro­duc­tion of lake salt re­quires salt lakes and China is abun­dant in them, with over 1500 such lakes within the coun­try’s bor­ders, pri­mar­ily in the four western re­gions of Ti­bet, Qing­hai, Xin­jiang and In­ner Mon­go­lia. Many they may be, but each lake is dif­fer­ent, as is its story.

Stand­ing at the banks of Lop Nor, you may feel that win­ter has come. The “snow piles” in the photo are ac­tu­ally mounds of salt crys­tals. Photo/ Fan Shu­cai

A salt lake is a lake with con­cen­tra­tion of salts in its wa­ter ex­ceed­ing 3.5%. Lake salt is the salt that is mined di­rectly from these lakes or ex­tracted by so­lar evap­o­ra­tion from saline lake wa­ter in salt pans. Lake salt sep­a­rates and crys­tal­lizes nat­u­rally by the ac­tion of wind and sun­light and so it be­came part of the diet of the an­cient peo­ple, while the ar­ti­fi­cial ex­trac­tion of salt by evap­o­rat­ing the wa­ter from lake brine is one of the ear­li­est meth­ods of salt pro­duc­tion.

In mod­ern Chi­nese, in ad­di­tion for the char­ac­ter mean­ing “salt” (盐 pro­nounced yan), there is one which can be trans­lated as “earth con­tain­ing salt” or “brine” - 卤 (pro­nounced lu), but in an­cient times the two meant the same thing – salt. How­ever, lu ap­peared ear­lier than yan, and if you re­fer to “Shouwen­jiezi”, a clas­sic Chi­nese dic­tionary from the se­cond cen­tury AD, it de­scribes lu as nat­u­rally made salt, and yan as salt which has been pro­cessed by man. Joseph Need­ham (1900-1995), the cel­e­brated Bri­tish si­nol­o­gist and ex­pert in the his­tory of Chi­nese tech­nol­ogy, claimed that the shape of the char­ac­ter 卤 in­scribed on Shang Dy­nasty or­a­cle bones, is the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a man-made salt pan seen from above.

He­dong Lake in Yuncheng, Shanxi, is the old­est salt lake in China, for it has been pro­duc­ing salt for over 4000 years. Apart from its age, it is also a large lake, with an area cov­er­ing more than 130 square kilo­me­ters.

In win­ter, you may see an amaz­ing land­scape, called “mirabilite rime” near He­dong Lake. Crys­tal­lized mirabilite in nee­dle-liked shapes co­ag­u­late, and grow in clus­ters, form­ing “crys­tal bushes.” Photo/ Xue Jun

There are more than 1500 salt lakes in China, and most of these are found in basins be­tween moun­tain ranges, for ex­am­ple the Qaidam Basin and the Tarim Basin. Wa­ter flows into these low-ly­ing basins, but can­not find its way out, there­fore ac­cu­mu­lat­ing and form­ing a lake to which salts are con­tin­u­ously trans­ferred. Most salt lakes are sit­u­ated in ar­eas with arid or semi-arid cli­mate, the evap­o­ra­tion rates here ex­ceed the rates of pre­cip­i­ta­tion, and so the salt con­tent in lake wa­ter is con­tin­u­ously ris­ing, reach­ing sat­u­ra­tion and even su­per-sat­u­ra­tion lev­els, so much so that de­posits of salt are formed both on the lake bot­tom and on the shores.

He­dong Salt Lake

The most fa­mous salt lake in Chi­nese his­tory, and the one with the long­est recorded his­tory, is un­doubt­edly He­dong Lake.

Qian Mu (1895-1990), a great Chi­nese ed­u­ca­tor and his­to­rian says in his “In­tro­duc­tion to Chi­nese Cul­ture His­tory”: “The He­dong Lake, which lies in the vicin­ity of Xiex­ian County (to­day’s Xiezhou in Shanxi Province), has been fought over by many clans and tribes of an­cient China, and to ar­rive at the shores of this lake, tri­umphantly, was a mark of a mak­ing of any leader of these an­cient Chi­nese tribes.”huangdi, the legendary Yel­low Em­peror, the founder of Chi­nese civ­i­liza­tion, also strove for the con­trol of this lak. He fought his en­e­mies, Yandi and Chi You, in two great bat­tles – of Zhuolu and Ban­quan. Vic­to­ries in these bat­tles al­lowed The Yel­low Em­peror to firmly se­cure He­dong Lake and its vi­tal sup­ply of ed­i­ble salt for the Cen­tral Plains, and then to as­cend to be­come the leader of all Chi­nese clans and tribes, and the most ven­er­ated supreme an­ces­tor of the en­tire Chi­nese race.

A salt lake is a lake with a con­cen­tra­tion of salts in its wa­ter ex­ceed­ing 3.5%.There are cur­rently more than 1500 salt lakes in China and ac­cord­ing to Zheng Mian­ping, the fa­mous ge­ol­o­gist and aca­demi­cian, they can be di­vided into four zones: A—salt Lake Zone on the Qing­hai-ti­bet Plateau: With an av­er­age el­e­va­tion of 4000 me­ters, this area has salt lakes with com­pli­cated chem­i­cal com­po­nents. For ex­am­ple, Qarhan Lake is rich in potas­sium and mag­ne­sium. B—salt Lake Zone in North­west­ern China: The el­e­va­tion of this area ranges from 500 to 1500 me­ters, much lower than the Qing­hai-ti­bet Plateau. Most salt lakes here are small ones, but there are also large ones like the fa­mous Lop Nor. The ex­treme arid cli­mate gives this re­gion rich re­sources of ni­trate. C—salt Lake Zone in North­east­ern China: In­clud­ing the Or­dos Plateau, the In­ner Mon­go­lia Plateau and the Hu­lun­buir Basin, this zone has some of the small­est salt lakes in China, yet each of them is rich in mirabilite, trona and rock salt. D—scat­tered Salt Lake Zones in East­ern China: Sit­u­ated in a hu­mid area with an an­nual pre­cip­i­ta­tion of over 500 mm, the salt lakes here are rel­a­tively poor in min­eral re­sources and most of them are small ones, just like those in the North­east­ern China Zone.

The ear­li­est method of ob­tain­ing the salt from He­dong Lake was done by sim­ply scoop­ing it up – salt crys­tals formed nat­u­rally un­der the fierce sun and peo­ple just col­lected them. The pro­duc­tion re­lied en­tirely on nat­u­ral forces - He­dong Lake is one of the hottest places in sum­mer in the whole of north­ern China, with tem­per­a­tures ris­ing as high as 42.6 de­grees Cel­sius. Sun­shine is plen­ti­ful and the an­nual pre­cip­i­ta­tion rates are just 520mm, whereas evap­o­ra­tion rates reach 2300mm.

This “scooped – up salt” as peo­ple called it, was basically nat­u­ral formed salt crys­tals, and they con­tained im­pu­ri­ties, such as mag­ne­sium sul­phate, which of­ten gave it a bit­ter taste, and for this rea­son the salt from He­dong was also known as “bit­ter salt.”

Qarhan Lake is known for its rich sylvite re­sources. But a com­mon tourist might be more in­ter­ested in the in­cred­i­ble salt karst land­forms here; for ex­am­ple, the salt sta­lac­tites or “salt flow­ers” shown in the photo. Photo/ Yao Zhengwu

Dur­ing the East­ern Han Dy­nasty (25 -220 AD) a dif­fer­ent method started to be used – con­struc­tion of salt beds or pans, which were then flooded with wa­ter us­ing spe­cially con­structed chan­nels and left to evap­o­rate un­der the sun, leav­ing crys­tal­lized salt. As at that time this method was still in its in­fancy, the salt-laden wa­ter was not fil­tered be­fore en­ter­ing the pans, and the crys­tals, formed on the top of the soil, still re­tained their bit­ter taste.

By the time of the Tang Dy­nasty the salt work­ers im­proved the salt pan method by in­tro­duc­ing the use of fresh­wa­ter – the fresh wa­ter is colder than saline wa­ter,and this dif­fer­ence in tem­per­a­ture makes mag­ne­sium and sodium sul­phate and other im­pu­ri­ties to pre­cip­i­tate and form a layer on which salt crys­tals are then formed. Salt pro­duced by this method no longer tastes bit­ter and also the time of crys­tal for­ma­tion is greatly re­duced, down to five or six days; rep­re­sent­ing a mile stone im­prove­ment in the de­vel­op­ment of salt pro­duc­tion.

He­dong Lake re­tained its im­por­tance in Chi­nese salt pro­duc­tion for the fol­low­ing thou­sand years, and at its peak the salt taxes it gen­er­ated amounted to one eights of the state rev­enue. Dur­ing the mid­dle of the Qing Dy­nasty, the con­cen­tra­tion of brine wa­ter de­clined, and so did the pro­duc­tion ca­pac­ity of He­dong, and, as mod­ern tech­nol­ogy re­duced the costs of the pro­duc­tion and trans­porta­tion of sea salt, He­dong grad­u­ally lost its dom­i­nant po­si­tion.

Ji­lan­tai Lake

Ji­lan­tai Lake is sit­u­ated in Alxa Plateau in the western part of In­ner Mon­go­lia and its salt works can be traced all the way back to the Tang Dy­nasty (618 – 907). In the year 850AD salt pro­duc­tion was placed un­der cen­tral Im­pe­rial ad­min­is­tra­tion due to the ex­cel­lent qual­ity and yield of salt. In the be­gin­ning of the 18th cen­tury the salt ex­tracted here was trans­ported and sold in the cen­tral re­gions of China and the pro­duc­tion at­tained large scale.

Da Qaidam Lake cov­ers an area of 240 square kilo­me­ters, but the area of its brine wa­ter oc­cu­pies only 36 square kilo­me­ters. In China, Da Qaidam is the most fa­mous salt lake that pro­duces bo­rate. Photo/ Chen Sheng­gui

Ji­lan­tai Lake sits on the al­lu­vial and dilu­vial planes be­tween He­lan Moun­tain and Bayan­wula Moun­tain, on the western edge of Wu­lan­buhe Desert. The cli­mate here is clas­sic arid con­ti­nen­tal with lit­tle rain­fall and fre­quent sand storms. The ecosys­tem here is very frag­ile, and the land­scape is that of a typ­i­cal desert salt lake – the veg­e­ta­tion con­sists of small shrubs,the banks are cov­ered by dry salt flats, and there are salt ridges and sand dunes ev­ery­where.

The de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion and sand­storms had brought this lake to the brink of a catas­tro­phe. For­tu­nately the prob­lem was brought un­der con­trol by years of sup­ply­ing the lake with wa­ter and anti-de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion mea­sures such as sta­bi­liza­tion work by plant­ing aquatic and salt-tol­er­ant plants.

Ji­lan­tai might be out of dan­ger, but it has acted as a warn­ing to us, rais­ing ques­tions of how should salt lakes be ex­ploited in a healthy, sus­tain­able man­ner. Our knowl­edge and ex­ploita­tion of salt lakes is no longer lim­ited to ex­tract­ing ta­ble salt, the in­dus­try of min­ing deep un­der lake beds has al­ready been launched, and the bi­o­log­i­cal re­sources of salt lakes, such as brine shrimp, have been at­tract­ing more and more at­ten­tion. Let’s just hope that China, with its vast re­sources of salt lakes, can now

avoid the past ex­pe­ri­ence of over ex­ploita­tion which has left in its wake dried up, de­stroyed lakes; and, in­stead, im­ple­ment a sus­tain­able, healthy de­vel­op­ment pol­icy.

Apart from min­eral re­sources, salt lakes also pro­vide sev­eral bi­o­log­i­cal re­sources, such as brine shrimp, a small aquatic crus­tacean liv­ing in brine wa­ter. Peo­ple use brine shrimp to feed com­mer­cially har­vested aquatic species, for ex­am­ple, crab, fish and shrimp. Photo/ Ma Hongjie Chaka Salt Lake

Chaka Salt Lake is sit­u­ated at the most east­ern end of Qaidam Basin, within the bound­aries of Wu­lan County of Qing­hai Province. Salt ex­trac­tion started here dur­ing the time of the Western Han Dy­nasty (202BC – 25 AD) by the Qiang peo­ple, and or­ga­nized pro­duc­tion was set up in 1908. How­ever, ar­chae­o­log­i­cal finds in 2010

re­vealed ev­i­dence of peo­ple’s long- term habi­ta­tion and ac­tiv­ity at Chaka Lake from over 3,000 years ago, and his­tory of salt ex­trac­tion at the lake might go back fur­ther in time still.

Seen from above, Eji Nor, a salt lake sit­u­ated in the north of the Xilin Gol Steppe, has dis­tinc­tive wa­ter in red and pink colors. Ac­cord­ing to cur­rent re­search, Eji Nor’s unique wa­ter colors de­rive from its ever chang­ing wa­ter depth, sun­light and mi­crobes liv­ing within it. Photo/ Yang Zi­jian

When you come to the lake you ap­proach a world of pris­tine white, there are salt mounds, ris­ing like moun­tains, on both sides of the lake, and the fur­ther you look into the dis­tance the more in­tense the white­ness of the lake be­comes. This white land­scape seems in­fi­nite and you can’t help but feel that you have some­how been trans­ported to the North Pole. The per­fectly flat, snow-white land sur­face re­flects the blind­ing sun­light like a mir­ror. A train, salt dredg­ing boats and a con­veyor belt, how­ever, re­mind us that we are in the mid­dle of a mod­ern salt min­ing op­er­a­tion. A lo­co­mo­tive pulling a line of wagons equipped with load-car­ry­ing bins runs along a shiny nar­row track, re­turn­ing from the cen­ter of the lake. Two men over­turn the end­less pro­ces­sion

of bins, emp­ty­ing out the salt, which then goes onto the con­veyor belt to be pro­cessed and fil­tered. Else­where, a salt dredger sails along a canal to the cen­ter of the lake. The dredger choses a good area to work, and then me­chan­i­cally breaks up the salt layer, pump­ing the salt sus­pen­sion on board, which is then trans­ported, via a pipe­line from the stern of the boat, to the shore or mo­bile fil­ter­ing sta­tion s on the lake where the wa­ter is fil­tered out. Af­ter this process is com­plete, the solid salt is trans­ported out by train.

Qarhan Salt Lake

This is China’s largest salt lake, 168 kilo­me­ters long, be­tween 20 and 40 kilo­me­ters wide, with the to­tal area of 5856 square kilo­me­ters. Most of its sur­face is now taken up by dry salt flats, with ten saline lakes on the pe­riph­ery, as well as sev­eral sea­sonal saline lakes, and the ac­tual wa­ter sur­face is no more than 10% of the to­tal area.

The Lop Nor in North­west­ern China is an­other salt lake fa­mous for its sylvite re­sources and it is re­ported that Lop Nor may even be­come the largest pro­duc­tion base of sylvite in China. Per­haps in the fu­ture, the Lop Nor and its sur­round­ing ar­eas will be­come the “Salt Lake City” of China. Photo/ Gao Zonglin

Once in the past, the Lop Nor dried up and its lakebed was ex­posed un­der the sun. In2001, brine wa­ter rich in sylvite was dis­cov­ered in this re­gion and gush­ing brine wa­ter brought back the amaz­ing azure wa­ter of Lop Nor. Photo/ Fan Shu­cai

You can­not say enough about the land­scape here – be­cause of the cov­er­ing layer of salt, even though this is sup­posed to be a lake, you can’t ac­tu­ally see any wa­ter. This place looks like a re­cently plowed piece of fer­tile vir­gin land - the jade green saline

lakes are sep­a­rated by the pre­cip­i­tated, or­na­men­tal ridges of salt. The cov­er­ing layer of salt is be­tween 15 and 18 me­ters thick and formed as­ton­ish­ing nat­u­ral bridges, and then there also the salt karst for­ma­tions.

These salt karst for­ma­tions of Qarhan Lake are a prod­uct of the arid cli­mate of the plateau, and they are formed dif­fer­ently from the lime­stone karst of hu­mid cli­mate. The key for the for­ma­tion of salt karst land­forms is the wa­ter layer on the mar­gins of the lake and the pressure it ex­erts in the wa­ter be­low.

The “salt flow­ers” in the photo were found in Lop Nor. Due to its long, con­i­cal shape, this struc­ture is also called a “salt fang” or a “salt coral”. Photo/ Gao Zonglin & Wang Jianzheng

In an an­cient salt lake near Wensu County, Xin­jiang, you can see the dis­tinc­tive salt karst land­forms as in this photo. Mixed with mud, sand and other im­pu­ri­ties, these salt crys­tals ap­pear brown or red, rather than white. If en­larged, their keen edges ap­pear as con­tin­u­ous “blade moun­tains.” Photo/ Gao Zonglin

“I rode for three days and there was noth­ing but salt un­der the hooves of my horse” – the lo­cal peo­ple have been proud of the abun­dance of their salt re­sources. The name Qaidam means “salt marsh” in Mon­go­lian, and 33 saline lakes of var­i­ous sizes, six

dried up salt lakes are found here. The to­tal area cov­ered by salt reaches 17000 square kilo­me­ters, and the to­tal vol­ume of saline wa­ter approaches 40 bil­lion cu­bic me­ters.

Zhabuye Salt Lake

Apart from the Qing­hai Province where Qaidam Basin is lo­cated, Ti­bet is an­other area where salt lakes are highly de­vel­opted. There are more than 340 such lakes here, mostly found in the north­ern part of Ti­bet. There are many large lakes but also al­most half of these lakes have spe­cial char­ac­ter­is­tics. Com­par­a­tively speak­ing, the pro­por­tion of min­er­als con­tained in Ti­betan lake salt is higher than that in Qing­hai lakes, con­tain­ing a greater amount of rare el­e­ments, and these spe­cial salt lakes of North­ern Ti­bet con­tain great po­ten­tial for ex­ploita­tion.

Manas Lake, a large salt lake in the hin­ter­land of the Jung­gar Basin, cov­ers nearly 650 square kilo­me­ters. To ex­plore the rich min­eral re­sources stored here, peo­ple built sev­eral straight wa­ter chan­nels.seen from above, the Manas looks like a gi­ant car­pet with white string dec­o­ra­tions (which are the salt piles). Photo/ Gao Zonglin

In Zhongba County in Shi­gatse, Ti­bet, there is a salt lake called Zhabuye. At the be­gin­ning of 1990s, Zheng Mian­ping, an aca­demi­cian of the Chi­nese Academy of Sci­ences, dis­cov­ered, on a small is­land in the mid­dle of this lake, the world’s only nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring lithium salt - lithium car­bon­ate. Known as Zhabuye Stone, it has since at­tracted the at­ten­tion of Chi­nese as well as in­ter­na­tional sci­en­tists, and fur­ther re­search on the lake con­tin­ued to yield sur­pris­ing dis­cov­er­ies.

Shad­ows of tow­er­ing salt mounds are re­flected in the mir­ror-like wa­ter of Urho Lake in Xin­jiang, giv­ing us an at­mos­phere of peace. Urho Lake is also one of the largest salt lakes in China. Photo/ Gao Zonglin

China is abun­dant in salt lakes, but only a small num­ber of them are cur­rently com­mer­cially ex­ploited, but they con­tain a great po­ten­tial, in terms of min­eral and bi­o­log­i­cal wealth, to boost the so­cial and eco­nomic growth in the West of China which still lags be­hind in de­vel­op­ment.

The ex­ploita­tion of the eco­nomic po­ten­tial of salt lakes, how­ever, must be sus­tain­able, re­ly­ing on a sci­en­tific ap­proach, pri­or­i­tiz­ing both the de­vel­op­ment of the western re­gions, as well as the preser­va­tion of the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment in equal mea­sure.

Although­with an area of 113 square kilo­me­ters, Ba­likun Lake in Xin­jiang is not a large lake. Ba­likun has its own dis­tinc­tive land­scape— large “rocks” of saline min­er­als scat­tered around the lake. As an an­cient lake, Ba­likun un­der­went long pe­ri­ods of re­peat­ing evap­o­ra­tions; hence, you can see min­eral rocks—namely the traces of di­a­ge­n­e­sis—ev­ery­where. Photo/ Fan Shu­cai

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