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City with a yen for yan

 

In 199 BC, the Han Dynasty's central government believed the land on which Jiangsu province's Yancheng city is built was - in the truest sense of the term - worth its salt.

So it sent officials to create and oversee a salt industry in the coastal area. The new settlement rapidly swelled to become a prosperous city, replete with banks, teahouses and opulent mansions.

Back then, Yancheng was known as Yandu county - "yan" meaning salt and "du" referring to the river it was shipped along.

Today, the city's name, which literally translates as "Salt City", is the only one in China that includes the character yan (salt).

In addition, 18 local villages' names contain the character tuan (referring to local salt production organizations); six towns' and 85 villages' monikers include the character for zao (saltwater boiling facilities); and seven villages include zong (salt harvesters' residences) in their appellations

  The history and culture of Yancheng's salt-fed development is showcased at the Museum of Chinese Salt. Upon viewing the relics, factoids and models displayed in the 18-sq-km establishment - shaped and colored to resemble a colossal salt crystal - visitors will never again take good old sodium for granted. And that goes for all 15,000 kinds of salt, many of which, such as sea salt, rock salt and soil salt, are exhibited at the museum.

  Models and replicas also demonstrate the variety of salt-harvesting methods used in ancient Yancheng, including well extraction, brine boiling and "ink stone baking" - a harvesting method in which seawater is poured into massive rock troughs to evaporate and the residue is collected. One hall features life-sized statues that demonstrate ancient salt production step-by-step.

  It begins with the gathering of firewood to feed the blazes for boiling brine and continues until the shipping of raw salt to nearby Yangzhou city, where it was refined and then distributed throughout the country. In addition, a massive projector screen shaped like a scroll pans paneled diagrams showcasing salt production processes.

  The museum also displays ancient brine boiling pans. These plates were divided into several fan-shaped pieces to prevent private salt production, which was strictly prohibited for nearly 2,000 years.

  Every family working in the industry would get one chunk of the pan and would have to interlock it with that of other families to boil brine.

  A replica of a massive clay laopan (brine boiling bowl) commemorates the Baoying period of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), when local annual salt production peaked at more than 500,000 tons.

  Ancient and modern products made with salt are also showcased in the museum, including the salt licks Chinese pastoralists have fed their herds for millennia, beauty creams and preserved fish.

  Visitors to China's only State-level museum dedicated to the under-appreciated splendors of sodium find it's a good place to get a taste of the history that shaped Yancheng and its local culture.