When the Patriarchy Came for the Salt Goddess

Part I of the Chronicles of Sichuan and Salt

This is a story inspired by Kong Pao chicken (gongbao jiding). It starts a very long time ago. It ends in my kitchen. Jade goddesses, Daoist prophets, and hydraulic culture heroes make cameos. There are oracle bones, human sacrifices, and a cornucopia of pickled vegetables. Key plot points include the possible collapse of matriarchal authority in the Neolithic Yangzi valley, the development of deep drilling technology (centuries before Europe), the impact of the Taiping rebellion on chili pepper adoption, and the surprise execution of the Dowager Empress' favorite eunuch.

This is a story about Sichuan and salt.

The path to Kong Pao chicken begins roughly 240 million years ago, during the Middle Triassic era. At that time, the section of the supercontinent Pangaea now known as the "Sichuan basin" was a large body of seawater, romantically referred to by geologists as the "Upper Yangzi Evaporation Sea." During the late Triassic, a tectonic shift pushed up a circle of mountain ranges that to this day cuts off (or protects) Sichuan from the outside world. The "Evaporation Sea" became a huge inland salty lake.

For our purposes, the chief consequence of these paleo-geographical facts is that vast concentrated deposits of brine are buried beneath the surface of Sichuan. Access to this brine, whether scooped out of surface springs or extricated from the depths of the earth via wells, has provided the inhabitants of Sichuan and its surrounding regions with salt for thousands of years. This bounty shaped Sichuan's history, economy, and cuisine.

PART I: In which I dream of sultry salt goddesses.

In the Comprehensive Mirror of Immortals who Embodied the Way Through the Ages, published in 1294, the writer Zhao Daoyi recounts a story about Zhang Daoling, the founder of Celestial Master Daoism in the second century A.D. 

As Zhao tells it, Zhang and two of his disciples were wandering through Sichuan when they chanced to encounter twelve "bewitchingly beautiful" Jade Maidens sauntering near a lake. The maidens warn Zhang that a venomous dragon lives submerged beneath the surface of the waters.  Conjuring up a magic talisman, Zhang simultaneously banishes the dragon while miraculously transforming the lake into a salt well.

In gratitude, the delighted maidens each offer Zhang a jade ring, and declare to him that "we wish to serve you as wives."

As translated by Franciscus Verellen:

The Perfected [Zhang Daoling] received the rings and, holding them in both hands, joined them to make one. He said: "I shall cast this ring into the well. She who can retrieve it must be predestined for me." Hearing this, the divine women vied with one another in taking their clothes off and entering [the well] and competed in fetching the jade ring. The Perfected then snatched [their garments] away and swore an oath: "Now you shall be the gods of this well. Never again shall you leave it lest you inflict harm on the living."

The Perfected then administered the brine well... The well was 540 feet deep and ten feet wide. Daily it produced more than forty containers of brine. It was extremely profitable."

The Lingjing salt well, named after Zhang Daoling, is a historically real place. There is even a theory that the Zhang's family control over its salt resources provided crucial economic backing for the establishment of the Celestial Master Daoist theocratic state that flourished in in Northern Sichuan in the second century A.D. More broadly, Verellen observes that the story about the Jade Maidens also "evokes a number of themes from the founding myths of Sichuan: the divination of a site, transformation of its natural features, creation of sources of regional wealth, [and] subjugation of local deities."

Similar tales, notes Verellen, accrued around other monumental figures from the ancient Sichuan past. Sichuan's most famous "hydraulic culture hero," Li Bing, the governor of Sichuan who began construction of the Dujiangyan irrigation system that transformed the Chengdu plain into an agricultural powerhouse in the second century B.C., is also given credit for drilling Sichuan's very first salt wells. And even earlier, Linjun, the "Lord of the Granary" and legendary ancestor of the Ba people who inhabited eastern Sichuan in ancient times, is said, upon his arrival in the region, to have been greeted by a salt goddess. She too, according to The Chronicles of Huayang, was most welcoming.

"This place is large and expansive, it is the place from which fish and salt come, I wish for you to remain and inhabit the place together with me."

But she too was rebuffed! Irritated, she transformed herself into a plague of insects that blotted out the sun. But Linjun hoisted his bow and arrow, waited for the right moment, and shot and killed her.

Salt is crucial to human survival everywhere. As recounted by Samuel Adshead in his monumental tome, Salt and Civilization, as far back as 17 A.D. the usurper emperor Wang Mang called salt "the general of foods." From the stories told about Zhang Daoling and Linjun and Li Bing, it is clear that Sichuan's wealth of salt resources was vital to state formation and social status. Archaeological evidence from first millennium B.C. burial sites near the Yangzi river show it that was not uncommon for local elites to be buried alongside miniature terracotta models of brine wells.

But what are we to make of these stories of salt goddess murder and Jade Maiden aqueous imprisonment? The fecund land of plenty welcomes visitors with open arms, promising salt and fish and sexual gratification, only to be scorned. Why?

In what is almost a tossed away aside, Verrellen notes that some scholars believe these powerful female figures represented an ancient matriarchal society "challenged, together with its primitive economy, by male heroes."

When I first read that sentence, my grasp of gender history in Neolithic China was weak. I have since learned that for decades, Chinese archaeologists assumed, a priori, that matriarchal societies dominated in early and middle Neolithic China. Apparently, during the Maoist era, gender archaeology by and large took its cues from Frederick Engels' The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. (TLDR: The transition from hunter-gathering to cattle herding "freed men from having to hunt and bestowed property ownership on them. In turn, this necessitated having a social system that assured their inheritance would be passed on to the men’s own children.")

Hey, it's certainly plausible. And there is some physical evidence -- high status grave goods in burial sites next to female skeletons, for example -- that supports the argument, although critics often point out that it's awfully hard to distinguish whether such mortuary remains actually speak to female power or merely represent class status. (And as for the bare-breasted bodyguard pictured in the museum exhibit above, let's just say that someone seems to have had a rather overactive imagination.)

According to an informative and fascinating essay by the archaeologist Gideon Shelach-Lavi, the practice of gender archaeology has fallen out of favor in China in the post-Mao era, replaced by a more "nationalist" focus that seeks to push traditional conceptions of the roots of Chinese culture further and further back into the past. But science marches on, and we now have access to techniques that are giving us sharper and sharper insights into the shape of Neolithic society. A brilliant dissertation completed in 2013 by Yu Dong, an anthropologist who received her Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, offers a perfect example of new possibilities.

In "Eating Identity: Food, Gender, and Social Organization in Late Neolithic Northern China" Yu Dong integrates "mortuary evidence, radiocarbon dating, stable isotope analysis, and ancient DNA analysis of human remains" to analyze social status, food consumption, and kinship relations in the Dawenkou culture that flourished in northern Jiangsu and Anhui provinces between 4300-2600 B.C. There is a lot to chew on here, but one finding jumps out: In one Dawenkou community, Fujia, DNA analysis revealed that 18 people buried in a single cemetery shared the same maternal lines. "This means," writes Yu Dong, "that maternal ties were considered very important, and it is very likely only maternally closely related individuals were buried together."

The question of ideological predisposition is irrelevant to the reality of DNA. In historical, imperial China, you don't find cemeteries populated by matrilineally-related individuals. Clearly, something changed.

This is a slender thread, but let's pull on it. Let's return to Neolithic Sichuan, and imagine how myth and legend might map to archaeological reality. Let's imagine a society emerging from pure hunter-gatherer primitive egalitarianism into something a bit more advanced. Where perhaps the men are out hunting pigs and deer and rhinoceroses, while the women are scooping up brine from springs, boiling it in pottery jars, and using the evaporated salt to pickle vegetables and preserve meat and fish (something that would be incredibly valuable in a moist and humid climate like Sichuan's.)

To the Yangzi gorges we go!


At the turn of the twenty-first century, the imminent completion of the Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydro-power facility in the world, spurred an archaeological feeding frenzy. Completion of the dam flooded an area equivalent to 244 square miles, displaced 1.3 million people and permanently closed off access to a vast array of archaeological sites. But there was ample warning, so teams of archaeologists descended on the region in a last gasp effort to retrieve whatever they could.

One location of particular interest was Zhongba, a site on the banks of the Ganjing river, a tributary to the Yangzi where archaeological evidence shows that people were intensively and continuously engaged in salt harvesting from the late Neolithic (third millennium B.C.) all the way to the start of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.).

This salt production far predates the activities of Li Bing or Zhang Daoling. But it was large-scale and persistent, and according to intensive research conducted between 1997 and 2002, it is clear that the Zhongba site gradually became a nexus connecting the emerging complex societies of the Chengdu plain to the west and what was to become the state of Chu downriver to the southeast. Long before the technology to drill salt wells was developed, Zhongba salt was apparently in high demand throughout the Yangzi valley.

Rowan Flad, a Harvard archaeologist who was one of the team members investigating the Zhongba site, believes that there is evidence of increasing social stratification at Zhongba; specifically, the emergence of a privileged elite that employed divine ritual to take control of production.

"[The] context of this [salt] production" writes Flad, "shifted from one for which there is no archaeological evidence for attachment between producers and those who control the products to a situation in which the exchange of salt to other regions seems to have been controlled, or at least directed, by an emergent elite whose authority was based in part on divinatory ability and the control of ritual knowledge."

Flad's key piece of evidence is the increasing prevalence of oracle bones at the Zhongba site as we get closer and closer to historical times. Oracle bones -- turtle shells or animal bones exposed to fire in an effort to seek guidance from heaven as interpreted by cracks in the bones -- are usually associated with the extraordinary finds that shined a revelatory spotlight on the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.). Shang's capital, Anyang is a long long, way from Zhongba, but Flad believes that the same trade networks that spread salt from Zhongba outwards acquainted the residents of what is now Sichuan with these new advanced divination technologies. He also observes that the oracle bones found at Zhongba tend to be most numerous at exactly those periods when we know the political situation in the greater surrounding area was in upheaval, and the process of salt production at Zhongba had been temporarily disrupted. In these troubled times, he theorizes, an elite group moved in to exert authority over a crucial economic resource.

"I believe that," writes Flad, "individuals who brought Zhongba salt to distant consumers were increasingly exposed to the belief systems of these other groups. Knowledge of divination was acquired through this contact and became a source of power for certain individuals who, whether by force, coercion, or managerial skill, established control over salt production and in the process created an integrated, spatially organized production system."

"The ability to communicate with supernatural forces and establish control over a ritually important activity is a powerful tool in the creation and perpetuation of hierarchies of social power," writes Flad. "It is not unreasonable to assume that control over divination and associated religious activities was a primary means by which some individuals established control over the salt being produced at Zhongba and the regional exchange of this resource."

There is no evidence in Flad's dissertation on Zhongba or ensuing research that pertains to the possible gender identity of the pioneering salt harvesters who commenced work along the Ganjing river so many thousands of years ago, or to the oracle bone wielders who eventually asserted control. All we can do, at this point, is speculate and dream. But it is certainly intriguing to note that Zhongba is located exactly in the region where the Ba people led by Linjun, the salt-goddess murdering Lord of the Granary, ended up settling down. The myths and legends tell us that male culture heroes seized control of salt production as part of their will to power. The archaeological record shows that one of the ways in which they achieved this control was to claim direct access to the mysteries of heaven, which certainly implies the displacement of whatever religious authority or local power structure previously existed.

And so the salt goddesses and jade maidens faded from mortal ken.

But not without a fight!

In The Country of Steams and Grottoes, Richard Von Glahn's study of Song dynasty-era Sichuan, we are told that during the tumultuous Six Dynasties period which followed after the end of the Han dynasty and the dispersal of Zhang Daoling's Celestial Masters kingdom, "the Jade Maiden, transmogrified into a serpent, became the object of a cult of human sacrifice. Each year the inhabitants threw a male youth into a salt well to serve as a consort to the unwed goddess. Purportedly the annual sacrifices halted at the end of the sixth century when a magistrate arranged a 'marriage' between the Jade Maiden and the subterranean deity or naga of West Mountain, who previously had been paid homage with sacrifices of human maidens."

Clever magistrate. But wouldn't it have been so much easier just to agree to marriage with the Jade Maiden in the first place, and avoid all the ensuing hassle?

(Coming soon, part II -- and perhaps even part III -- of the Chronicles of Sichuan and Salt, in which it will be explained how chili peppers, eunuchs, and Kong Pao chicken fit into the narrative.)