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A grain of salt: How China tarnished Korea's 'white gold'

By Robert Neff

A possible salt merchant, circa 1900s. Robert Neff Collection
A possible salt merchant, circa 1900s. Robert Neff Collection
Nowadays, the vilification of salt is quite common. It is blamed for a host of evils including high blood pressure, heart disease and strokes. But, ironically, in the past it was used to combat evil and for good health.

During the Joseon period, salt was used to ward off malevolent spirits that terrorized the lives of the superstitious.

It was also a tool of frustrated Korean mothers who, whenever one of their children wet the bed, would condemn the offending child to go around the neighborhood with an empty container begging for salt. The child was allowed to return home after the container was full. (I remember hearing about the connection of salt and bed-wetting when I first came to Korea but am yet to find anyone who actually experienced it.)

Salt was also essential in the preservation of foods. According to one source, a family of six consumed about 70 kilograms of salt a year. If they had cattle, the household's salt consumption increased drastically as it was also used in cattle feed.

Much of the salt used in Seoul was produced on the west coast using sea water. An American naval officer visited a salt farm near Jemulpo in April 1884 and wrote:

"The method is to obtain the water from wells near the beach, and concentrate it by evaporation in mounds, fashioned so as to form large basins. After sufficient concentration, it is boiled in pots, and brought to the point of crystallization. A broad sandy plain near the beach was covered with these mounds, and a large straw thatched building was devoted to the boiling process."

Much of this salt ― packed in big straw bags ― was then sailed up the Han River in large junks where it was sold in the river port markets ― particularly Mapo and Yongsan. It was an expensive but essential commodity (likened to white gold) and the merchants had little difficulty in selling it.

But this changed in 1886 with the importation of salt from the Shandong region of China. It had a dramatic impact on the Korean domestic salt industry.

Although the Chinese salt was inferior in quality, it was much cheaper than Korean domestic salt and was readily purchased by the public. As a result, salt prices dropped nearly 50 percent.

Over the next decades, innovations in salt harvesting and improved transportation methods took further tolls on the price of salt. The white gold of the past is now something the health-conscious of the present trash.


Robert Neff is a historian and columnist for The Korea Times. He can be reached at robertneff103@gmail.com.



By Robert Neff

A possible salt merchant, circa 1900s. Robert Neff Collection
A possible salt merchant, circa 1900s. Robert Neff Collection
Nowadays, the vilification of salt is quite common. It is blamed for a host of evils including high blood pressure, heart disease and strokes. But, ironically, in the past it was used to combat evil and for good health.

During the Joseon period, salt was used to ward off malevolent spirits that terrorized the lives of the superstitious.

It was also a tool of frustrated Korean mothers who, whenever one of their children wet the bed, would condemn the offending child to go around the neighborhood with an empty container begging for salt. The child was allowed to return home after the container was full. (I remember hearing about the connection of salt and bed-wetting when I first came to Korea but am yet to find anyone who actually experienced it.)

Salt was also essential in the preservation of foods. According to one source, a family of six consumed about 70 kilograms of salt a year. If they had cattle, the household's salt consumption increased drastically as it was also used in cattle feed.

Much of the salt used in Seoul was produced on the west coast using sea water. An American naval officer visited a salt farm near Jemulpo in April 1884 and wrote:

"The method is to obtain the water from wells near the beach, and concentrate it by evaporation in mounds, fashioned so as to form large basins. After sufficient concentration, it is boiled in pots, and brought to the point of crystallization. A broad sandy plain near the beach was covered with these mounds, and a large straw thatched building was devoted to the boiling process."

Much of this salt ― packed in big straw bags ― was then sailed up the Han River in large junks where it was sold in the river port markets ― particularly Mapo and Yongsan. It was an expensive but essential commodity (likened to white gold) and the merchants had little difficulty in selling it.

But this changed in 1886 with the importation of salt from the Shandong region of China. It had a dramatic impact on the Korean domestic salt industry.

Although the Chinese salt was inferior in quality, it was much cheaper than Korean domestic salt and was readily purchased by the public. As a result, salt prices dropped nearly 50 percent.

Over the next decades, innovations in salt harvesting and improved transportation methods took further tolls on the price of salt. The white gold of the past is now something the health-conscious of the present trash.


Robert Neff is a historian and columnist for The Korea Times. He can be reached at robertneff103@gmail.com.





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