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Gateway to Maritime Silk Road


Sugar cane in GD sweetens Chinese people's life

BY :丝路云帆

UPDATED :2024-01-08

Alexander the Great once marveled at "the reed which gives honey without the need for bees" in India during his conquests in 327 B.C.. The "reed" was a plant that we're all familiar with nowadays — sugar cane.

According to ancient documents, sugar canes were named after their places of origin, such as Cochin (Vietnam) sugar cane, Funan (Cambodia) sugar cane, and Kunlun (India) sugar cane.

Aerial photo shows farmers harvesting sugar canes in Xinsheng village of Wengyuan county, Shaoguan city, South China's Guangdong province, November 17, 2021. (Xinhua/Deng Hua)

During the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 A.D.) , different varieties of sugar canes around the world gathered in Lingnan region of Southern China because of the ancient Maritime Silk Road.

At that time, sugar canes in other countries were loaded on ships as refreshment during voyages for foreign merchants, who sold the remaining ones to local peasants when they landed in Canton. In this way, foreign sugar canes grew in the suburban areas of the city.

Farmers harvest sugar canes in Xinsheng village of Wengyuan county, Shaoguan city, South China's Guangdong province, November 17, 2021. (Photo by Deng Hua from Xinhua)

Kunlun sugar canes were much taller than local ones. They amazed Alexander the Great in India with their sweetness, and became the main raw material to produce cane sugar in China for over 1,000 years.  

Sugar canes were affordable for common people in Guangdong before Tang and Song dynasties (618-1279 A.D.). However, they were precious fruit at banquets of Northern China aristocratic families because of the high cost of preservation and transportation.

Thanks to the development of sugar production technology, northern Chinese people were able to savour the sweetness of sugar cane later on.

Lingnan people had long mastered the skills to produce raw sugar, either by boiling or sun-drying the sugar cane juice. But the raw sugar contained too much moisture and easily went bad, so it could not undergo long-distance transportation. At this time, raw sugar was generally sold and consumed locally in Lingnan region.

During the early Tang Dynasty, cane sugar production technology from India was introduced to Southern China. Lingnan people promoted innovation in the everyday practice of making sugar, and gradually mastered the techniques of sugar cane juice extraction, boiling and crystallization. Later, mass production of cane sugar was possible in Lingnan region, which greatly expanded the use of sugar cane.

Aerial photo shows a farmer carrying sugar canes onto a truck. (Xinhua/Deng Hua)

The sugar industry in Guangdong had been on the lead in China since Tang and Song dynasties. During Ming and Qing dynasties, Guangdong's cane sugar was sold across the nation, and even to foreign countries. Guangdong's businessmen constructed a huge sales network overseas, and brought great economic returns to themselves.

Source: Guangzhou Daily《读懂广州·解密丨唐宋广州:工匠精神熬炼甜蜜粤糖》
Author: Annie

Editor: Joyce, Pauline