Recipe from Tian Gong Kai Wu, or The Exploitation of the Works of Nature


This recipe is from a book called Tian Gong Kai Wu, or The Exploitation of the Works of Nature, written by Song Yingxing. This book, made with wood block print, written in 1637 during Ming dynasty, is an encyclopedia of recipes on agriculture and handicraft. It is also “one of the most important works on science and technology in the history of China.” The book “divided into three parts and including 121 illustrations, [it] describes the terms, configurations, and production stages for over 130 types of productive technology and tools.”

This specific recipe from The Exploitation of the Works of Nature is a recipe on how to purify sugar—changing sugar from brown to pure white. This process, although not really acknowledged by many western scholars, was invented in ancient China and passed on to India and then to western world. I did a very brief translation of the writing.

Let sugar cane from the south sit pass winter. Use the method shown in the drawing (the text in Chinese didn’t say shown in the drawing but I think the illustration demonstrate better then my translation)

to juice sugar cane into a vat. When heating the juice, you need to observe the way liquid splashes when boiling. When the splash presents as small or thin spheres, just like boiled porridge or thick soup, pick it with your hand. If it sticks on your hand, it is ready. Now it is still yellow to black. Store in a bucket and solidify to black sand. Then put in the funnel (see drawing) on top of another vat.

Stuff the hole at the bottom of the funnel with grass and put black sand into it. As black sand completely solidify, remove the grass from the hole and pour mud water (yellow mud water). Black residue flow into the vat underneath while inside the funnel will crystalize into frost. Top layer about 5 Tsun (Chinese inch) thick, extraordinarily white, called ‘pacific sugar’ (many believe that is referring to nowadays south pacific.) Underneath layer has light yellow-brown.


There are many discussions around this method of purifying sugar. Many scholars believe that China was one of the oldest countries to invent and perfect the technology of sugar purification, then passed into India, which explains why the name of white sugar in Hindi is the same word as China. The method then passed on to Europe through silk-road. It is vey interesting to think about the origin of the invention of this process, how the reading of this process transformed through time as it traveled in different cultures, when met with different needs, especially comparing to the politics around sugar in European and American society.

In terms of the process of trying out the recipe, there are several of barriers. First of all, the source of the sugar cane. It is very hard to find sugar cane that has not been preserved for a while in Providence, not to mention in the recipe it needs to be grown from the south and sit through one winter. Brown sugar or granular cane sugar that I can find in market is maybe as close as I can get to what the recipe was referring to as the ‘black sand.’ The reference to yellow muddy water is also really vague. It made me wonder what are the components in the ‘yellow muddy water’ make the process of purification work? What kind of mud was the author referring to in order to make the yellow muddy water? Does the mud from different region affect the result? What do the compromises mean and how do they alter the original concept as I made these compromises?




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