The Eman Salt Ponds
Among the places I have visited on Hainan Island, the salt ponds in Eman, Danzhou, is the landscape I most remember. In February and March 2017 I visited it twice. Originally exploited and managed by the “saltmen” for more than 1,200 years, the salt ponds are gradually fading because of natural forces and humanexploitation. If not protected and treated well, this landscape will soon disappear.
The Eman ponds enriched my understanding of landscape. In Dutch and French, landscape (landskip or paysage) refers to the “farmer and his cultivated land,” which is closer to the Chinese “Tianyuan”or “fieldand garden.” Similarly, the Eman ponds are a landscape of the “salt man and his territory.” The sea water is channeled into the mangrove beach area. Clever use of sun and gravel by the salt men concentrates the seawater, forming it into high concentrated brine. The brine evaporates into crystal salt, while the sundrying table is chiseled and polished out of hard black basalt and shaped like an inkstone. The salt storage rooms, also made of basalt, are interspersed with the salt ponds and a paved walkway meanders through the ponds. There is also the salt god engraved on rocks, which the salt men pray to for sunshine and high temperature. The most amazing feature of the landscape is the standing stone pyramid in the center of the salt ponds. The pyramid was formed as the salt men stacked stones on the pile over time for each baby boy born in the area for that the heavy salt work was often borne by males. Although not as dramatic as the Mayan pyramids, the story behind it makes it far more meaningful than pyramids built only for gods and monarchs. Black basalt was also used as the building material, strong enough to withstand the strongest typhoon, in adjacent Salt Man Villages. Despite the uniform architectural style of the villages, each building had its own character, identifying the owner’s status by how well their rock blocks are burnished.
At the Eman seashore, the salt men’s dwelling, production and living are seamlessly integrated with the surrounding nature environment, forming a complete cultural landscape. It is an expression of their survival wisdom, humanity, experiences, social relations, and cultural processes in harsh environment. It is the vivid archives that helps us to read and understand the culture of the salt men.
Salt production varies between environments. In the dry-hot valley of the Lancang River in Mangkang, Tibet, brine is taken out through wells in the river bed and carried back to salt fields made of wood and clay, which are amazingly held up on the cliffs along the Lancang River, tier upon tier. In humid and rainy Zigong, Sichuan Province, salt is harvested through a combination of deep well brine mining, brine evaporation, and boiling. The bamboo brine extraction towers and straw salt sheds make a spectacular productive and cultural landscape.
In addition to salt cultural landscape, rice fields, tea gardens, orchards, vegetable gardens, sugar cane gardens, fish ponds, and homes are all expressions of culture formed while human continuously adapting to nature. Due to the differences in climate and geographic conditions, and the resulting varied local materials, mankind has developed various methods and techniques that are compatible with various natural conditions. And by incorporating emotions, values and aesthetics, they created cultural landscapes with rich regional characteristics. These are the art of survival, not designed landscapes.
These cultural landscapes are also indispensable materials for humans to know themselves, their population and their nation. To protect these landscapes is to protect the cultural diversity of the human species, the meaning of which being just as the protection of the biodiversity of nature. The ability to adapt to uncertain futures will determine the probability of human survival and their life quality. Contemporary landscape architecture, which is dominated by professional designers, is devoted to coordinating relationships between man and nature. To it, past cultural landscapes are a reflection of our ancestors’ wisdom of product and life adapting to unique natural environment, and an approach for addressing survival problems we are facing now. They are both the historical legacies and the key to the future.