Worldbuilding: White Gold

If you want conflict in your story, you don’t need to invent political plots or conspiracies. You just need to look for the one thing in your setting everyone needs, and the Evil Plots will appear. Consider the case of salt.

The history of human civilization is, to a great extent, the history of salt. Ice makes it in there too, especially once we worked out powered ways to refrigerate and freeze food, but mostly salt.

Three main reasons for this. First, salt is one of the best, simplest, non-temperature-dependent ways to preserve food. If you can’t put food by and build up a surplus, you can’t get past bare survival, much less build villages and cultures that write down their rituals, recipes, and raunchy jokes.

Second, plain old ordinary salt is useful for all kinds of chemical reactions. Tanning, dyeing, soap-making, mining and alloys – all of these use salt. Modern industry uses most of the salt produced worldwide. Look up organic chemistry if you want the gritty details, that stuff’s scary.

Third, humans need salt in their diet. It may be hard to imagine in grocery stores full of processed food and salty snacks, but for most of history, if you didn’t live right on the seashore, getting enough salt to stay healthy could be an uphill battle.

And here’s where some of the annoying aspects of civilization kick in. Specifically, governments hungry for Ever More Tax Money. Since everyone needs salt, governments throughout history have concluded that by taxing and controlling salt, they get everyone to pay taxes. Fair, right?

…I will pause here to let readers stop laughing hysterically, and/or retrieve their rolled eyes from under the sofa where they’re picking up dust bunnies.

Yeah. Not so much. Historically the people who most need to use salt to store food as a hedge against disaster are those too poor to afford getting fresh food when they want it. If you’re rich you can have fresh meat slaughtered, fresh fish hauled in water-baskets inland, fresh cherries air-mailed by pigeon post for a banquet.

(True story. A guy in ancient Persia proving a point about how fast he could get news across the Empire. Enemies took the hint.)

Rich people don’t have to spend as much money on salt. But if you sell salt, to people who have to have it? You can make out like a bandit.

(According to Everyday Life in Joseon-era Korea, this was the actual historical cause of many people turning bandit. They couldn’t afford enough salt to stay legal and survive.)

It runs through history like clockwork. Governments want money, they take over the production of salt, they farm out the actual work to people who can bribe their way into running it, the quality goes down, the price goes up, people make and smuggle it illegally… and there’s never enough. If you want some more recent history, look at British India. The government made it illegal for native Indians to make their own salt. This was part of what Gandhi used to crack them. (There were plenty of other things wrong, but salt was the one that affected your average householder trying to get by. Messy.)

If your story is set any time prior to modern day, salt is an important background detail. Nations go to war for salt. Beggars steal for it. People travel to find it, mine it, boil it from brine, and so much more. This Wikipedia article on salt in Chinese history lays out a lot of historical shenanigans, and if your library lets you borrow Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History, even better. This is history with ordinary people attached, meaning excellent story fodder.

But your story doesn’t have to use salt for this. Just anything that a lot of people need, and will pay for. If you want your characters going up against villains like corrupt government officials or greedy merchants – here’s a place to start looking!

26 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: White Gold

  1. Now that makes me wonder about supernatural version of Admiral perry and the opening of japanese ports to foreigners…

    imagine that, from the japan expy pov.

    make it xianxia or wuxia for extra supernatural, and suddenly the far off barberian kingdom not only demended to be allowed into the empire, but forced trade agreements on THEIR terms, while also forcing the gate open so more of them barberians can enter the empire. why the nerve! one of the edlers had a qi deviation on the spot from hearing these news!

    did korea had a forced opening of gates like that? how isolated and closed was it to western world? when did it change and why?

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    1. There is some interesting history on that – you can get a bit off Wikipedia here,
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Sherman_incident
      and here.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_expedition_to_Korea

      After that a newly modernized Japan was the first country to force their way in,
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japan%E2%80%93Korea_Treaty_of_1876
      and things went… badly.

      I’m currently reading up on all of Joseon I can find, because I do have an idea for a wuxia/ xuanhuan fantasy expy of the mess. Which has now decided it wants to throw in a poor isekai’d guy (who was the victim of a Mass Transport, only he doesn’t know that ’til later) on top of everything else.

      …I’m not sure if that’s too much, yet.

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    2. Korea managed to *not* have a forced opening to the West. Which… didn’t turn out great for it, but not because of anything the *West* did to Korea. Korea managed to pull off an “we’re not talking to any of you foreigners” and turned itself into a hermit state. Good for keeping Western influence out. Bad for keeping an eye on what China and Japan were doing. Specifically when it came to how China and Japan were exchanging social, technological and imperialistic ideas with the West.

      Which would be a major problem when different Korean factions began feuding with each other… by allying with China and Japan against each other. So China and Japan were more or less fighting a proxy war with each other over in Korea over who would influence the Korean government going forward. And that was when China and Japan weren’t helping each other’s factions put down Korean peasant results… Long story short, Japan managed to secure military dominance in Korea by the 1900s without hardly any input from the West. This would lead to the Japanese Colonial Period in Korea when Japan tried to stamp out Korean Culture for several decades (reading up on this era isn’t for the faint of heart; it was *gnarly* for Korea). Which… wouldn’t really end until Japan lost World War II in the Pacific. And then the communist influence from China would be yet another issue…

      The cultural effects of this are many and varied. One of the more obvious ones if you read/watch a lot of Korean stories is how many of them (especially action stories) are “Invasion” stories of some type. Some outside influence has upset the status quo in some way and most of the story is about lessening the impact of the outside influence; often by rebelling against it in some fashion. Westerners also tend to *not* be seen as a negative influence, while people from other Asian countries very often are.

      Long story short, Korea’s “opening to the West” was more of the usual “Japan *really* wants our peninsula and doesn’t like us because we’re not Japanese”, only worse. The invaders Korea is the most worried about have always been its near neighbors rather than the West… which has often served as its ally against other Asian powers, especially in the last century.

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  2. Puts exchanging bread and salt to claim guest right into new perspective! I remember in one Lackey’s Five Hundred Kingdom books, a character was able to wriggle out of Baba Gaga’s trap for him because he gave her an honest day’s work, and she gave him unsalted borscht in return. After that, the Tradition said he was in the clear.

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      1. On the note of “deserving what you get”, there was an HP fanfic (sadly taken down from FFN, tho apparently logged in members can still find it on Ao3) that had a very amusingly good analysis along those lines about Voldemort’s failure. Thankfully, I copied the analysis into my file of interesting quotes, so I can copy it here:

        _It’s the rune of the sun, I remember that much, the conqueror of darkness. If, as anyone with an ounce of sense might surmise, Voldemort’s destruction was wrought by Harry’s parents, that rune is a Clue. Thinking about it, they might not have needed to be wholly successful either. By the time he went to Godric’s Hollow, Tom Riddle had practically used the entire corpus of world folklore as a checklist for how to piss off the powers that be.
        Taking on faith that my experience with the Moirai was genuine and that their rules apply, Tom was a kin-slayer, had violated guest-right, styled himself a lord outwith the service of an anointed king, and forsaken even that shaky claim to lordship by standing forsworn to at least one of his liegemen if not more. He lacked only dancing on a mountaintop wearing a pointy copper hat in a thunderstorm in the ‘asking for it’ stakes, because if the Fates are real, so are the … let’s exercise appropriate caution and refer to them as The Kindly Ones. If the Potters’ hopeless last ditch defence and surrender of their own lives in sacrifice was part of some subtly-enacted ritual magic, Voldemort had made himself a perfect target for it.
        Of course, if he gets around to drinking Unicorn blood in a few years’ time, that mountaintop dance will be accompanied by a chant of “all gods are bastards.” I’m not just yarning, here: Voldemort’s tragic flaws and inevitable fall follow an ages-old pattern followed by storytellers back to the neolithic age. In a universe where there are actual entities enforcing those rules and well documented as doing so over literal millennia? Acting like Tom did goes beyond hubris and well into “what an idiot” territory._
        (by AndrewWolfe)

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    1. There are fairy tales when a prince arrives at Baba Yaga’s hut and she questions him, and he goes, how dare you? You have not offered me a seat and food and drink!

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  3. A lot of neat points here I hadn’t thought about!

    A guy in ancient Persia proving a point about how fast he could get news across the Empire. Enemies took the hint.

    ….Clever.

    In a mildly amusing side note, the notification about your post was right next to the one for Alma Boykin’s blog in my email, and I guess I misaligned the subject lines for a second because I briefly thought she had decided to reminisce about writing White Gold and Empire.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. *G* I did think of those posts when I was writing this one. Note Alma’s stuff goes into mined rock salt and how it’s considered “inferior” to sea salt.

      The odd thing is, from what I can find through history, most people around the world would take any salt they could get, but usually preferred sea salt!

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      1. Sea salt is the best salt for preserving meats due to it’s mineral content. Specifically, pink Himalayan sea salt is the primary ingredient in Prague Powder/Instacure #1, which is used for making bacon, sausage, ham, jerky and a host of other preserved meats.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Quote from above: “Sea salt is the best salt for preserving meats due to it’s mineral content. Specifically, pink Himalayan sea salt …”

        O_o I thought Himalayan salt was mined (one source tells me it’s from salt mines inside what is now Pakistan).

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I thought Himalayan salt was mined

        I expect it is, the Himalayas being nowhere near the sea… now.

        I’ve heard there are fossils up there that say it used to be a sea floor, at one point.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. I was wondering what on earth my wedding ring (white gold) had to do with world building, other than maybe something like it would traditionally be classified as silver and going into weird classification options.

    Liked by 2 people

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