Eat Your Dinner, Build a Wall With the Leftovers

By: The Scribe on Friday, March 8, 2013



Want to know an ancient Chinese secret? Shhh… come closer… good. That rice you’re having for dinner? The sticky rice that’s easy to pick up with your chopsticks? It’s both tasty and practical! If you can’t finish what’s on your plate, no problem! We’ll just make it into a nice paste, and…

Well, the rest is ancient history.

Turns out scientists have discovered the secret behind a super-strong ancient Chinese mortar that was used to build city walls and buildings that could withstand earthquakes. Sticky rice, or the “sweet rice” that’s a mainstay in traditional Asian dishes, was developed into a “sticky rice mortar” about 1,500 years ago by mixing rice with slaked lime.

Slaked lime isn’t a piece of citrus fruit—it’s actually limestone that’s been heated to a very high temperature and then exposed to water. Sticky rice mortar is thought to have therefore been the world’s first composite mortar using organic and inorganic materials.

Sticky rice mortar just so happened to be more resistant to water than mortar made with pure lime, and thus was used to construct things like city walls, pagodas, buildings, and tombs—some of which have survived to today! Despite disturbances from things like modern construction and earthquakes, some of the sticky rice mortar structures have stayed strong over a thousand years later.

For example, a section of tomb from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) is so strong that even modern bulldozers have been unable to destroy or move it.

To get scientific about it, the complex carbohydrate found in sticky rice called “amylopectin” is the secret ingredient that gives the mortar its incredible strength. It’s also thought that the mortar actually gets stronger over time—yes, even over a thousand years later—because the chemical reaction simply continues to occur.

As a result, sticky rice mortar has been used for modern-day restoration work on ancient Chinese structures, such as the conservation project at 800-year-old Shouchang Bride in eastern China.







 

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