In general, sweetness in China carries similar connotations to sweetness in other cultures. The oldest Chinese character for “sweet,” gan (甘), also means “pleasant” and “willingly”; it appears in compounds meaning “contented,” “delicious,” and “smooth-tongued.” Both gan and the character that later largely replaced it, tian (甜), symbolize the happier side of life: “sweetness and bitterness” is a common metaphor for life’s ups and downs.
The character for “honey” (mi 蜜) appears among the oldest extant examples of the Chinese script, the characters engraved on excavated “oracle bones,” while the earliest manmade sugar was malt sugar or maltose (yi), mentioned in the ancient Book of Songs. Sugarcane juice was known very early on, but it was not until the Tang dynasty (618–907 c.e.) that the production of cane sugar became widespread. In modern China, honey may be stirred into hot water and drunk as a tonic. Malt sugar is still widely used in pastries and confectionery, and to lend gorgeous color to roasted and barbecued foods. Rock or crystal sugar, known in Chinese as “ice sugar” (bing tang), is often favored as a sweetener for tonic foods, such as a comforting soup of silver ear fungus and goji berries (yin er geng). Brown sugar, known in Chinese as “red sugar” (hong tang), is used to lend flavor and color to various sweetmeats and sweet–savory dishes, while regular white sugar made from cane or beets is mostly widely used in all aspects of the culinary arts.