Rice Mortar in China

Ingenious use of sticky rice mortar in Ancient China

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Ancient Chinese culture has made great contributions to humanity. The ‘Four Great Inventions of China’ – the compass, gunpowder, paper, and printing – are still being used extensively today. “Sticky Rice-Lime Mortar” may be one of the latest additions to the list of ancient Chinese inventions.

In 2010, an article, entitled “Study of Sticky Rice−Lime Mortar Technology for the Restoration of Historical Masonry Construction” was published by the Accounts of Chemical Research . According to this article, the addition of sticky rice to lime mortar increased the strength of the latter as a binding material. The earliest record of this technique, according to the researchers, can be found in an encyclopaedia, the Tian Gong Kai Wu ( The Exploitation of the Works of Nature) , which was compiled by Song Yingqing during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD). According to the archaeological evidence, however, the sticky rice-lime mortar technique was developed at a much earlier date, no later than the South-North Dynasty (386-589 AD), to be precise.

Perhaps the best part of this study is its practical function. After all, the aim of the research was to investigate whether sticky rice-lime mortar could be used for the “restoration of historical masonry construction”. Anyone involved in restoring ancient buildings would know that getting the right materials for a building that is being restored is of utmost importance. This is due to the fact that the bricks used in ancient buildings are softer than that used today. Consequently, pure mortar would have been too strong and may have ended up destroying the bricks. Hence, organic material would have been added to the mortar in order to soften it a little. By using ancient techniques in the restoration of ancient buildings, not only can historical accuracy be achieved, but the buildings themselves will also survive for a much longer time.

Chinese Rice Mortar

The ancient Chinese added sticky rice to mortar. Photo source .

In 2013, another study on Sticky Rice-Lime Mortar was published. This dealt with a specific site, and was entitled “ Investigation of sticky-rice lime mortar of the Horse Stopped Wall in Jiange ”. The researchers made a similar conclusion to the earlier study – that sticky rice-lime mortar was a good natural binding material. Furthermore, it was found that the micro-structure of this binding material, which is formed due to the interaction of the sticky rice and the calcium hydroxide (slaked lime), enabled the mortar to resist damages from the natural environment for hundreds of years.   

One of the most interesting things that I found while doing the research for this article was the way this piece of news was presented by some of the Western media to its readers. For instance, the (rather misleading) headline used by The Telegraph was “Great Wall of China's strength 'comes from sticky rice’” . Perhaps, to a Western audience, the most iconic image of ancient China is the Great Wall. However, it may be pointed out that nowhere in the article is the Great Wall of China ever specifically mentioned. The “Ming dynasty sections of the Great Wall” in the news report probably refers to the “Nanjing city wall of the Ming Dynasty” that was mentioned by the researchers. I suppose, to some extent, this could be viewed as a form of ‘Orientalism’, where the East is defined based on Western perceptions. One could interpret this stereotyping of China as a relegation of ancient Chinese architectural achievements to just one monument. (To be fair, this misrepresentation is probably the exception, rather than the norm.) Obviously, if the architecture of the USA was only represented by the Statue of Liberty, or that of England by Stonehenge, that wouldn’t do justice to either country now, would it?       

Featured image: Xuanwu Gate, one of the city gates of Nanjing. Photo source: Wikimedia

By Ḏḥwty


Discovery Communications, 2013. Sticky Rice Made Ancient Mortar Stronger. [Online]
Available at: http://news.discovery.com/history/sticky-rice-ancient-chinese-buildings.htm
[Accessed 21 March 2014].

Luo, Y. & Zhang, Y., 2013. Investigation of Sticky-rice Lime Mortar of the Horse Stopped Wall in Jiange. Heritage Science , 1(26). [Online]

Available at: http://www.heritagesciencejournal.com/content/1/1/26 

[Accessed 21 March 2014]

Moore, M., 2010. Great Wall of China's strength 'comes from sticky rice'. [Online]
Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/7785842/Great-Wall-of-Chinas-strength-comes-from-sticky-rice.html
[Accessed 21 March 2014].

Wikipedia, 2014. Tiangong Kaiwu. [Online]
Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiangong_Kaiwu
[Accessed 21 March 2014].

Yang, F., Zhang, B. & Ma, Q., 2010. Study of Sticky Rice−Lime Mortar Technology for the Restoration of Historical Masonry Construction. Accounts of Chemical Research, 43(6), p. 936–944. [Online]

Available at: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/ar9001944 

[Accessed 21 March 2014]


I think you mean ingenious not ingenuous.....

aprilholloway's picture

Thanks! All fixed.

Concrete and mortar act as skin, rebar acts like the bones in a foundation in modern times. This was an perfect cost effective way of using surplus rice and not having to get metal workers to make metal supports.. This is an impressive use of chemistry how the author pointed out the chemical mixture of the rice and lime..


Troy Mobley

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