Sorghum in China

In China, sorghum is amazingly popular. In the northern parts, especially, millions of villagers consider kaoliang a part of everyday living. Many employ every part of the plant—from top to bottom.

Grains. For millions of Chinese, sorghum is a daily staple. The grains are eaten at perhaps every meal. Certain types of waxy grains are baked into cakes. Other types are fermented and distilled into strong spirits. To connoisseurs, China's best liquors are those made from sorghum—the famous (or infamous) maotai and samshu, for example. Certain grains, particularly the darker-colored varieties, are vital for feeding horses, donkeys, and other livestock.

Seedheads. In some varieties, the empty heads are converted into brooms and brushes.

Stalks. Sweet-stemmed sorghums are a major source of sugar to millions of Chinese. Some are also harvested green and cut up like sugarcane batons. (Children are particularly fond of chewing on them.) The stalks of more woody varieties are bound together, cemented with clay, and used for partitions and walls and fences. The supple green stems are split and woven into baskets and fine matting. The strong dry stems are widely used in making handicrafts and many types of small household utensils, including plate-holders and pot covers. Sorghum stalk is, moreover, a favorite for making children's toys and many types of containers. (Sorghum cages are used to keep pet birds and insects, for example.) In some places, woody sorghum stems are the basic fuel for cooking.

Leaves. In parts of China the leaves are frequently removed before the grain harvest and used for fodder. They are vital for raising cattle, goats, horses, and rabbits.

Roots. The roots are grubbed out and dried for fuel.

All this is not just an ancient traditional practice. In modern China, hybrid sorghum has played a vital role in increasing food supplies. These days, sorghum is a high-yield crop—both for grains and for stems. In sum, the experiences in China demonstrate just how universally valuable this African grain can become.

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