‘Cheeni’ or ‘Chini’ is a word used for white sugar in most of the north and east Indian languages, but literally also translates to “Chinese” or “coming from China”. I grew up in the northern Gangetic plains surrounded by sugarcane fields (Sugarcane is one of the major crops in the eastern portion of the Gangetic plains), but always used to wonder why do we have the same word for ‘white sugar’ and ‘Chinese’? Is it just a coincidence or there is a deeper association?
It turns out there is and the answer is not widely known but very obvious: white sugar was introduced in India as a Chinese product by the British in the 18th century and hence it was simply named ‘Cheeni’ literally meaning ‘coming from China’!
The idea of sweetener as an additive is not new in the Indian subcontinent. In fact, it has a very rich tradition of the use of artificial sweeteners and juices and the earliest known production of crystalline sweeteners began in northern India. India is also home to a native species of sugarcane, Saccharum Barberi. Though the exact date of the first cane sugar production is unclear, it is well mentioned in the ancient Sanskrit and Pali texts. Around the 8th century, Muslim and Arab traders introduced sugarcane from medieval India to the other parts of the Abbasid Caliphate in the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, Egypt, North Africa, and Andalusia. By the 10th century, sources state that every village in Mesopotamia grew sugarcane. The Islamic caliphates took it to Spain and Portugal, which later transported it to the Americas and Carebian Islands in the 14th-15th century. So, despite being the source of transmission of sugarcane around the world, the traditional sweetener in India had been jaggery or ‘Guḍa’ and ‘brown sugar’. The concept of ‘White Sugar’ was alien to the subcontinent until the late 18th century.
In 1780, Warren Hastings, the then Governor-General of Bengal granted a piece of land to a Chinese businessman called Yong Atchew, in an area about 30 km south of Kolkata. This was the beginning of a series of exchanges and trade between British India and China which ultimately culminated in the Opium Wars. On this land, he set up a sugar plantation and a mill to make refined sugar. This white sugar was a fairly new product for the people of Bengal so they took to calling this new stuff Cheeni, literally meaning “Chinese”. This new product swept across the northern Indian plains (then under the control of East India Company) and soon became a household item taking with itself the new term ‘Cheeni’ to the native languages of north India and Nepal. The term or a similar version became popular in Bangla, Assamese, Odia, Hindi, Maithili, Nepali, and Sinhala (the regions which came under the influence of British and their trade quite earlier) while other languages like Punjabi, Gujrati, Marathi, Konkani, Kannada, Tulu, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu retained their native word for sweetener derived from ‘Sarkarra’, ‘Guda’ or ‘Khada’.
Fast forward to the present day, India has definitely embraced this Chinese product and is the largest producer of white sugar as well as Sugarcane in the world (as of 2018). The tomb of Yong Atchew still exists in Kolkata and the area is now called Achipur (derived from Atchepore, after Atchew).