Hot Peppers, Sichuan Cuisine and the Revolutions in Modern China
The tongue-tingling, throat-scorching Sichuan cuisine (Chuan cai 川菜) with liberal use of hot peppers is undisputedly the most popular regional cuisine in China today. In the eyes of many Chinese, "Sichuan people never fear spicy food" (Sichuan ren bu pa la 四川人不怕辣) and their predilection for piquancy is presumably a timeless tradition. Yet considering the American origin of Capsicum (as chili pepper is known botanically) and its worldwide dissemination only after Columbus's Discovery in 1492, the culinary use of hot peppers in Sichuan cuisine should not be a long history. This gives rise to some interesting questions: what was the original flavor of Sichuan cuisine before the introduction of hot peppers? When exactly did the Sichuanese in hinterland China begin to know, grow, and consume hot peppers? Why did this little foreign fruit transform Sichuan cuisine so deeply and how did the cuisine's new flavor influence the cultural identity of the Sichuanese and their everyday life? An exploration into these questions will provide unique insight into the dynamic historical changes of modern China at the regional level during the time period when the old Chinese empire was irresistibly embedded into the global world. This essay will examine the dissemination of the hot pepper in China and its crucial role in transforming traditional Sichuan cuisine into the current style, which, I will argue, in turn helped invent the widely-believed cultural myth in today's China: the predilection for spicy food has shaped the hot temper of Sichuan people (in a broad sense, the people from all provinces favoring spicy taste such as Hunan and Jiangxi) and their boldness and revolutionary spirit as "testified" in their massive participation and great fame in both the Nationalist and Communist Revolutions in the tumultuous 20th century.
Sichuan Cuisine Was Not That Hot
Sichuan region centered around the fertile Chengdu plains in southwestern China has been known as "Heavenly Storehouse" (tianfu 天府) since ancient times for its richness in food production. Recent archaeological finds show that the native people cooked a wide variety of foodstuffs as early as in the first century CE. During the following centuries of political turbulence, with more and more migrants from northern China, the safe Sichuan region experienced vibrant economic and cultural development and consequently, a rich regional food culture that was distinct in source, variety, and cooking style gradually emerged.1 Understandably the popular seasonings in Sichuan cuisine were frequently in flux and no one particular taste was consistently preferred by the local people during the long history before modern times. Indeed, traditional Sichuan cuisine "accommodated multiple flavors" (tiao fu wu wei 調夫五味), as a local poet in history once commented, which reflected the preferences of a diverse population.2
The only historical source that suggests a Sichuanese "spicy" predilection is the Chronicle of Huayang State (Huayang guozhi 華陽國志). According to this fourth-century local history, the native Sichuanese "favored strong flavors" (shang ziwei 尚滋味) and "enjoyed piquancy and fragrance" (hao xinxiang 好辛香).3 Consequently, it is not surprising that this mention of "piquancy" (xin 辛) has been frequently cited by the Sichuanese today to prove their long, unique tradition of favoring spicy food. There is, however, no evidence to tell the "strong flavor" or "piquancy" was unique to Sichuan cuisine among others in China of the day. Also, we have to doubt how "piquant" the taste of the original Sichuan cuisine could be, because with the traditional condiments and spices historically used by the Chinese for flavoring, such as ginger and Sichuan pepper, the Sichuan cuisine in history could not possibly have produced real piquant flavors as strong as that from hot peppers.
Sichuan pepper (Zanthoxylum piperitum), usually known as huajiao 花椒 (flower pepper) in China today, serves as a good example to show the historical "piquant" flavor of Sichuan cuisine prior to the introduction of the hot pepper. The application of Sichuan pepper to food and drinks in China dates back more than two millennia, and it continued to serve as a major spice in Chinese cooking until the 16th century.4 Originating from the land of Sichuan (that is why the name was given), Sichuan peppers were particularly loved by the native Sichuanese who used them to make flavors in their tea and wine, and of course, in daily cooking. After the 16th century when most Chinese cuisines had abandoned the Sichuan pepper as a common spice, the people in Sichuan kept using it in cooking to produce a unique tingling flavor which, along with the hotness generated by the newly introduced hot peppers, produced the distinct taste of today's Sichuan cuisine—tingling and spicy (mala 麻辣).
The Sichuanese have developed different tastes in their regional cuisine in history, but on occasions in which "strong flavors" and "piquancy" were needed, they would apply indigenous spices like Sichuan peppers, which certainly were numbing and tingly but not that spicy. It was only after hot peppers arrived in China and penetrated into the Sichuan region that the flavor of Sichuan cuisine became really spicy.
When Hot Peppers Made Sichuan Cuisine Spicy
It is commonly agreed that the Capsicum was unknown outside the tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas before 1490s, when Christopher Columbus (1450–1506) made his epic voyage and brought this red-fruited plant along with other food plants, such as maize, beans and squash, from the New World to the Old.5 Yet the exact routes and dates of the transmission of hot peppers from Europe to China (in particular, to Sichuan) are not clear.
Both overland and sea routes might be possible for the entering of hot peppers into China shortly after Columbian contact. First, it is reasonable to speculate that this foreign plant was first brought to western China through overland routes during the late 16th century. One possible route was through the famous Silk Road traveled primarily by merchants from the Arabian world, where the local people might have learned hot peppers from Europe. Considering the long-established trading routes from South Asia to Southwest China through Burma and China's Yunnan province, hot peppers might also have entered inland China more directly from India, the major destination of Portuguese trading ships from Lisbon since the late 15th century after Vasco da Gama (d. 1524)'s first voyage to India. In this case, Sichuan could have been one of the first areas in China that encountered this foreign plant.6
The sea routes may also serve as a possible transmission route for hot peppers destined for inland China. Given the long history of maritime commerce between China's southern coast and Southeast Asia, this plant could have entered China through the trades with merchants from India or Spanish Philippines in the 16th century. Today's Sichuanese still call hot peppers as "sea peppers" (haijiao 海椒), which suggests the potential possibility of a maritime transmission route.7 Unfortunately, the Eight Treatises on the Principles of Life (Zunsheng bajian 遵生八笺, 1591), the earliest Chinese source that explicitly mentions the hot pepper, provides no clues regarding its introduction and transmission routes.8
Interestingly, the hot pepper did not affect Chinese cuisine immediately after its arrival in the 16th century. It first was seen as a novel garden plant by Chinese literati, who named it "barbarian pepper" (fanjiao 番椒) due to its foreign origin. We are not sure when exactly or where exactly the pepper was introduced in China. Those who believe that hot peppers came to China via a sea route may naturally assume that the plant was first consumed by the people along the coast, but this is not supported by the taste of the food along the eastern coast, where the local cuisines today contain no hot peppers at all. Chinese historians generally believe that it was the ethnic natives of Guizhou, a neighboring province to Sichuan, who first consumed hot peppers as a substitute for salt, a scarce commodity in the area during the late 17th and early 18th centuries.9 However, no records prove that the people in Sichuan consumed this spicy fruit during the same period. Even by the middle of the 18th century, the hot pepper still had no trace in the most authoritative cookbook of the day compiled by a Sichuan native.10 Only during the 19th century did some local records begin to mention the cultivation and consumption of hot peppers in Sichuan area, though its consumption might have started some decades earlier.11
In any case, it is safe to say that Sichuanese adoption of hot peppers as a condiment in cooking was not that early. However, the Sichuanese subsequently developed their love for hot peppers at an amazing speed. On a menu of popular Sichuanese dishes compiled in 1909, hot peppers notably became one of the major spices and condiments.12 A traveler to Sichuan around this period could not help expressing his admiration: "Sichuan people always choose extremely spicy peppers to eat and it is unimaginable for them to have a meal without hot peppers!"13
Spicy Sichuan Cuisine and Sichuanese Identity
Unlike some other provinces in southwestern China, Sichuan had a relatively stable core region centered on the Chengdu plains, which constituted its political, economic, and cultural center for over two thousand years. This core region shaped by geography naturally helped develop a distinct regional identity among its dwellers, both natives and latecomers migrating from the outside. The formation of such an identity can be traced even back to the ancient Ba 巴 and Shu 蜀 states in late Shang 商 dynasty (16th–11th century BCE). This regional identity was maintained and further strengthened during later times by a series of regional regimes in Sichuan such as Shu-Han 蜀漢 (221–263), Cheng-Han 成漢 (304–347), Former Shu 前蜀 (891–925) and Later Shu 後蜀 (934–965), all outside the control of traditional national power centers located in the North China Plains.14 Regional food with special flavors, a sign "of belonging to the same group," played a role similar to dialects, costumes, and customs in shaping and maintaining the regional identity.15 If such a sense of belonging did not initially develop in traditional Sichuan cuisine, the situation changed dramatically after hot peppers arrived. A popular saying in Sichuan is "Spicy or not, [that is the way to tell] the natives from the same home place" (la bu la, jiaxiang ren 辣不辣，家鄉人), indicates how firmly the Sichuan natives believe in the connection between their spicy predilection and their Sichuanese identity.
It should be noted that the introduction of hot peppers into the local foodstuffs of Sichuan was not an independent phenomenon in history. It coincided with the heyday of massive migration of peasants from the middle Yangzi River area during the 18th and 19th centuries, when the "outsiders" started to acclimate and forge their new identity in the new land. During this continuous migration trend known as "filling Sichuan with Hu-Guang people" (Hu-Guang tian Sichuan 湖廣填四川), a policy adopted by the Qing 清 (1644–1911) government from the late 17th century, more than one million peasants from the populous Hu-Guang (today's Hunan and Hubei provinces) moved to Sichuan, which was terribly devastated in the chaos during the dynastic transition. These new "Sichuanese," most suffering from poverty and strife, quickly adopted cheap and flavorful hot peppers to diversify their limited diets. "Spicy peppers are the meat of poor guys" (lazi shi zan qiong hanzi de rou 辣子是咱窮漢子的肉), as a Sichuanese ditty sings. The popularity of hot peppers among the ordinary Sichuan people perhaps explains why the cookbooks compiled by elite literati in the 18th century, which intended to promote high taste of elites, did not cover this cheap foreign fruit. Ironically, it was exactly this cheap spicy pepper that later conquered the "authentic" tastes of historical Sichuan cuisine and replaced them with its strong piquant flavor.
After the introduction of hot peppers, Sichuan cuisine developed into a distinct gastronomic style among the so-called China's "Eight Regional Cuisines" (ba da caixi 八大菜系), which differed from each other in their ingredients, seasonings, and preparation and cooking techniques.16 Among the approximately thirty flavors in today's Sichuan cuisine, the spicy taste along with the numbing flavor produced by Sichuan peppers undoubtedly stands out as its distinctive trademark. This unique "mala" flavor quickly became a shared predilection among different groups in Sichuan. Some popular dishes originating from lower classes perfectly reveal the power of hot peppers in transforming the Sichuan cuisine. One example is "Mapo doufu 麻婆豆腐" (literally meaning "Tofu made by a pockmarked woman"), perhaps the most popular dish in today's Sichuan cuisine. Lady Chen (Chen Mapo 陳麻婆) was allegedly the inventor of this popular dish in the late 19th century.17 An owner of a small food stand around the north gate of Chengdu city, capital city of Sichuan, she cooked traditional bean curd with ground beef and spicy pepper sauce and won great fame among the locals. Very quickly, this cheap yet delicious dish occupied the dinner tables of both ordinary and elite families. By the turn of the century, a new cuisine with its spicy flavor loved by both the rich and the poor had replaced traditional Sichuan taste, whatever it was, blurring the boundary between different social groups and helping to strengthen a shared Sichuanese identity.
The tie between the regional identity and Sichuan cuisine can be best revealed by the Sichuanese travelling outside their home province. Since the late 19th century, many native-place lodges (huiguan 會館) were built by Sichuanese merchants doing business in major cities across the country, where Sichuanese travelers not only could seek assistance and business opportunities, but also found authentic Sichuan cuisine to appease their homesickness.18 Choosing to associate with others from the same home place, Sichuanese travelers naturally developed connections through food—spicy food with hot peppers. Here, the spicy Sichuan cuisine functioned as a cultural bond and reminder, indicating at the same moment both the Sichuanese identity and the otherness of the group. Not surprisingly, during the first half of the 20th century, Sichuanese restaurants spread throughout China, serving both as a locus for the reunion of Sichuan natives away from hometown and as a way of introducing Sichuanese culture to the outsiders.19 Along with other Sichuanese cultural elements, Sichuan cuisine played an important role in the effort to redefine the province as a community united by a continuous past and a shared future.
Hot Peppers and Chinese Revolutions
Mao Zedong 毛澤東 (1893–1976), the founding father of the People's Republic of China, is well known for his zealous predilection for hot peppers. Mao's famous words—"If there are no spicy [peppers], there is no revolution" (bu la bu geming 不辣不革命)—have inspired many Chinese who are proud of their spicy palates. With the recent revival of the craze for Mao in China, eating spicy food has come to be regarded as an indication of such personal characteristics as courage, valor, and endurance, all essential for a potential revolutionary. Interestingly enough, the historical coincidence that quite a few revolutionaries during the chaotic 20th century hailed from Sichuan and neighboring "spicy" provinces of Hunan (the hometown of Mao), Jiangxi, and Hubei is popularly interpreted by the public as a proof for Mao's claim.
The role of Sichuan in a series of Chinese revolutions and wars in modern period, in the public perception particularly among the Sichuanese, testifies to the connection between their spicy palate and the hot temper and braveness. In the 1911 Revolution, Sichuan witnessed the "Railway Protection Movement" (baolu yundong 保路運動) which began with the public sentiment that newly constructed railways should be under Chinese control, not in the hands of the imperialist powers from whom the government planned to get loans.20 Protesters in Sichuan accused the court of selling their province to foreigners, and encouraged students, ordinary townspeople, and farmers to take to the streets, and later attacked government offices, igniting the military uprising against the corrupt dynasty. After the Qing court transferred troops from Hubei in the middle Yangzi region to restore order in Sichuan, revolutionaries soon took advantage of this vacuum to start the famous Wuchang uprising and set in motion the Republican revolution across the whole country. The contribution of the Sichuanese to the swift success of the Wuchang uprising was obvious to see. "Without the Sichuanese, the Wuchang uprising would have been delayed about one year," commented Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), the father of the Chinese Republic.21
The revolutionary image of the Sichuanese also has been linked to their sacrifice during the Anti-Japanese War (1937_1945), in which Sichuan served as the last base of Chinese government, provided nearly 3.5 million soldiers for Chinese army (the number accounting for nearly a quarter of the total drafted forces from the whole country), and lost about 640,000 Sichuanese soldiers during the eight years of war.22 The tremendous sacrifice of Sichuan has won the province a great fame. "No real army [can be organized] without the Sichuanese soldiers" (wu Chuan bu cheng bing 無川不成兵), is a popular saying that confirms this respect and admiration.
The number and influence of revolutionaries from Sichuan and other hot pepper-consuming provinces are even more noticeable in the 1949 Communist Revolution. Among the 1,052 commanders in the People's Liberation Army (PLA) with the ranks of general and marshal granted in 1955, at least 82% hailed from the four major "spicy" provinces (Sichuan, Hunan, Hubei, and Jiangxi), including eight marshals out of ten and fifty-one first-ranked generals out of sixty seven.23 No wonder Mao once proudly commented on the role of hot peppers in his military revolts: "A man who dares to eat hot peppers fears nothing; all of our Red Army soldiers loved spicy food."24 One of Mao's old comrades, Deng Xiaoping 鄧小平 (1904–1997), who became Mao's successor and assumed the title "General Designer" (zong shejishi 總設計師) of China's Reform and Opening since 1978, was a typical Sichuanese and unsurprisingly loved hot peppers.
Of course, the correlation between the spicy predilection and revolutionary characters lacks scientific basis and may be better taken as a fancy romanticization of food in popular culture. But we have to admit that once the connection has been built, it strongly engages the public and effects people's cultural psychology. Very noticeably in today's China, Sichuan and the Sichuanese are naturally associated to and defined by their spicy cuisine and regional characters. One of the most famous Chinese essayists once made a judgment of the Sichuanese this way, "All the people journeying from the Three Gorges of Sichuan…share a similar potential for rebellion, [which is] so beautiful and marvelous."25 During the disastrous earthquake of 2008, the public media unanimously described the devastated Sichuan with an emphasis on its regional characters of brevity, perseverance, and solidarity, which were believed to have helped the Sichuanese to endure the hardships and sufferings.
It seems that the real history of the hot pepper's dissemination in China and whatever the scientific explanation behind the "spicy character" do not really concern the Chinese that much. Instead, it is the hot pepper's spicy taste and its represented cultural traits developed from the sociopolitical interplay between food and the romantic memory of Chinese revolutions. Particularly for Sichuan people, their spicy cuisine serves as one of symbolic substitutes for the cultural spirits of Sichuan, defines the boundaries of being a Sichuan native, and carries the reflections of personal and collective memories and prides. In this sense, to borrow the pattern of Mao's famous phrase, we may say, "If there are no hot peppers, there is no Sichuan."
Hongjie Wang is Associate Professor of History at Armstrong State University in Savannah, Georgia. His research and teaching focus on political history of medieval China, historiography, and food culture. He is the author of Power and Politics in Tenth-Century China: The Former Shu State (2011). He can be reached at Hongjie.Wang@armstrong.edu.
I am grateful to my colleague Michael Price and to my friend Jennifer Lane for their kind help in my research and writing. The paper was presented as the inaugural lecture at the Confucius Institute at Savannah State University on Feb 24, 2015 and a brief passage of the paper, entitled "Spicy Food and Mao's Revolution," was published in Education About Asia 16, no.3 (Winter 2011).
1 For a survey of the history of Sichuan cuisine, see Yu Ren 愚人, Chuancai: Quanguo shanhe yipian hong 川菜 : 全國山河一片紅 (Chengdu: Chengdu shidai chubanshe, 2006), chapter 1; Du Li 杜莉, Chuancai wenhua gailun 川菜文化概論(Chengdu: Sichuan daxue chubanshe, 2003), chapter 1-2. For the popularity of Sichuan cuisine in premodern times, especially in the Song dynasty (960-1279), see Qingyi lu 清異錄 (Siku quanshu ed.), 2.72; Mengliang lu 夢梁錄 (Siku quanshu ed.), 16.9b; Ducheng jisheng 都城紀勝 (Siku quanshu ed.), 6a.
2 Yang Xiong 楊雄, "Shudu fu 蜀都賦," in Yang Ziyun ji 揚子雲集 (Siku quanshu ed.), 5.17b.
3 Liu Lin 劉琳, Huayang guozhi jiaozhu 華陽國志校注 (Chengdu: Bashu chubanshe, 1984), 3.175.
4 Lan Yong 蓝勇, "Zhongguo lajiao wenhua he lajiao geming"中國辣椒文化和辣椒革命, Nanfang zhoumo 南方週末, Jan. 24, 2002; Zheng Chu 鄭褚 and Zang Xiaoman 藏小滿, "Chuancai shi zenyang bian la de"川菜是怎樣變辣的, Xianfeng guojia lishi 先鋒國家歷史 21 (2007): 23.
5 For the history of chili peppers, see Jean Andrews, Peppers: The Domesticated Capsicums (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990); Paul W. Bosland and Eric J. Votava, Peppers: Vegetable and Spice Capsicums (Wallingford, Oxon, UK ; New York : CABI, 2000); Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Coneé Ornelas, eds., Cambridge World History of Food (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 1:281_289; Linda Perry, et al., "Starch Fossils and the Domestication and Dispersal of Chili Peppers (Capsicum spp. L.) in the Americas," Science, Feb. 16, 2007, 986_988; Araceli Aguilar-Meléndez, et al., "Genetic Diversity and Structure in Semiwild and Domesticated Chiles (Capsicum annuum; Solanaceae) from Mexico," American Journal of Botany 96 (2009): 1190_1202.
6 An interesting discussion of the introduction of maize in western China around 16th century offers a comparable case about date and route issues here. See Masao Uchibayashi, "Maize in Pre-Columbian China," The Pharmaceutical Society of Japan 125.7 (2005): 584.
7 The first mention of "haijiao" is in Dayi xianzhi 大邑縣志 (comp. 1749), quoted in Yuren, Chuancai, note 86.
8 Gao Lian 高濂, Zunsheng bajian, quoted in Gujin tushu jicheng 古今圖書集成, "Bowu huibian 博物彙編," "Caomu dian 草木典," 10.28, 49; see also his Caohua pu 草花譜, quoted in Gujin tushu jicheng, "Bowu huibian," "Caomu dian," 250.37.
9 Lan Yong, "Zhongguo lajiao wenhua yu lajiao geming."
10 Li Huanan 李華楠, Xingyuan lu 醒園錄(Beijing: Zhongguo shangye chubanshe, 1984). Also refer to Yu Ren, Chuancai, note 73.
11 Daoguang nanchuan xianzhi 道光南川縣誌 (comp. 1844), juan 5. For a discussion of peppers' planting and consumption, see also Lan Yong, "Zhongguo lajiao wenhua and yu lajiao geming" and Yu Ren, Chuancai, ch. 1, note 86.
12 Fu Chongju 傅崇矩, Chengdu tonglan 成都通覽 (Chengdu: Bashu shushe, 1987), 278_280, 293, 296.
13 Xu Xinyu 徐心余, Shu you wenjian lu 蜀游聞見錄, quoted in Lan Yong, "Zhongguo xinla wenhua yu lajiao geming."
14 For a brief history of regional regimes in Shu and the identity of Sichuan people, see Hongjie Wang, Power and Politics in Tenth-Century China, 21-39.
15 Massimo Montanari, "Food Models and Cultural Identity," in Food: Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 190.
16 For the history and styles of "Eight Regional Cuisines," see Tian Ke ed., Zhongguo ba da caixi puxuan 中國八大菜系譜 (Tianjin: Tianjin keji chubanshe, 1984).
17 Zhu Zhenfan 朱振藩, "Mopo doufu de chuanqi"麻婆豆腐的傳奇, Lishi yuekan 歷史月刊 255.4 (2009): 121.
18 For huiguan culture, see Richard D. Belsky, "Beijing Scholar-official Native-place Lodges: The Social and Political Evolution of Huiguan in China's Capital City" (PhD diss, Harvard University, 1997).
19 Shanghai serves as an example of the rise of Sichuan cuisine and other regional cuisines in big cities. See Mark Swislocki, Culinary Nostalgia: Regional Food Culture and the Urban Experience in Shanghai (Stanford University Press, 2009), 146-150.
20 For the role of Sichuan railway crisis in the 1911 revolution, see Li Xuefeng, "The Sichuan Railway Crisis: Prelude to Revolution," in China: How the Empire Fell, ed. Joseph W. Esherick and C.X. George Wei (New York: Routledge, 2013), 89-106.
21 Quoted from "Chuanzan: Sichuanren de lishi wenhua tezhi yu wenhua xingge jiedu"川贊: 四川人的歷史文化特質與文化性格解讀, Beijing ribao 北京日報, July 14, 2008.
22 Sichuan sheng difangzhi bianzuan weiyuanhui, ed., Sichuan shengzhi: Minzheng zhi 四川省志民政志(Chengdu: Sichuan renmin chubanshe, 1996), 157-8; Jing Zhensheng 金振聲, "Sichuan renmin dui ba nian kang zhan de gongxian lueshu"四川人民對八年抗戰的貢獻略述, in Sichuan sheng wenshi ziliao xuanji 四川省文史資料選輯, vol.37, ed. Zhongguo renmin zhengzhi xieshang huiyi Sichuan sheng weiyuanhui wenshi ziliao yanjiu weiyuanhui (Chengdu: Sichuan renmin chubanshe, 1997), 138.
23 For a list of generals granted in 1955, see Zhongguo renmin jiefangjun kaiguo jiangshuai minglu (Beijing: Jiefangjun chubanshe, 2006).
24 Lu Kaixuan 盧凱旋 and Li Yaolong 李躍龍, eds., Hunan shizhi 湖南史志, vol. 26 (Beijing: Wuzhou chuanbo chubanshe, 2005), 301. See also Zhou Erfu 周而復, "Wangshi huishou lu"往事回首錄, Xin wenxue shiliao 新文學史料, no.1 (1997): 97_104.
25 Yu Qiuyu 余秋雨, Wenhua kulü 文化苦旅 (Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin, 1992), 47.
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