A common saying in China is: “The Sichuanese are not afraid of hot chiles; no degree of heat will frighten off the people of Guizhou; but those Hunanese are terrified of food that isn’t hot!” From this old saw, one might be forgiven for thinking chiles native to China. In The Chile Pepper in China, historian Brian Dott seeks to show how “foreign” chiles were introduced and explores how vital they became to these regions’ identity, with spiciness linked to the energy of “revolutionary men and passionate women”.

“For sothe he was a worthy man withalle.” Thus Chaucer, perhaps somewhat ironically (when Chaucer says “worthy”, there’s often a catch) describing the Merchant in the “General Prologue” to his Canterbury Tales. This brief description, minus any irony, would certainly fit Shinohara Chūemon (1809-1891), the merchant who is one lynch-pin of Simon Partner’s enjoyable, beautifully-researched and fascinating account of Japan a few years after what Western writers are pleased to call its “opening” in 1853.

In 1701, a state ceremony was under way in Edo Castle, then the headquarters of the Shogun Tsunayoshi, the de facto ruler of Japan under Emperor Higashiyama. There was nothing out of the ordinary going on at the event, until, as Toda Mosui wrote in his Chronicle of the Current Rule, “Chief of Carpentry Asano [Naganori] wounded Lieutenant-Governor of Kōzuke Kira [Yoshinaka] with a sword.”

China’s National Day is a carefully orchestrated occasion. Each year on October 1st, rigorously rehearsed celebrations take place nationwide, with those on Tiananmen Square broadcast live across China. On the decadal anniversary years, the display of pageantry is ramped up further, though these commemorations of Mao Zedong’s announcement on October 1st 1949 that the Chinese people had “stood up” have often been marred by events outside the careful control of the party leadership.