“The Chile Pepper in China: A Cultural Biography” by Brian Dott


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”.

Chiles, as distinguished from Sichuan pepper that is native to China, are from the Americas, as are potatoes, tomatoes, and tobacco. Dott reviews local merchant records and suggests that they were first introduced, probably by multi-ethnic ships crews who were using them for their own cooking: first from America to Spain, then Portugal to Asia around the 1570s.  Unlike other spices that were traded at the time (black pepper, nutmeg, etc.), chiles had little value initially due to their ease of propagation in a variety of climates, and were mainly considered decorative plants by Spanish, and later, Chinese elites:


The fruit is bright red, like coral. It is shaped like the tip of a hanging writing brush.


In contrast, as the plant was being adopted and grown in lower-class households for consumption, they were referred to as “chicken heart” or “goat horn” peppers, commensurate with the kinds of things each class would have been accustomed to seeing. The chile was likely used earlier in cooking in lower class households due to the cost of salt and other spices, as well as the plant size conducive to home gardens; recipe books did not include any food with chile until Tong Yuejian’s The Harmonious Cauldron, written around 1790. Dott elaborates:


Elite traditions, which discouraged consumption of strong flavors, combined with the predilection of the delicate flavors of Jiangnan cuisine meant that many late imperial authors avoided both eating and writing about chiles. The spiritual importance of having a clear mind for self-reflection, cultivation, or meditation is exemplified in this rejection of the chile in preference for dan or subtle flavors.


The tree that produces the Sichuan pepper is large enough to make it difficult for an individual household to have “home-grown” pepper pods; according to Dott, it was largely replaced by chiles in many regional cuisines by the mid-19th century. Dott proposes that it became more prevalent in certain regions due to lack of access to salt (inland) as well as climate:


In contrast with other flavorings, chiles, although they required labor input, did not need to be traded for cash or some other commodity. Imported black pepper was fairly expensive. Salt too was not cheap, as its production and marketing were government controlled and taxed. For many, chiles would have been cheaper than buying Sichuan pepper at the local market. As integration increased, a sort of competition between spices developed, eventually leading to outsider chiles largely displacing the native Sichuan pepper as a daily flavoring and even shifting the very meaning of spicy (la).


The Chile Pepper in China: A Cultural Biography, Brian R Dott (Columbia University Press, May 2020)
The Chile Pepper in China: A Cultural Biography, Brian R Dott (Columbia University Press, May 2020)

Chiles also found a place within the traditional Chinese medical system as heating and pungent (xin), beneficial for expelling moisture from the lungs and diaphragm: “drying, hot, and connected with the health of the lungs.” Dott speculates that these qualities partly affected the differing regional preferences for chiles:


The northern region is less humid and is influenced by Mongolian and Manchu cuisines that typically did not employ strong flavoring. Both the eastern or Jiangnan region and the southern or Cantonese region, like the western chile-eating region, are quite humid. Thus it seems that people in the eastern and southern regions would also benefit from the damp-expelling abilities of chiles… In addition, long-established culinary proclivities such as the desire for subtle flavors in the elite-dominated East and for fresh ingredients in the South meant less need for preserving foods. For Sichuan in particular, preservation methods can impart strong flavors to the food and thus make people more accustomed to such flavors and potentially more open to new, strong flavors.


Perhaps the most famous person from Hunan, in the Western chile-loving part of China, is Chairman Mao. Dott collects several quotes attributed to Mao that link the spice with revolutionary fervor:


“Without chile peppers there would be no revolution.”
“If you are even afraid of chiles in your bowl, how will you dare to attack your enemies!?”
“The food of the true revolutionary is the red pepper.”
“He who cannot endure red peppers is also unable to fight.”


In contrast to these more modern associations of male vigor and readiness to make war, chiles are also associated with “spicy girls”. Dott traces this back to the character of Wang Xifeng from The Dream of the Red Chamber, whose nickname translates to “Male Phoenix Chile Pepper,” and is an archetype of the “chile girl”—


Women seen to fit this trope are stereotypically viewed as feisty, sexy, assertive, and willing to bend some female gender norms. They are at once admired and desired but also in its early form spurned for transgressions.


The popularity of this stereotype persists to this day, as Dott notes that the Hunan-born singer Song Zuying performed her “Spicy Girls” song for Chinese New Year in 1995, 1999, and 2009:


With a handful of chiles, speak their minds …
Spicy girls are spicy!
Even their sweat is spicy! Sweat is spicy too!
Even their tears are spicy! Tears are spicy too!
Even their passion is spicy! Passion is spicy too!


These representations of chiles demonstrate how they were adopted as a ubiquitous and “authentically Chinese” spice, food, medicine and symbol. The larger introduction of Sichuan and Hunanese cuisines by Fuschia Dunlop starting in 2001, as well as the proliferation of hot pot and regional Chinese restaurants have increased exposure of chile-laden Chinese foods around the world, and Dott has provided a satisfying history to their origins as well as their cultural significance in China.

Kristen Yee is an American writer of Chinese and Portuguese-Jamaican descent.