In China, chiles are everywhere. From dried peppers hanging from eaves to Mao’s boast that revolution would be impossible without chiles, Chinese culture and the chile pepper have been intertwined for centuries. Yet, this was not always the case.
In The Chile Pepper in China: A Cultural Biography (Columbia University Press, 2020), Brian Dott explores the evolution of the chile pepper from an obscure foreign import to a ubiquitous plant regarded by most Chinese as native to the land. He details the myriad uses of chile peppers in late imperial China, not just as a central ingredient in Sichuanese cuisine, but also as a miraculous cure for (get this…) hemorrhoids. By the turn of the 20th century, the chile pepper had transformed itself into a powerful symbol of prosperity, virility, and passion.
Brian joins us to discuss, among other things, the challenges of translating classical Chinese, the difficulty of locating primary sources and what the chile pepper meant to Mao Ze Dong.
Brian R. Dott is associate professor of history at Whitman College. He is the author of Identity Reflections: Pilgrimages to Mount Tai in Late Imperial China (2004).
Joshua Tham is an undergraduate reading History at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His interests include economic history, sociolinguistics, and the "linguistic turn" in historiography.