Sex, jewelry, and Sichuan peppercorns

A previously unknown (to me) fact about huajiao.

Alexander Hosie was appointed Great Britain’s consul-general in Sichuan in 1902. Szechwan: Its Products, Industries and Resources is a compilation of the copious notes on the province that the curious Hosie accumulated during his tenure.

As Hosie concedes in his preface to the edition published in 1921: “This, then, is not a story of travel or adventure nor does it profess to be entertaining reading.” I agree. It’s dry as dust. However! As I perused its pages late last night, I came upon a paragraph describing the ever-popular Sichuan peppercorn, that bewitchingly narcotic numbing spice that is indigenous to Sichuan and essential to the province’s cuisine.

After noting that it is the shell or “capsule” around the seed that is the actual source of the spice, Hosie told me something I did not know:

The capsules, too, are softened in water and threaded by needle and thread into chains which are converted into rings and other charms supposed to emit the original fragrance when they come in contact with the moist skin in summer; but in my own experience there is more beauty than fragrance in these charms.”

Sichuan peppercorn jewelry! This is a phrase for which Google returns no results! (Although I suppose that will change after the publication of this newsletter.) I checked my notes. In Fuchsia Dunlop’s memoir, Shark’s Fins and Sichuan Pepper, she writes that “rural people exchanged bunches of Sichuan peppercorns as love tokens” and that “the spice is still imbued with erotic symbolism because of the way its berries hang in pairs, like testicles.” So, yes, the sultriness of Sichuan peppercorns is well-established in the current record.

But woven into rings of aromatic infusion? How far back did this practice go? Did the marvelous artisans of the Sanxingdui culture, the first civilization to rise on the Chengdu plain, dabble in Sichuan peppercorn adornment? Did the goddesses of the Lingjing salt well seduce passers-by with their peppercorn charms? The writer Li Jieren was a teenager in Chengdu when Hosie was consul-general; did he ever endure a stifling Sichuan summer with Sichuan peppercorns efflorescing from his own sweat? I have so many questions!

Not least: Why do I not already possess a peppercorn ring to call my own?