Tapping the Mapo Doufu Source

A dish that contains multitudes, collapses peripheries and explains the rise and fall of empires.

The year is 1911. The location is Ten Thousand Blessings Bridge, just outside of Chengdu’s North Gate.

The page number of The Great Wave, by Li Jieren, is 518.

Two women are sitting in an empty restaurant. Mistress Gu is a traveller freshly arrived from the countryside. Mrs. Chen is the restaurant's laobanniang, the boss-lady. With no customers to attend to, Mrs. Chen is keeping herself productive with piecework, knitting shoe-soles while her infant child sleeps in a nearby cradle.

Mistress Gu is curious. This is Chen's Mapo Doufu, the legendary purveyor of Sichuan’s iconic spicy tofu dish. The place is usually packed. Where is everyone?

Mrs. Chen explains that recent civil disturbances have resulted in the closure of the city gates and a drastic drop in traffic on the main road north. The normal flow of porters hauling cooking oil, rice, and other sundries has slowed to a trickle. Previously, the carters and street peddlers always stopped for a quick drink and some food before delivering their goods, but now the few remaining haulers hurry by.

As the boss-lady reminisced about the restaurant's past, the words started to pour forth as if from a bubbling spring. "Elder sister," she said, "you are probably not aware of how our restaurant's stir-fried tofu dish became famous.”

“Back then my mother was the boss. The old lady had a great temperament. The porters and street peddlers loved to bring freshly-purchased pieces of pork and beef with them into the restaurant so as to have something special to eat. They also brought fresh oil for frying. Mother understood that these were men who did strenuous labor all day, so they preferred food that was spicy (la), numbing (ma), salty (xian) and piping hot (tang). So my mother always made sure to add hot peppers and numbing peppercorns to the tofu for extra flavor. She never stinted on ingredients. If you brought things to add she would cook them for you. Our main profits came from selling bowls of rice.”

“Our stir-fried tofu dish soon became widely known. The restaurant’s original name was “Prosperous and Flourishing,” but because my mother's face had many pockmarks, everyone stopped using that name and started calling us "Pockmarked Chen's Doufu” --- as if we only sold tofu! My mother's reputation spread far and wide, and more and more people, some of whom were part of the refined, literary class, began bringing in their own pieces of meat and asking Mrs. Chen to cook them. This made the regular customers laugh and got to be a little exasperating.”

For the past year I've been working my way through The Great Wave -- a sprawling War-And-Peace-like historical novel with hundreds of characters and a labyrinth of subplots that all revolve around the story of how the Qing Dynasty’s final unraveling began in Sichuan. I chose this book for my nightly Chinese study session after finding out it included a scene in which the author, Li Jieren, recounted the creation story of mapo doufu.

Li Jieren’s lasting fame is as a novelist, lauded as “China’s Zola” for his literary commitment to “naturalistic” social realism. But he was also a journalist, translator, and restaurant owner; a gourmet with an encyclopedic grasp of the history of Sichuan cuisine; and, according to fellow expats who used to attend his dinner parties when he was a student in France in the 1920s, a pretty darn good cook in his own right. For an obsessive student of the politics and history of Sichuan cuisine, reading Li Jieren in the original on mapo doufu was more than merely irresistible; it was mandatory.

On that glorious night when I finally reached the passage translated above, I dog-eared the page, texted my children, and made a martini. Tomorrow, I thought, I would bring a clear head to translating this scripture. Tomorrow, I would tap the source.

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My first bite of mapo doufu happened in the fall of 1984, on my first day in Taiwan. It was a revelation, a festival of sensory stimulation, an utterly unexpected moment of culinary transcendence.

There was a lot going on! Contrasting textures: the crunch of minced water chestnuts and tree ear fungus balancing the melt-in-your-mouth pliancy of tofu. Blazing chili pepper heat, merged with the entirely strange numbing buzz of Sichuan peppercorns: that mala combination that is one of the great contributions of Sichuanese civilization to the world. A profusion of garlic and ginger. A tidal wave of salt, my true love, crashing in from multiple vectors: fava bean paste, soy sauce, salted and fermented black beans. And the bedrock beneath it all: ground pork and rice.

Complex, dramatic, overwhelming -- as Ellen Schrecker, co-author of Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook wrote, mapo doufu “seems to contain almost every taste there is.”

That such a frontal assault would appeal to me was a great surprise. Up until that moment, no one would have considered me an adventurous eater. In high school I was notorious for being leery of exotic foods like pizza. I could not bear the thought of sullying the purity of French fries with ketchup. Sandwiches were just a bit too complicated. I can’t even say that by the time I arrived in Taipei as a 22-year old that I was all that much of a fan of Chinese food. I started studying Mandarin because of my interest in Chinese history and fascination with the written language. Food was just fuel.

That first meal in Taiwan grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and sternly informed me that my experience of Chinese culture would resonate at a much deeper level than mere intellectual curiosity. It would be primal. It would feed me.

Chen Mapo's fame resounds of old,

The flavor of warm tofu, sublime.

When the banners at Ten Thousand Blessings Bridge wave free,

Diners will be dazzled as if by the best spring wine.

Feng Jiaji (19th century)

The original Chen’s Mapo Doufu restaurant no longer exists. In 1947 a devastating flood wiped out the Ten Thousand Blessings Bridge and forced the relocation of the shops clustered between it and the North Gate. Several more changes of address followed, with at least one installation graced by signage written in Li Jieren’s own calligraphy.

The restaurant survived as a family-run business for a few years after the Communist revolution, but was eventually converted into a public-private partnership. Today, there are several “Chen Mapo Doufu” restaurants scattered around Chengdu. When I visited the city in 2019, I ate at the restaurant closest to where the North Gate once stood. Afterwards, I walked along the river and tried to imagine what the city had looked like when its ancient walls still stood.

In a newspaper column published in 1947, Li described Chen’s Mapo Doufu as a “pure” country-style restaurant. But its location, just outside of the city wall, made it a nexus point joining rural purity with urban drama. In 1861, when the restaurant was founded, the North Gate was a major point of entry for the produce of the Chengdu plain.

Chen’s tofu was manufactured in a shop next door to the restaurant; all the rest of the ingredients -- the rice, the pork or beef, the scallions, garlic, ginger, hot peppers, Sichuan pepper, water chestnuts, and tree ears, the soy sauce, fermented fava bean paste, and even the cooking oil -- were products of the great Chengdu plain. The peddlers and haulers who trucked these ingredients from farm to metropolis were also, as the oft-repeated legend tells us, co-creators of the dish itself.

The antiquity of this rural-urban transit is hard to fathom. A city named “Chengdu” has existed in the same location since at least the fourth century B.C. Within current city limits, archaeological remains of the “Jinsha culture” date back to 1200 B.C. The road north from Chen’s Mapo Doufu is invested with enormous historical and logistical significance. It is, in fact, “The Road to Shu” immortalized by the poet Li Bai; the road that the Tang emperor Xuanzong travelled when he fled An Lushan’s devastating rebellion in the eighth century; the road the Qin dynasty’s invading armies marched down nearly 2400 years ago. 

The Qin correctly calculated that, once proper irrigation facilities had been installed, they could leverage the bounty of the Chengdu plain to provide logistical support for their ensuing conquest of the rest of what eventually became called “China.”

The Road to Shu paved the way to a unified empire.

And that would hardly be the last time that peasants laboring in the rice paddies of the Chengdu plain changed the world.

When I reached the passage in The Great Wave in which Li Jieren waxed lyrical on mapo doufu, I had almost forgotten why I started the novel. I had long since become enthralled by Li’s ambitious attempt to integrate the rhythms and textures of daily life in Sichuan with the momentous events that led to the demise of the Qing. There was a lot going on! My head was full of newly acquired vocabulary pertaining to opium smoking paraphernalia, railway economics, and the complexities of imperial bureaucracy. Li Jieren’s characters -- Manchu officials and adulterous matriarchs and umbrella salesmen; secret society “Gowned Brothers” and revolutionaries and spicy tofu cooks -- are caught up in inexorable currents of imperialism and dynastic decline, knocked about by the ascendance of science and technology and nationalist and proto-feminist awakenings.

The Great Wave is Li’s masterwork, the concluding volume to his “River Trilogy.” I was swept away. My nightly immersion became the high point of my pandemic-isolated day, my reward for nine-to-five hours spent chasing freelance dollars. As I progressed deeper into the novel, my research on Sichuan cuisine became an afterthought. I just wanted to know what would happen next.

Reading the words mapo doufu woke me from my daze like that first blast of capsaicin burn that starts one’s pores sweating and makes you reach for the nearest beverage. Oh right, this is what I was doing. This was my destination all along.

After I finished my first stab at a translation of the scene, I pulled up a map of Sichuan on my computer. I wanted to see if I could follow the route that Mistress Gu had taken on her journey to the city. I contemplated the Chengdu plain, and idly traced the northward transit of the Road to Shu. I imagined myself making my way to the fabled Sword Gate Pass in the Daba mountains that separate Sichuan from the Qin’s ancestral home and the great Tang capital of Changan. I lingered over one place name. Guanghan. Why was that familiar?

I searched my notes. The pieces snapped together.  Every taste there is became contained.

Guanghan county is an hour’s drive north of Chengdu. In 1977, Guanghan’s party secretary, a man named Chang Guangnan, went on an inspection tour of a local commune called Jinyu. The story is told in Dali Yang’s Calamity and Reform in China: State, Rural Society, and Institutional Change Since the Great Leap Famine.

“[Chang] was surprised to find crops of one production team growing uniformly well, without the stark contrast between collective and private plots. His curiosity piqued, Chang queried the team leader about the teams’ success but was met with equivocations. Only after repeated urging did the team leader confess that the team for three years had secretly contracted the land to three groups. Each group was responsible for supplying a specified amount to the collective and received the remainder. In this way, the enthusiasm of peasant households was raised.”

The Jinyu scheme inverted the traditional Maoist system for organizing agriculture. As per the status quo, peasants were allotted a fixed quota for themselves, but everything produced in excess of the quota had to be turned over to the government. In such a system there was no positive relationship between how much you worked and how much you personally benefited, a fact that tended to depress the resolve of peasant households to engage in backbreaking labor. Under the new arrangement, which eventually became referred to as the “household responsibility” system, peasants finally had enough skin in the game to make hustling worth their while.

Similar bottom-up experimentation at roughly the same time was also taking place in the province of Anhui, a region which, like Sichuan, experienced relatively greater hardship during the disastrous Great Leap Forward than other parts of China. (Yang’s thesis in Calamity is that the more devastating the Great Leap Forward famine was in a given region, the more likely local peasants were to buck Maoist orthodoxy and go their own way.)

For the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, the introduction of what seemed a lot like classic free market incentive structures into the Chinese countryside was highly controversial. But Chairman Mao died in 1976. In 1977, Sichuan’s top official was Zhao Ziyang, a protégé of Deng Xiaoping, himself a pragmatist and native of Sichuan who was poised to ascend to the top of the CCP hierarchy in 1978.

With Deng’s support Zhao endorsed the Jinyu commune’s approach and directed widespread deployment of the “household responsibility” model through Sichuan. Grain production started to boom. Over the next few years the Chinese government promoted the “Sichuan experience” as a national model.

And so began a fifty-year economic boom -- the most dramatic in human history. A boom that rewrote the rules of the global economy and ended China’s “century of humiliation.”

All roads lead to the Road to Shu.

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In 1977, I was a 15-year-old practicing my disco moves to “Night Fever” and fending off any food item more weird than a hamburger. Seven years later I was in Taipei gobbling down spicy Sichuan food every chance I could get. Each week, I read the latest articles in the Far Eastern Economic Review reporting how economic growth in China, unlocked by the reforms pushed through by Deng and Zhao, (who parlayed his success in Sichuan into the premiership of all China in 1980) was proceeding at mind-blowing speed.

From the vantage point of Taiwan, where fast economic growth combined with committed grass roots activism was transforming the country into a vibrant and thriving democracy right before my eyes, it seemed clear I had stumbled onto a cusp point in world history. All the so-called East Asian “dragons” -- Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore -- were booming. If China, led by Deng, followed their arc....

At the time, I did not connect my attraction to Sichuan cuisine to the niceties of agricultural reform in mainland China. But nearly forty years later, I was startled by a passage in Fuchsia Dunlop’s master’s thesis, “Gastronomically Chinese: Culinary Identities and Chinese Modernity.

After referencing a Sichuanese writer’s use of a small Chengdu restaurant “to illustrate the dynamism of the Sichuan economy,” Dunlop made a provocative suggestion:

“It is tempting to suppose that this reputation for small-scale economic vibrancy played a part in the CCP’s decision to make Sichuan the location for the first, pioneering rural reforms.”

I’m not sure Dunlop’s ascription of responsibility to a CCP “decision” gets the power dynamic quite right. If Dali Yang’s account is correct, Sichuanese peasants decided on their own to pioneer rural reform, and the CCP, instead of standing in their way, encouraged them. But regardless, Dunlop’s musing about the connection between the dynamic food economy of Chengdu and landmark agricultural reform sent my synapses firing.

The energy I tasted in that first mouthful of mapo doufu in 1984 was directly connected to the innovation and collective collaboration of the Chengdu food scene in the 1860s and to the experiments of the Jinyu commune peasants in the 1970s. Those peasants who grew the ingredients, and the laborers who hauled that produce to the big city, and the cooks who orchestrated a collective collaboration into Sichuan’s signature dish? Their grandchildren had unlocked the economic strength of a budding superpower.

This was spicy stuff! If only Li Jieren could have lived to see it. Because, in a way, the re-establishment of China as a major autonomous economic power in the world finishes the story he starts to tell in his River Trilogy. A country falling apart at the seams is now stitched back together.

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Railways were like a pair of scissors: wherever the railways arrived, the territory would be lost.

                                             ---Zhang Zhidong

The Great Wave is about a great many things, but the driving force that propels the plot is the story of Sichuan’s “Railway Protection Movement.”

Fully cognizant of the economic importance of railroads, eager to connect the hinterlands of Sichuan with the rest of China, and justly wary of foreign imperialist control, the gentry and emerging bourgeoisie classes of Sichuan raised, via a general stock offering, their own funds for the building of a railway link between the neighboring provinces of Sichuan and Hubei. But progress was slow, corruption in the disbursal of funds was rampant, and eventually the Qing government decided to nationalize the unfinished railroad and hand over construction operations to a French-British consortium.

Just sixteen years after a disastrous war that resulted in the ceding of Taiwan to Japan, and eleven years after the even more catastrophic denouement of the Boxer Uprising, the spectacle of the Qing court handing over Sichuan’s railroad to foreigners was not well received. One gripe was financial: the stockholders were extremely concerned about proper compensation for their shares. But the larger issue, the issue that brought people into the streets, was the existential question of China’s survival. Over the last couple of decades the Great Power scramble for concessions in China had, as the saying went, “carved China up like a melon.” Situated in the far southwest, Sichuan was relatively isolated from the imperialist land grab, but the loss of the railroad was a strong signal that the province’s immunity was under threat.

The Railway Protection Movement was started with the explicit goals of reversing the nationalization of the railroad and protecting stockholder investments, but as far as the general public was concerned, the movement quickly became a proxy for anger at Western imperialism, Qing incompetence, and the uncertain future of China. The ham-handed efforts of the governor-general, Zhao Erfeng, to quash the budding protests only exacerbated tensions. Students started boycotting their classes and merchants organized strikes. Disaster struck after Zhao arrested eight leaders of the Railway Protection Movement in August 1911. A spontaneous protest demanding their release ended in a massacre when, on Zhao’s orders,  government soldiers fired on unarmed civilians. The entire province promptly erupted in chaos.

Let’s return to Chen’s Mapo Doufu restaurant, empty of customers in the aftermath of massacre, general strike, and mayhem in the countryside. Mistress Gu’s arrival is inseparable from this larger narrative. Gu is on a reconnaissance mission for her husband, a militia leader in a small town to the west of the city who can’t decide whether he should throw in with the rebels or back the government. It’s too dangerous for him to visit the city personally to suss out the situation, but Mistress Gu is able to slip into the city without notice.

One quiet restaurant in Chengdu in 1911, but so many epic threads lead from it. Revolution. Imperialism. The global economy. The challenge of Western ideas about science and technology and constitutional limits on power to Confucian orthodoxies. And, indeed, the very end of imperial China. After government troops were diverted from Hubei to “exterminate” the rebels in Sichuan, a window of opportunity opened for revolutionaries in Hubei’s metropolitan complex of Wuhan.

The ensuing Wuchang Uprising in October 1911 is generally credited as the beginning of the Xinhai Revolution that ended the Qing dynasty. But if so, Sichuan’s Railway Protection Movement was the trigger for the trigger.

Sichuan’s largesse created imperial China; Sichuan’s frustrations ended imperial China. Sichuan agricultural reform helped returned China to international prominence. It’s an impressive track record. But what else could one expect from a region capable of birthing a dish as dramatic as mapo doufu?

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In their fascinating exploration of technology in rural China, Blockchain Chicken Farm, Xiaowei Wang observes that “the dynamics of rural China are not isolated to China itself. Yet because of its geographic distance from the United States, it remains a kind of periphery. These rural peripheries, the edges of the world, hidden from view, enable our existence in cities. These areas produce everything from the cotton in the clothes we wear to the minerals that create the computers in data centers. They also produce the food we eat. It is impossible to disentangle the countryside from food -- food is at the core of the dynamic between the rural and the global. As humans, we eat to survive, and our appetite for food has carved new geographies and technologies into the world. Urbanite appetites, especially, have shifted rural economies, ecologies, and societies over the past three decades.”

“I am here because looking at technology in rural China,” continued Wang “in places that produce the technology we use, places that show how globally entangled we are with one another, allows me to confront the scarier question that technology poses: What does it mean to live, to be human right now?”

Li Jieren and his characters were asking this same question a century ago; I am asking it of myself right now. Among other things, I wonder why I am spending so much time reading a novel set in the 1930s by a man who died the year I was born. Our circumstances could hardly be further apart.

But Wang’s point is crucial; our global entanglements with what might seem like the most remote peripheries are in fact deep and intimate and require clarity and excavation. The descendants of the Jinyu peasants who pioneered world-changing agricultural reform now work in lithium battery factories whose products are linchpins for the global technology supply chain. Their appetite for pork is so great it affects the economics of swine waste disposal in North Carolina and the profits of soybean farms in Brazil. By understanding the socioeconomic and historical conditions that have shaped Sichuan’s peasantry for thousands of years, I can more fully grasp my own reality, my own privilege, my own journey. The Road to Shu leads to my backyard scallion patch. Li Jieren’s saga is relevant.

I started my quest to write about Sichuan food and globalization because I thought it would be fun to write a set of stories that deconstructed my favorite Sichuan dishes in such a way as to elucidate the connections that bind us all together into one great tapestry. As a writer, my goal is to collapse peripheries and find common ground for cross-cultural hybrid fusion.

Which, it seems to me, is exactly the essence of mapo doufu. The world is not a simple place, declares mapo doufu. It is full of contradictions and contrasts and complexity. It can be overpowering, but properly constructed, it is also intoxicating. And if you understand mapo doufu, you can understand the world, because mapo doufu doesn’t just contain all tastes -- it contains all stories.

So of course I would fall in love with it, at first detonated taste bud. There was never any other choice.