Why Qianlong Didn't Have Hot Sauce In His Bag

Did the Qianlong Emperor ever taste a chili pepper?

There is a universe in which it could have happened. By the time of Qianlong's sixty-year reign in the 18th century, the chili pepper had spread throughout China. Qianlong occasionally gets a bad rap for the condescension with which he disdained trade overtures from the British Empire, but he was a well-educated and inquisitive man; an avid collector of elaborate clocks made using Western technology and a patron of Jesuit painters. It's not impossible that his curiosity extended to his palate.

It's also not likely. As recounted in Brian Dott's The Chile Pepper in China: A Cultural Biography, Qianlong prized Jiangnan cuisine, renowned for its subtle and delicate flavors, above all other contenders. To this day, Jiangnan cuisine is notable for, and perhaps even prides itself on, its lack of capsaicin bite.

Jiangnan -- literally, "south of the (Yangzi) river" -- encompasses portions of the eastern coastal provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang that have historically been wellsprings of Chinese economic power and cultural orthodoxy. So it is not particularly shocking that Qianlong gravitated towards the cuisine of that region. But for investigators like Dott aiming to trace the chili pepper's peregrinations across China -- and to answer such questions as why Sichuanese peasants embraced the pepper while the Jiangsu elite rejected it --  Qianlong's culinary preferences are a problem.

Even though the hot pepper had arrived in China at least as early as 1591, there are scant references to the spice in 18th century cookbooks and gazetteers. According to Dott, a professor of Chinese history at Whitman College, Qianlong's tastes skewed the historical record. The literary elite who dominated cultural discourse took their cues from the top.

"Since the Qianlong emperor strongly favored [the Jiangnan] culinary tradition," writes Dott, "particularly that from Suzhou, literature about food from then and into the nineteenth century reflected this court proclivity."

The overweening impact of Chinese autocrats on freedom of expression extends at least as far back as the Qin Dynasty's First Emperor ("burn the books, and bury the scholars") and continues, with depressing vigor, to the current moment (try pasting a picture of Winnie the Pooh into a WeChat conversation.) Staying within the boundaries set by Qianlong's court was a laudable and prudent strategy for self-preservation in an age of literary inquisitions that routinely entailed fatal consequences for authors, publishers, and booksellers.  

But one of the hot pepper's most admirable attributes is its resilient perseverance. The full tale of the chili pepper in China is the story of a spice no emperor could stop; a spice whose success was driven neither by elite cultural appropriation nor by mercantile imperialist machination. The chili pepper is all grass roots. The chili pepper scoffs at sanction or class-based disapproval. The chili pepper goes where it wants and constructs its own authenticity. The chili pepper is the honey badger of the spice world. It just don't care.

Be like the chili pepper.

The Chile Pepper in China, published in May, is the definitive English-language study of how the pepper arrived in China, how it became part of local cuisine and medical practice, and how it even established itself as a core part of identity formation in southwest China. But one of its most provocative contributions has little to do with China and everything do with the chili pepper's unique relationship to globalization.

European lust for spice kicked off the age of colonialism and can be held at least partially accountable for the great world-historical sins that followed in its wake. It all boiled down to economics. In the fourteenth century, a pound of nutmeg was worth seven fattened oxen in Europe, according to a price list from 1393. Christopher Columbus, the first European to encounter the chili pepper (on his very first voyage to the Americas) was searching for shorter trade routes to the spice islands that would cut the cost of black pepper acquisition. The entire "Columbian exchange" that distributed American potatoes, corn, tomatoes and chili peppers across the world (and introduced smallpox to the Americas) was inspired by bourgeois European desires for cheaper culinary stimulation.

Pity the poor black pepper. Centuries of imperialist mayhem is a lot of responsibility to bear. But don't blame the chili pepper! Europeans didn't go looking for it, and when they found it, they were unable to capitalize on it. In something of a paradox, given its current global ubiquity, the hot pepper had no inherent trade value to incentivize conquest or genocide. The stars of the spice trade -- nutmeg, cinnamon and black pepper -- were expensive luxuries because they only grew in tropical and subtropical climates and required years of nurturing before bearing fruit. The chili pepper is far more promiscuous; it flourishes in temperate climates as well as tropical, matures in a single season, and stores easily when dried without losing efficacy.

Portuguese and Spanish traders are credited with introducing the chili pepper to Africa and India and China, but capitalist incentives do not appear to have been the key impetus for transmission. As Dott recounts, the sailors on those trading fleets had personal reasons for bringing chili peppers along. The fleets of ships organized by the Spaniards to transport South American gold and silver to Manila were staffed by multicultural motley crews that carried hot sauce in their 16th century equivalent of bags, because that's just how they rolled.

Carlos Quirino, a historian of the Philippines, asserts that probably half of the crew of the first fleet was made up of creoles, mestizos, and Meso-American indigenes. It is probable that some of these people were accustomed to eating chiles regularly and thus stocked the kitchens on the galleons with chiles for their food preparation. In addition, on later voyages wealthy passengers brought chocolate with them. This would have been prepared in the style prevalent in Mesoamerica, which included chile peppers. Thus multiple people on the galleons had reasons for bringing chiles across the Pacific for personal consumption, but none sought to trade them as Columbus had once imagined.

Once the chili made landfall in China, a host of factors contributed to its differential spread, including climate, the relative price of salt, and concerns relating to food spoilage. Bottom line: the chili pepper was incredibly useful for working men and women struggling to survive.

"Instead of thriving because of elite patronage as a solution to famine," writes Dott, "or as a way to make money, chiles gained popularity at the local level first -- from the bottom up -- growing in kitchen gardens."

Chilis -- of the people, by the people, for the people. Who cares what the Emperor thinks?

In 1765, Qianlong spent ten days in Suzhou. On the first day of his visit, as recorded in the official annals of the emperor's southern tours, the menu for breakfast included "chicken crown meat stewed with deep-fried tofu, braised bamboo shoots and chicken, mutton slices, mixed platter of duck steamed in rice wine and mashed pork in batter, sponge cake, stuffed spoon-cakes, steamed buns with bamboo-knotted rolls, steamed bamboo shoots, stir-fried cattail with meat, pickles served in silver sunflower box, four appetizers served on silver plates, lamb slides in rough-grained broom corn millet porridge, and thinly sliced tofu soup.”

That was breakfast. Dinner was similarly extravagant, although not, of course, spicy.

It is hard not to be awed whenever one contemplates the intersection of Chinese culinary history with the practices of the imperial court. Peak sumptuary indulgence! But given that Qianlong happened to preside over the beginning of the Qing Dynasty's irreversible decline, it's also tempting to draw a moral. Maybe he should have paid less attention to his menus, and more to those obstreperous Western visitors?  Perhaps he should have broadened his palate?

To do so, however, would have run athwart of another Chinese structural constraint contributing to chili pepper erasure. Dott posits the fascinating theory that the elevation of blandness as a desirable aesthetic trait in Chinese culture contributed to literati disapproval of chili peppers.

"Another likely contributing cause for the lack of elite writing about chiles comes from the fact that several important belief systems in traditional Chinese culture deemphasize strong flavors in foods, either perpetually or at specific times," writes Dott. "Francois Jullien has demonstrated that Chinese elites, in realms as diverse as thought, food, music, and painting, often sought blandness, subtlety or dan (淡). "

Both Daoism and Buddhism recommended avoiding strong flavors. In The Chinese Notion of Blandness as Virtue, Jullien and his co-author Graham Parkes traced this anti-spicy mandate all the way back to Laozi.

Music and good food

Induce the wayfarer to stop;

And as for what emanates from the dao

It is bland to the mouth and without taste

It (the dao) cannot be seen,

It cannot be heard,

Yet it cannot be exhausted by use.

Jullien explains:

All flavor is simply enticing (it is what makes "the wayfarer" stop) being nothing but that immediate and momentary stimulation that is exhausted as soon as it is consumed. But is necessary to pass beyond such superficial excitations -- or rather to come back to this side of them -- in order to make consciousness comply with the "inexhaustible" abundance of that which never manifests itself completely nor externalizes itself definitively but remains contained like virtuality -- and thus like totality (the dao).

Funny how everything always has to revert back to the totality of the dao. And sure, it's easy to see how a titillating, momentary overpowering of the senses could be a distraction from enlightenment. Despite my love for chili peppers I will concede that the path to understanding is blocked by over-indulgence in EXXTRA Flaming Hot Cheetos. I can appreciate why the refined scholar, in between reciting the poems of Du Fu and contemplating the paintings of Ni Zan, might prefer a sublime cup of tea to the burn of the chili pepper.

But what a luxury it is to be able to indulge in a twelve-course breakfast or discourse at length on the subtleties of Ming Dynasty brush stroke technique. The peasants who brought the chili pepper from Hunan into Sichuan had no such leisure. They were simply looking for the most bang-for-the-buck means of adding the tiniest bit of flavor to a bowl of rice gruel.

When surviving famine and war and the depredation of landlords are daily realities, connoisseurship "of that which never manifests itself completely" is a hard sell. One of the clearest themes to emerge from The Chile Pepper in China is how chili pepper adoption consistently broke down along class-based distinctions. Whether the chili pepper, as Chairman Mao propagandized, is truly a symbol of revolution, is up for debate. But that it was the food of the oppressed, toiling on Spanish galleons and laboring in rice paddies, is undeniable.

Think about that the next time you indulge in some Sichuan hotpot, or mapo doufu, or lazi ji. That feeling pummeling your mouth? It's the taste of solidarity.