Ran Yunfei in his 2009 book Wu Yu: A Life in the Republican Era 1911 – 1949 吴虞和他生活的民国时代
examined the many diaries of Prof. Wu Yu of Sichuan University (known in the May 4th era as a critic of Confucius), mining them for a thematic examination of life in Chengdu during the Republican period.
Part of the first section (pp. 20 – 30) discusses food and restaurants in Chengdu. Ran fills in some background, saying that the original Sichuan culinary style was largely lost after much of the population was killed in the slaughters surrounding the uprising and suppression of the peasant leader Zhang Xianzhong 张献忠 of the late Ming and early Qing. (Some argument about whether crazed peasant revolutionary or the repression by the reactionary cliques was largely responsible for the slaughter, it seems) [ Wiki https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E5%BC%A0%E7%8C%AE%E5%BF%A0
] See the scan of pp. 20 – 21.
Large scale immigration of Hakka and other people from Guangdong and Hunan regions planted sweet potato and hot pepper etc. to Sichuan that were arriving from the New World with foreign trade. These newcomers together with competition among restaurants as outsiders came to rapidly growing cities largely produced Sichuan food. He said that while some of the Sichuan food came from family recipes, if it were not for the competition among restaurants in the cities it could not have developed so quickly in only a 150 years or so.
It does make me wonder about the concept of history. If the people are all killed, does history continue? Or is it just the history of a place, and the people are secondary. It makes me wonder about the differences that apparently grew up between Hunan and Sichuan food. I remember learning about food origins at dinner in Kaifeng one evening having some “Peking Roast Duck”. My host grumbled “This is really Kaifeng Roast Duck. The Beijingers stole the dish from Kaifeng in the late 19th century and then called it Peking Roast Duck!”
I only made one weeklong trip to Changsha and then to visit Mao’s and Liu Shaoqi’s homes. I don’t know enough to compare cuisines. One good thing about living in China is that they have lots of good Chinese restaurants! I miss the spicy food and friendly restaurants of Chengdu.
Some of the sources quoted in the Chinese language Wiki article on the slaughter in Chengdu and Sichuan:
计六奇《明季南略》记载：“献忠遂屠重庆，砍手三十余万人，流血有声。” “Zhang Xianzhong continued the slaughter in Chongqing, where he killed over 300,000 people. So much blood that you could hear it flowing by!”
外国传教士吉洛东《圣教入川记》：“残杀之后，成都为之一空。除少数官员外，别无居民。荒凉惨象，不忍瞩目。献忠剿灭成都后，命令各乡镇村民移居成都。” “After the slaughter, Chengdu was totally empty. Except for a few officials, there were no residents left. The scene was so horrible, one couldn’t bear to look at it. After that Zhang Xiangzhong viper’s nest was cleared out, it was ordered that the various townships and villages send some people to live in Chengdu”
The food in Hunan and Sichuan didn’t get spicy though until the late Ming and early Qing dynasty (17th century) when chili peppers arrived from the New World.