How Ming China Fell in Love With Spice
It’s hard to imagine Chinese culture without spice. Not just chili peppers — which have all but colonized Chinese cuisine over the past century — but also the aromatics collectively known as xiang, including incense used for religious rituals, fragrant woods like agarwood and rosewood, and spices like cardamom, cloves, and peppermint.
Although there are records of spices being imported into China dating back to the Han dynasty (202 B.C. – A.D. 220), they were a precious rarity for the majority of Chinese history — an exclusive privilege for emperors and members of the elite.
That began to change in the medieval period, as China took advantage of new maritime trade networks that would expand rapidly and reach their peak during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).
Even by the standards of Chinese dynasties, the Ming had a prodigious appetite for spices. In its early years, the court expended over 3,500 kilograms of spices every three years on religious rituals and sacrifices to gods and ancestors. In 1456, the Imperial Hospital made a one-off request for 2,500 kilograms of spices for use in medicines.
Feeding this demand for spices became something of an obsession. During the reign of the Emperor Wanli (1563-1620), the court ordered the imperial treasury to maintain a stockpile of at least 10,000 kilograms of key spices for use each year. And while the Ming’s exact motivations for sending explorer Zheng He abroad at the head of a vast treasure fleet remain in dispute, spices seem to have been one factor. Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng made seven major voyages, venturing further than any imperial fleet had attempted before. His ships returned laden with exotic goods, including spices from Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, and even East Africa.
In the process, his fleet helped foster, for arguably the first time, a truly mass market for spices in China. Around the time of Zheng He’s voyages, several major plagues broke out in China. Although the spices Zheng brought back — everything from eaglewood to Javanese cardamom — could not cure these diseases, they were appreciated by medical practitioners and patients alike for their palliative properties. Major medicinal texts from the time are filled with recordings of the efficacy, formulas, and applications of various spices, which became a form of currency. Some people even collected spices as a store of wealth.
Inevitably, the influx of new flavors and aromatics from overseas made its way into Chinese cuisine. Spice use in food became pervasive during the Ming, including pepper, cumin, and cardamom.
Despite the overwhelming demand for spices during the early Ming, the imperial court abandoned its support of overseas exploration after Zheng He’s death. Meanwhile, longstanding rules prohibiting private trade with foreigners and restricting foreigners from trading within China were strictly enforced. Venturing out to sea, even on “a single plank of wood,” as one legal document put it, was forbidden, and strict limits on vessel size were enforced.
Instead of trade or exploration, anyone who wanted to obtain overseas spices in large quantities was forced to rely on the state-controlled tribute system. By the mid-15th century, the Ming was at the peak of its power. Kingdoms throughout Asia, wanting to establish diplomatic relations with China and gain access to Chinese manufactured goods, sent envoys bringing valuable goods, including spices, to the imperial court. As a show of sincerity, in 1411 the king of the Malacca Sultanate, in modern-day Malaysia, reciprocated a visit from Zheng He’s fleet by sailing with his wife to deliver tribute to the Ming emperor in person. Java and Siam likewise sent frequent shipments of spices and other goods to China.
In line with the governing principle of the tribute system — “give more and take less” — the Ming court would reciprocate with goods or currency worth more than the tribute itself. Spices commanded particularly high premiums, and foreign nations benefited so handsomely from the exchange that they seized upon various occasions — like birthday celebrations, coronations, New Year’s, and the birth of a prince — to send large shipments of spices to China as frequently as they could.
Continuous tribute missions filled the imperial treasury with spice, which the Ming rulers used as bounties and to cover officials’ salaries — an arrangement that helped them trim the budget while also drawing down their inventory of spices. As early as the end of Zheng He’s first voyage in 1407, the Ming dynasty began replacing its winter allowances of cloth and cotton to soldiers in and around Beijing with sappanwood; by 1424, part of the pay of some civil and military officials had been converted to pepper and sappanwood.
In addition to the official tribute system, spice smuggling flourished under the Ming. Some of the most successful smugglers were foreign envoys or members of their parties: Merchants and interpreters often brought excess spices with them, which they would sell privately. As early as 1390, an interpreter for a Ryukyuan tribute mission was seized for covertly bringing frankincense and pepper into the capital.
He was released and his confiscated goods restored in a show of magnanimity. Ming officials — whose collaboration was vital to the smuggling trade — were shown no such mercy. Punishments for officials caught smuggling were severe; some were given death sentences.
Nevertheless, the potential rewards — as well as the lack of punishment for foreigners — ensured some were always willing to take the risk, and the private spice trade flourished alongside the official tribute system.
Eventually, however, the Ming court decided its ballooning tribute arrangements were unsustainable, and so began to stipulate the frequency, size, and routes of various tributes. As its power waned, it was increasingly unable to uphold the traditional “give more and take less” paradigm, and diminishing profits from the tribute system soon dimmed other countries’ eagerness to participate. The tribute system began to fade away.
Demand for spices among the public remained strong, however. Later Ming emperors gradually liberalized the trade along China’s southeastern coast — levying heavy taxes on it in the process. The tribute system ultimately failed to produce lucrative economic profits for the Ming dynasty, instead serving only to satisfy the vanity of its rulers and their search for exotic goods, including spices. What actually produced profits for the country was the private spice trade. Nevertheless, both systems strengthened economic and cultural exchanges between China and the world, bringing them closer together.
Translator: Katherine Tse. Portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.
(Header image: A portrait of Zheng He overlaid on a photo of peppercorns. Visuals from IC, reedited by Sixth Tone)