Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Gǔ yǐ yǒu zhī

A friend of my family, a Chinese student studying here in Australia, was quite shocked when, in conversation, I mentioned that chili, that potent spice, comes from America, having been introduced to the Old World by the Spanish and Portuguese, and that therefore in all Asian cookery, including Chinese, it is a comparatively recent arrival.  As she comes from a part of China where fiery-hot flavours are popular, this did startle her.  She was convinced that chili was native to China, wouldn't quite believe me when I referred to English-language references, and was only convinced, though still very surprised, when she consulted a Chinese source on the internet.  (To be fair, Szechuan pepper is native to China, and this may have be the source of some confusion.)

I thought of this and smiled when I read to-day of the old-fashioned Chinese belief that Western science and technology, far from being the unpleasantly superior fruits of barbarian know-how, were actually known in ancient China, and thus, far from being invented exterior to the Middle Kingdom, were only lost secrets of the ancients now being re-introduced to their original home.  This is called gǔ yǐ yǒu zhī (古已有之), meaning "this already existed in ancient times": and, while this theory in its full-blooded sense has long been proved ridiculous, there remains a latent sinocentric view that various aspects of knowledge borrowed from the West has Chinese roots.

This assuming all things valuable to be home-grown is of course is a universal human tendency, especially for those who belong to large and populous nations (modern Americans, even more strangely, are guilty of similar faults, despite their much shorter history), so please don't take this as a criticism of Chinese people, but rather as an amused comment.  It relates also to our friend's preference for having her mother send her sundry items from China, items available here (including foodstuffs); but here she is no different to my South African friends (recent migrants to Australia), who love to buy any products of their former home: homesickness is again universal, and perfectly understandable.

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