I'm assuming the character (and word/morpheme) 辣 is not a recent creation and goes back far in history.

These days it means "chili/chilli", "pepper", "spicy".

But chili peppers only came to China and Asia generally as part of the Columbian Exchange of the 15th and 16th centures.

So I'm wondering in which ways 辣 was used before chilli peppers were known to the Chinese.

Was it used for other kinds of spices? If so, which, and is it still used for those now? Were other things considered "spicy hot" in those earlier times?

For comparison I know the 麻 of 麻辣 has various meanings besides "numbing" and "Sichuan pepper" such as "hemp" and "sesame".

  • bkrs:辣 peppery, pungent, hot; cruel "现代汉语词典":辣(1)像姜、蒜、辣椒等有刺激性的味道;酸甜苦~。(2)辣味刺激(口、鼻或眼):~眼睛|他吃到一口芥末,~得真缩脖子,black pepper 黑胡椒 (see Wikipedia,4 历史),bkrs:辣椒 hot pepper,chili
    – user6065
    Commented Sep 19, 2016 at 9:01
  • 1
    i.o.w. 辣 is only part of the noun 辣椒 hot pepper,chili, similarly no new meanings for existing characters seem to have been needed for 玉米、蕃茄、马铃薯、香子兰、橡胶树、可可、烟草,花生。
    – user6065
    Commented Sep 19, 2016 at 13:22

2 Answers 2


in ancient time, "辛" was used, in lieu of 辣. e.g. in 洪範:



nowadays, dictionary would explain 五味 as 甜﹒酸﹒苦﹒辣﹒鹹, instead of older terms 甘﹒酸﹒苦﹒辛﹒鹹


i guess the taste 辛 was gotten from 薑 ( ginger ), 花椒 ( Zanthoxylum ); that these two were native chinese plants.

last, the character "辣" is derived from "辛" & "剌"


well, more info:

the book 酉陽雜俎 of 唐 dynasty (618-907) mentioned "胡椒" (pepper) and associated its taste to the terms "辛辣"

酉陽雜俎 卷十八, ~p112 of the pdf file:


胡椒 - pepper

摩伽陁國 - magadha, a kingdom in ancient india

another casual found:

the term "辣椒" (chili pepper) is first used in 漢文大藏經 百癡禪師語錄 卷三 (around 1644-1661):


http://tripitaka.cbeta.org/J28nB202_003, [0016b07]

  • Ah yes I remember now that 辛 is still used in Japanese for hot & spicy. Commented Sep 20, 2016 at 12:01

'辣' is not a accurate word for the taste that we mean. For example, as the answers above, garlic (大蒜) tastes '辣', ginger (生姜) tastes '辣', and mustard (芥末‌) also tastes '辣'. These three ones are the typical '辣' spices that have been used in cooking and meals since the very long before the chilli peppers entered. However, they have completely different tastes.

  • Perfect! This fits with another English translation of the character, "pungent". Was this not used for 椒? I'm assuming China had black pepper or related plants/spices earlier. Then again I'm not sure whether we would use "pungent" to describe black pepper or not in English either. Commented Sep 19, 2016 at 13:49
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    @hippietrail: We would/do indeed. Commented Sep 19, 2016 at 19:57
  • @LightnessRacesinOrbit: Yes I had to check it myself and also found the answer to be yes (-: Commented Sep 20, 2016 at 11:46

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