To soothe a craving for spicy Chinese food, a quick search on Yelp will present you with not only a list of restaurant picks, but also what seems to be a coin-toss between the spellings “Sichuan” and “Szechuan.”
The Sichuan region’s bold cuisine is wildly gaining popularity all over the world, with many associating it with its numbing peppercorn, and hot pot soup with bright red chili oil bubbling in it. But somehow, storefronts and menus can’t seem to pick one way to spell it.
To trace its origins, we have to look at the pattern of Chinese immigration in America, along with the development of different romanization systems, that transliterated Chinese words into the roman alphabet.
According to the Google Books Ngram viewer, Szechuan begins to appear back since around 1871, while Sichuan only appears a whole century later. The spelling of Sichuan didn’t arrive on American shores until the late 1970s.
The first Sichuanese restaurants in America
Chinese food was first brought to American shores by immigrants in the 19th century, however it wasn’t until the 1950s did Sichuan styles arrive, brought primarily by Taiwanese immigrants.
Taiwan got its Sichuan food from a huge influx of mainland immigrants during the Chinese civil war. A little over two million mainland Chinese are estimated to have immigrated to Taiwan in just the three years between 1946 and 1949.
Among these were chefs from spicy provinces such as Sichuan and Hunan. And in the 1950s and 1960s, more Taiwan citizens started to look abroad, prompted by political turmoil at home, and encouraged by America lifting barriers to Asian immigration.
For the first five years after the final American policy change in 1965, immigration from Asian countries more than quadrupled. And so, an influx of Taiwanese immigrants arrived in New York, along with Sichuanese and Hunanese dishes, and storefronts and menus that read “Szechuan.”
Szechuan came first
To understand why we started with “sz” to mean “s,” we have to look at the Wade-Giles system. It was the main system relied on in the early 1900s, and gave birth to the specific transliteration of Szechuan (and the less common Szechwan).
These systems were created by and for native English speakers, trying to phonetically transcribe sounds that weren’t present in the English language. They're pretty close approximations, but due to trade relations and immigration patterns, the resulting sounds tended to be a mixed bag of dialects and irregular pronunciation. This can be confusing and problematic for native Chinese speakers.
The spelling of ‘Sichuan’ wouldn’t exist until the 1950s, with the creation of Hanyu Pinyin by a Chinese linguist. Together with a country-wide effort of standardization and literacy, the use of Pinyin spread throughout mainland China, and in 1979 the Chinese government established it internationally as Chinese’s official method of romanization.
By the way, Wade-Giles is also how Beijing was Peking, and Chongqing was Chungking. As the Library of Congress said in 1979, of Hanyu Pinyin: “It is not a perfect system, either, but aims higher than Wade-Giles in representing Chinese phonetically…and it has not added any arbitrary signs or symbols to the roman alphabet.”
But Taiwan was separated from mainland China since the civil war, so it kept its old spelling system, and so did its emigrants.
Here begins “Sichuan”
When immigration from mainland China to America began in the early 1970s, the folks moving brought with them a larger variety of Chinese food, and also Szechuan’s Pinyin sibling, “Sichuan."
The continued move of Chinese immigrants into the culinary industry introduced the spelling of “Sichuan” within the already established Chinese-American food scene, and the two have been battling it out on storefronts and restaurant menus ever since.
Today, you’ll find “Szechuan” more frequently used on the east coast, and “Sichuan” on the west.
That’s why, when it comes to what to type into Yelp, there isn’t a clear answer. Szechuan’s legacy when it comes to being used for restaurant names has bled into popular brand items like McDonalds' Szechuan Sauce.
Neither are necessarily right or wrong, they’re both just byproducts of immigration history.