Defending the Dumpling

Freshly wrapped jiaozi, or as they are better known in English Translation, Chinese dumplings
There are more to Chinese dumplings than meets the eye

Defending the dumpling:
Why I didn't eat jiaozi this Chinese New Year

People say that a lot gets lost in translation. However, if we digger a little deeper, we might just end up finding that perhaps not so much was lost after all. 

A dumpling no more

It’s 2010 and government officials in Beijing are worried.

Having announced itself on the world stage with an awe-inspiring open ceremony for the 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing was now looking to embark on the project to become a true ‘World City.’

But certain things were holding it back – like menu translation for instance.

How could the city stand tall among the New Yorks and Londons of the world, wondered officials, when hungry international guests were met with menu translations like ‘Red burned lion head’ or ‘Chicken without sex.’

There was only one solution. Every Chinese dish needed to be given an official English translation.

And so it was that Enjoy Culinary Delights: A Chinese Menu in English was born, an exhaustive list of the standard and authoritative translations for 3102 Chinese menu dishes (including Marble Cheesecake).

However, as some observers noted, there was one dish that didn’t seem to make the cut.

Chinese dumplings.

This world-famous family favourite had been forgone for something much more abstruse – jiaozi – a pinyin transliteration of the Chinese term.

Given the popularity of the dish among ‘foreigners,’ the editors of Enjoy Culinary Delights had felt that using the term jiaozi would help to promote Chinese language and food culture to a Western audience.

Perhaps they were right.

Translation is never just about finding an equivalent term in another language.

When a word is translated from one language to another, the power relationships that exist between those two languages and their cultures influence the way that a translation is formed.

And with China having been at the lower end of the international pecking order for the greater part of the twentieth century, its ability to determine how its language and culture is translated to the outside world (and especially into English) has often been highly compromised.

Even today as a great power, China still struggles to get the translations it wants. Whether it is ‘rule by law’ or ‘rule of law,’ the ‘China dream’ or the ‘Chinese dream,’ battles are being fought daily for the translation rights to Chinese.

But with jiaozi China seems to be making some headway.

The term seems to have stuck. It now has its own Wikipedia page and tends to pop up in brackets wherever you find a Chinese dumpling.

Jiaozi looks like it’s here to stay. Maybe one day it won’t even need italics.

The ugly dumpling

For some, the demise of the dumpling might not be regarded as such a calamity.

‘Dumpling’ is perhaps not the most endearing term that could be used for the sumptuous dish that it describes.

Played about on the tongue, the word ‘dumpling’ easily leads one to less than attractive associations like ‘what a dump’ or (for those scatologically inclined) ‘take a dump.’

The word itself may have arisen from the Dutch word domp – a haze or mist – and originally had similar connotations of a ‘mental haze’ in which one’s mind is befogged. This meaning is not used in the present but survives in the lines of Samuel Butler’s Hudibras:

To rouze him from his Lethargick Dump, He tweak’d his Nose with a gentle Thump.

From a mental haze to a heaviness of mind and being ‘down in the dumps,’  the ‘dump’ in dumpling seems to have followed a downward trajectory that continued until its heavy, doughy body fell splat into a bowl of thick beef stew.

Not just hazy, heavy and heartsick, our dumplings also give off undertones of short and fat. Think dumpy. Think Humpty Dumpty.

Given China’s penchant for high walls, it’s little wonder that the Beijing Foreign Affairs Office wanted to ditch the term.

Beautiful jiaozi

So much is lost when we translate jiaozi as dumpling.

As opposed to their robustly built English cousins, jiaozi are imbued with positive connotations that begin with an elegant and refined appearance highlighted by those beautiful folds that roll their way across the top where the two sides of the skin meet.

Buxom and curvaceous yet without the need for self-justifying body positivity, the jiaozi’s appearance is to the dumpling as Paris fashion is to Aussie thongs and blue singlets.  And that is just looking from the outside.

Much more is lost when we go deeper.

Traditionally eaten by most of the northern folk in China for the Chinese New Year celebrations, jiaozi have come to be a symbol of a festival that is more about coming home and being with family than it is about giving presents and red pockets.

In a land where there is often only one true family reunion a year, that plate of steaming jiaozi holds within it all the longing of a mother whose children have gone to work and live in far-flung cities, the solace of the migrant worker coming home after a year of hard labour.

So strong are the emotional connections to the dish that Apple just made a tear-jerking 8-minute movie commercial centred around family and one mother’s longing for a plate of Chinese chive and fried egg filled jiaozi.

While dumplings might give you a lump in your throat, only jiaozi will make you cry.

And as we cross over into the year of the Rat, it is jiaozi, not dumplings, that are warming the cockles of half a billion hearts. 

Keeping you warm, keeping you safe

Legend has it that the first jiaozi were invented by Zhang Zhongjing, a Chinese doctor who was trying to find a way to warm up people’s ears.

Growing up during the decline of the Eastern Han dynasty in the second century CE when power struggles and famines resulted in the deaths of countless people around him, Zhang observed that many of the people he met were suffering from fever-like diseases caused by the cold.

Unbeknownst to Zhang, China was at that time entering into a period of climate change – a period of decreasing temperatures.

And just like today, this change in the weather brought about momentous social changes.

Falling temperatures meant that nomadic tribes to the north of the Chinese central plain were increasingly making their way southward to escape the biting cold.

Known by the Chinese as ‘barbarians,’ these northerners soon crossed the Great Wall, which was now no longer an accurate geographic divide between an agricultural civilisation and nomadic herders, and began to make their way into the heart of China.

A migration that soon became an invasion, the result of this period of cold would be more than three centuries of chaos and strife as the Chinese empire was torn apart time and time again through the collapse of short-lived dynasties and invasions from neighbouring states.

But for Zhang, more pressing than the climate-change driven collapse of the empire was the chilblains on the ears of his friends. 

Determined to relieve their suffering, Zhang took up the task of learning about cold and the ways to fight it off.

Using the concepts of Traditional Chinese Medicine, in which foods are understood to have heating or cooling properties, Zhang gathered together a concoction of warming foods – goats meat, ginger and chives – which he then wrapped up in balls of flour.

Acting like an internal heat bomb, these doughy pills worked to dispel the cold from the extremities, especially the ears, and it was ears that gave Zhang the inspiration for the name of his new medicine, which he coined as jiaoer ‘charming ears.’

Zhang most likely would never have dreamt that his heating pills would one day become one of the most beloved dishes of his nation, nor could he have imagined that nearly two millennia later, his ‘charming ears’ would still be known as ears in Russia – pelmeni: ‘ear bread.’

And so we come full circle, food which had become medicine became food again.

While Zhang originally intended jiaozi to literally keep the body safe from cold, in today’s world, jiaozi are metaphorically seen as keeping one safe from harm, as the famous Chinese saying goes:

“When you are going on a journey, have a plate of jiaozi
When you are returning from a journey, have a bowl of noodles”

Just like the filling of a jiaozi is kept safe within the protection of its skin, so too is the traveller kept safe within the metaphysical protection that eating jiaozi is said to offer, sheltering you from the wind and rain, protecting you from the burning broth of an unkind world.

Like some digestible lucky charm, jiaozi are there to keep you safe on the road as you cross over the threshold from the familiar home to the strange wide world.

Arms crossed, legs crossed

Whether you are going from point A to point B or from ravenously hungry to full as a goog, jiaozi are all about crossing over. Literally.

Written in Chinese characters, jiaozi is made up of two characters as follows: 饺子.

Unsurprisingly, the first character means… wait for it… jiaozi,  while the second character is a noun suffix that just like the ‘ship’ in ‘friendship’ doesn’t really mean much at all (or does it?).

However, Chinese characters are much more interesting than all that and there is a much deeper meaning to the characters for jiaozi if we are prepared to dig down.

But first a 101 on Chinese characters for the uninitiated (or those who gave up learning Chinese because characters were their Room 101)

Legend has it that Chinese characters are descended from pictures.

As time and language progressed, these pictures came to act more like symbols which could be used to designate ideas that were connected conceptually to the original image the picture represented.

To add more meanings and decrease the number of pictures required, two or more pictures could be combined together in a  1 + 1 = 3 formation where the meaning of the character they represented played upon the meanings of the original pictures.

Examples would include ‘women (女) + under roof (宀) = safety (安)’ and ‘water (氵) + eye (目) = tears (泪)’

For the great poet Ezra Pound, this aspect of Chinese characters was awe-inspiring. How amazing was it to have a language where combining ‘man (亻)’ and ‘words (言)’ would give you ‘trust (信)’ or as Pound put it ‘a man standing by his word.’

Now back to the jiaozi.

The first character for jiaozi is 饺 (pronounced jiao) and is made up of the picture for food/to eat (饣) and cross/intersect (交).

Needless to say, the symbol for food/to eat is pretty self-explanatory, but why was the crossing and intersecting 交 included on the right?

 Some might say that it is just included for its sound. 交 is also pronounced jiao and it could be argued that its inclusion here is just as a phonetic symbol.

But that is perhaps missing the deeper meaning that lies beneath.

In ancient times when writing was still done on oracle bones and sacrificial bronze vessels, the character 交 was a picture of a person with their legs crossed.

Acting as a symbol for anything that was crossed, the character soon began to take on other related connotations that went something like this: cross – intersect – intercourse (both sexual and social) – exchange – hand over.

So what do these associations have to do with jiaozi? (aside from the vulgar idiom about eating jiaozi and screwing one’s sister-in-law)

Most people these days understand the ‘crossing over’ in the jiaozi as the crossing over from one year to the next.

Traditionally eaten at the stroke of midnight on the Chinese New Year, jiaozi help to see their eaters cross safely over into the new year. Given that the new year is traditionally a time when lots of ghosts and monsters like to come out, the safety that eating jiaozi provides is especially important.

This ‘crossing-over-the-new-year’ idea is further embellished by the second character in the word jiaozi – 子, which can represent the period of time between 11:00 pm and 1:00 am.

In essence then, the crossing over of the jiaozi is like the crossing over of midnight. Like a plate of gastronomical new year’s fireworks that light up our intestines, a celebratory meal of jiaozi at midnight on the Chinese New Year can help us to get to the other side and begin afresh.

But the ‘crossing over’ metaphors don’t stop there.

While China is well-known for inventing paper, it is less known that it took this flimsy stuff and invented something even more valuable – paper money. And way back in the Song dynasty, long before Marco Polo had set foot (or not set foot) in Xanadu, the first paper money in China was called… jiaozi (交子).

Working off the connotations of ‘exchange’ and ‘hand over’ that were inherent in the character 交, this paper money has more in common with our edible jiaozi than just a name.

Take a close look at a well-wrapped jiaozi and you will see that it resembles (with a bit of imagination) a sycee, those round gold or silver ingots that were used in ancient China as a form of currency.

And in a culture where loving money is not a sin, having your food look like silver currency and naming your dumplings after your cash seems like not such a bad idea.

So, while other traditional festivals like the Qingming festival require burning money, the Chinese New Year, it seems, requires eating it. 

This makes even more sense when connected to the Chinese folk idea that ‘whatever a food looks like, that is what it is good for.’ Taking traditional ideas such as ‘walnuts look like a brain and are therefore good for studying’ and ‘red sugar in water looks like blood and is therefore good for your period’ one step further, it could be that given that jiaozi look like money, they may just be good for your pocket.

These ideas of crossing over and exchange extend even beyond the jiaozi.

Just like the English dumpling seems to have found favour with the people of Norfolk, the jiaozi is primarily revered by the northern folk of China.

In other areas, especially in the south, different names are given. In Sichuan for instance, they are called chaoshou.

Cleverly designed by the Sichuanese to be as mouth-numbingly spicy as possible, chaoshou are served in a  bowl of chilli oil and have almost nothing in common with their northern cousins.

Nothing that is, except the name.

Because chaoshou means ‘crossing one’s arms.’

So, regardless of which limbs are actually being crossed, jiaozi or whatever else you might care to call them are all about the ‘crossing.’

But just as one man’s cross is another’s crucifixion, the deeper we go, the more we find that there is a darker side to this ‘crossing’ of the jiaozi.

Tied in knots

Coming back to the character and its original depiction of a person with crossed legs, it may be that what this picture is actually depicting is not an active ‘crossing one’s legs’ but a passive ‘having one’s legs crossed.’

That is to say, this is probably not a picture of someone who needs to pee, rather it is more likely to be a picture of someone with their legs tied up, perhaps a slave or captive enemy that had been captured.

One clue to this meaning lies in the character , which like the jiao in jiaozi, also has the character on the right.

While most learners of Chinese would know as part of the word for ‘school,’ in ancient times it had a much more sinister meaning of ‘fetters,’ and acted as the shackles that bound together hands and feet.

These 校 shackles make an appearance in Hexagram 21 of the famous Chinese classic the I Ching in which they bind the feet of a criminal that is being brought to justice, as Richard Wilhelm translates:

His feet are fastened in the stocks,
So that his toes disappear.

Fetters and bound feet may seem like a far cry from jiaozi but they may be more closely connected then we might realise. Funnily enough, this connection may be clearer in Italian. 

Both ravioli, which may be traced back to a similar root as the ‘ravel’ in ‘unravel’ and gnocchi, which comes from the word for a ‘knot in wood’ allude to the fact that jiaozi or their western equivalents are often understood in terms of a perplexing ‘tangles’ and ‘knots.’

Reflecting on the form of the jiaozi, this makes sense. For while the filling on the inside is on one hand protected and safe from the outside world, so too is it trapped, tied up and surrounded on all sides by an impenetrable skin that prevents it from getting out.

This contradiction, between the warmth of safety and claustrophobic entrapment is not unique to the jiaozi. In his book Fortress Besieged, Chinese author Qian Zhongshu described the institution of marriage in similar terms. While people are often keen to tie the knot, it would seem that almost just as many are desperate to ‘unravel’ it.

However, as far as jiaozi are concerned, divorce (the dissolution of the bonds of the dumpling skin) is completely off the table.

As novice jiaozi makers are reminded time and time again, a jiaozi that has lost its filling is a failed jiaozi, and worse, it has contaminated the water in which they are cooked in (which will be drunk as an intestine rinsing soup to wash down the jiaozi after the meal).

Punishment for such a sin, inevitably requires the maker to eat their non-jiaozi, a lesson to teach them to ensure the ‘knots’ are tighter next time.

Exploring the tangles and knots of jiaozi, we find that as we go deeper, boring down into the jiaozi subconscious, what we come to is a labyrinth of crossing ties, interweaving and entangling themselves into muddled morass of webs and confusion until at last, we come upon the essential nature of the jiaozi itself: chaos.

Wanton chaos

While jiaozi have had to deal with the injustice of being mistranslated as dumplings, their southern cousins, hundun have been able to retain their identity in English through their Cantonese pronunciation inspired translation ‘wonton.’

Perhaps a by-product of the mass migration of Cantonese speaking Chinese during the nineteenth century to places as far-flung as Gold Mountain (San Francisco) and New Gold Mountain (Ballarat), the power of Cantonese words to remain an independent foreign entity and resist English language oppression is sumptuously evident.

Whether you are slurping down ‘chop suey’, peeling ‘lychees’ or putting ‘ketchup’ on your ‘dim sims,’ Cantonese food terms are as ubiquitous on the table as ‘chopsticks.’ Fair ‘dinkum.’

A favourite at local Chinese chew and spews around the world, wontons have successfully integrated themselves into English and seemed to have avoided any negative associations with the less restrained ‘wanton.’

However, wonton soup lovers out there may be surprised to know that within their bowl lies a morass of anarchic disorder, for in Chinese the word for wonton, hundun, means ‘chaos.’

And this chaos is not unique to the wonton.

While thick-skinned jiaozi may be offended if they were called wontons, the genealogical truth is that not only are they related, but the wonton came first, or at least the word did.

In ancient times Jiaozi were themselves known as hundun. Writing at the beginning of the Middle Ages, Yan Zhitui, the first writer to ever mention the use of toilet paper (Wikipedia – failed verification), noted that hundun were popular throughout the land, with this term understood by historians today as jiaozi.

Even today, while not necessarily two peas in a pod, jiaozi and wontons are certainly no chalk and cheese, with the only real substantial difference between the two being that wontons are often consumed in broth.

However, the true connection between jiaozi and wontons is perhaps best seen in their names.

Moving down one step further from the jiaozi’s connotations of crossed, tangled and knotted, wontons lead us further into the labyrinth of confusion until we ultimately arrive at chaos itself.

This chaos, ‘hundun,’ predates both jiaozi and wonton. In the earliest ancient Chinese texts, hundun is the primordial chaos that existed before the universe came into being.

Interestingly, before it was made into a gastronomical delight, the chaos of hundun was anthropomorphised into an earthly ruler who just like a proper jiaozi, did not have any holes – that is to say no eyes and ears and mouth and nose.

As the story in the Zhuangzi goes, this certain Hundun was visited by Hu and Shu, two other rulers from the north and the south who, wanting to repay him for his generous hospitality, decided that they would give him a gift of ‘seven holes’ (not including holes below the waist).

So, for seven days they worked on Hundun with hammers and chisels. On the first day they gave him a right nostril, on the second a left…

And on the seventh day when Hu and Shu ended their work which they had made, just as they were finishing the last eardrum and were about to lay down their tools and rest, Hundun died. (No wonder Sunday’s are not blessed with double pay in China).

It appears that just like a badly made jiaozi, the soul of the mighty Hundun had haemorrhaged as the trappings of his skin were undone, the chaos held within slowing leaking out, like yolk from a cracked egg. 

A dumpling again

Eggs are perhaps a most appropriate metaphor for the chaos of hundun.

In ancient Chinese cosmology, hundun is the state of chaos that existed before the world was created, a primordial egg in which everything was mashed up together, undifferentiated and indiscernible. 

Similar to the cosmic egg stories of cultures from around the world, Chinese versions of Genesis have the chaotic egg of hundun slowly becoming ordered as that which was heavy fell to the earth and became ground, while that which was light rose to form the sky.

Far from evil, the chaos of hundun represents that unstable time before a thing is formed. Like the soil for the seeds or the womb for the embryo, it provided the seedbed for creation.

This connection between the chaos of hundun and the creative power of eggs is also present in our plate of jiaozi.

Looking somewhat similar to eggs themselves, jiaozi are in the habit of being given to northern Chinese brides by their mother-in-law on their wedding day.

Here, the procreative symbolism of the jiaozi is further enhanced by the fact that aside from referring to the time between 11:00 pm and 1:00 am, the zi (子) in jiaozi also refers to a ‘child.’

When put together with the ‘exchange’ and ‘handing over’ of jiao, the meaning in these nuptial jiaozi is to ‘hand over a child,’ a family’s wish that their newest arrival will waste no time in getting up the duff and providing them with a host of glorious posterity.

Going back to that old adage that ‘whatever a food looks like, that is what it is good for,’ given the round somewhat ‘egg-like’ shape of the jiaozi it may be just possible that eating them is good for your… eggs.

In some strange way, that plate of jiaozi at the Chinese New Year may be like those chocolate eggs at Easter. With both festivals situated after a long winter when farmers are getting ready to sow (or reap) their crops, that steaming plate of jiaozi on a cold New Year’s night may just be symbolising the hope for fertile seeds and a bountiful harvest.

And the cultural similarities in our eggy metaphors get even more interesting when we come to wontons.

While we tend to write wonton as one word today, its alternative spelling, won ton, makes reference to the fact the original Chinese is actually made up of two characters, hun () and dun ().

What is most remarkable is that the chaotic primordial egg of hun dun is made of up two rhyming words, one beginning with H and the other with D.

For you see, there is another term for egg that is also made up of two rhyming words, one beginning with H and the other with D—

Humpty Dumpty.

Could it be that there is some essential connection between eggs and two rhyming words beginning with H and D that transcends language and culture?

Perhaps there is something in the sounds of the words, some sort of synaesthesia inspired onomatopoeia—the sound of an egg.

Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty may think so:

“Don’t stand chattering to yourself like that,” Humpty Dumpty said, looking at her for the first time, “but tell me your name and your business.”

“My name is Alice, but— ”

“It’s a stupid name enough!” Humpty Dumpty interrupted impatiently. “What does it mean?”

“Must a name mean something?” Alice asked doubtfully.

“Of course it must,” Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: “my name means the shape I am—and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.”

And from the egg of Humpty Dumpty, we are really only one great fall away from coming back to where we began—dumplings.

Yes, they may be stout, sad and soggy, but at their essence, our dumpy English dumplings may have more in common with jiaozi then we may have first realised. 

So, while jiaozi may find it “very provoking to be called dumplings, while they might rage at the injustice of having connotations of warmth, family, reunion, money, riches, fertility and fortune erased in mistranslation, what we find when we unravel the knotted tangles of meaning is that in the end, our two doughy balls share a commonality that goes beyond the trappings of culture—two different dishes they may be, yet they both come from the same egg.

And even we are wrong, even if the connection between jiaozi and dumplings is not as sure as eggs is eggs, as far as translation is concerned, in the end it really doesn’t matter. Humpty Dumpty again:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean––neither more nor less.

“The question is,” said Alice, whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

 As long as we are the masters of our own translations, we can choose to call a jiaozi a dumpling as we please.

Which is why this Chinese New Year, yours truly will be guzzling down a plate of dumplings until he is full as a goog.