Origins and Evolution
The story of baozi begins with the story of mantou, a simple steamed bread dumpling. Legend has it that mantou was invented by Zhuge Liang (181-234 CE), a military strategist who was leading the Shu Army into southern China. During the Three Kingdoms Period after the downfall of the Han Dynasty rulers, the Chinese empire was is a state of disunity and Zhuge Liang’s army from the north was likely invading modern-day Yunan and northern Burma, which was the state of Wu.
After defeating a barbarian king, Zhuge Liang and his army encountered a river too swift to cross. According to legend, armies would sacrifice 50 men and then toss the heads into the river to please the river gods. However, Zhuge Liang wanted to avoid more human bloodshed. Instead, Liang decided to kill cows and horses traveling with the army, and used the meat in buns shaped like human heads. The flat-based buns were thrown into the river and were later named mantou, which translates to “barbarian’s head.”
Does the legend of Zhuge Liang have foundations in historical truth? Research confirms that the technology required for baozi did in fact exist during the time period following the Han Dynasty. During the Han period, grains commonly were ground into flour and cooked into dumplings and noodles (Newman 2004, 4).
To avoid the lengthy process of cooking wheat whole, the Chinese devised a method of grinding wheat into flour in the 5th century BC. However, the specific origins of flourmills are unknown. The grinding technology became widespread in China during the first century CE.
The annexation of parts of southern China during the Han Dynasty encouraged the development of different regional culinary traditions. Meat and cereals such as millet and wheat sustained people in northern China; meanwhile, conquered southern regions were dependent upon rice vegetables, fruit, and fish (Culinaria, 12).
We can confidently state that dumplings existed in China at the very least during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE); in the 1960s, archeologists found a wooden bowl with wholly preserved jiaozi dumplings in a tomb in the Xing Uyghur Autonomous Region (Junru 2011, 45).
During the Tang Dynasty, dim sum also became popular. Originating in southern China, dim sum is the practice of eating many small snack-size dishes. In Cantonese, dimsum translates to “dot the heart.”
Before the Han Dynasty, the Chinese were accustomed to eating two meals a day. Around 9 a.m., people consumed zhao shi, “morning food.” The second meal of the day, bus hi, was eaten at 4 p.m. It is hypothesized that the Chinese took meal punctuality seriously, for there exists a popular Confucius phrase: “bu shi bu shi,” meaning “meals are not to be had if it is not at the appropriate time.” The Chinese adapted the practice of consuming three meals a day during the Han Dynasty.
Remaining from the wisdom of Confucius is the strong emphasis on relationships, even during mealtimes. “Dining together is an important way for the Chinese to have increased interpersonal understanding and communications,” notes Junru in Chinese Food (37). She remarks, “This may also be the reason behind the Chinese preference to chat vigorously at banquets” (37). Because the Chinese are so concerned with relationships, practices such as dividing up a whole steamed fish can be fraught with opportunities for social faux pas. Thus, foods like the baozi, which are dumplings that are meant to be individual servings, can make things easier for an anxious host.
However, baozi or mantou would likely not be the central part of luxurious banquets. While the steamed dumplings are regarded as an essential part of any meal, they are “especially popular as a breakfast dish” (Culinaria 44). In Beijing, the dumplings can be bought on the street and are sold precooked and deep-frozen in supermarkets.