Ritual Significance of the Jiaozi
“On Chinese New Year’s Eve, the whole family sits in a circle, kneading the dough, mixing the filling, rolling the wrap, wrapping, pinching and boiling the dumplings, all while having a good time. This meal of dumplings is different from all other dumpling feasts throughout the year. After the dumplings are made, people wait until the clock strikes midnight before eating them. This makes the dumplings the first meal of the year” (Liu 46)
Jiaozi has been referred to as “a kind of folk food with a longer history” (Liu 45). An important part of Chinese culinary tradition, jiaozi are certainly rich in history and longevity. In fact, wheat products have consistently dominated Chinese rituals in the form of religious holidays, festivals, or offerings to the deceased and to gods (Lin 14). On Lunar New Year’s Eve, the Chinese in the North would invite the spirits of their ancestors back into the home. This would involve opening the front door and arranging a table filled with offers of jiaozi and incense in the courtyard (Staff 73). Jiaozi are especially popular during the holidays not only for their ritual significance but also because more friends and family are present to help wrap them, making their preparation a family affair (Lin 135). Dumplings symbolize harmony, balance, and unity, which is likely why they are popular during the Chinese New Year (Pleskacheuskaya 70).
The Chinese New Year is also known as the Spring Festival (Liu 46). In ancient China, subjects honored the emperor as the ruler of the universe, whereas today, the holiday marks the coming of spring and a time for the family to gather (Simonds 4). Cleaning the home is crucial because it is symbolic for welcoming the new year with a clean slate and for bringing good luck (Simonds 4). This includes purchasing or making new clothing as well as paying all bills and debts (Simonds 4).
A painting of the Kitchen God, also known as the Overseer of Destinty, usually hangs in each family’s kitchen. He monitors their behavior throughout the year and reports back to the Jade Emperor, who is the ruler of the world. To appease the Kitchen God and ensure a good word, Chinese families will offer him delicious food, including jiaozi (Simonds 4). More specifically, Little New Year or Xiao Zin Nian refers to the days when the Kitchen God is absent (Newman 158). On the 23rd day of the twelfth month of the lunar year, the Kitchen God leaves and reports back to the Jade Emperor on the family’s activities (Staff 20). On the 1st day of the next month, he returns with the fortunes decided upon by the Jade Emperor (Staff 20). Thus, on the 30th day of the twelfth lunar month, Chinese families will welcome the Kitchen God back into their homes (Staff 21). Dozens and sometimes hundreds of jiaozi are consumed during this time, specifically on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day (Newman 158-159).
Other modern customs include that sometimes jiaozi are made with a coin inside, especially if there are small children around (Newman 159). The jiaozi, however, are not made on New Year’s Eve or Day but rather are prepared in advance because “no sharp instrument such as a knife is used on the eve of and on all Lunar New Year day. The Chinese believe that if they cut something, then their luck in the coming year will be cut” (Newman 159). Jiaozi are served at midnight on New Year’s Eve, a tradition that has occurred in northern China for the last 400 years (Simonds 14). The folk custom of eating dumplings during the Lunar New Year or Spring Festival began in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties (Liu 45).
In addition to rituals and superstitions, there are also taboos for the first seven days of the year. Prior to 1949, the first five days of the first lunar month marked a time when women had to stay inside: “On the fifth day, to indicate that the prohibition would be lifted the following day, women in northern China would make jiaozi, or dumplings, to be eaten by everyone” (Staff 100). On the morning of the 5th day of the New Year, people celebrated and made jiaozi since the following day marked the lifting of the ban on gambling and on women staying indoors. “Some people would deliberately pinch some of the jiaozi to make holes, indicating that the prohibition was to be ‘broken’” (Staff 103). In addition to the New Year, dumplings are also eaten on “the day of ‘high heat,’ (beginning of the solar term of the same name from the mid- to later part of every seventh lunar month) and the first day of winter (around the twenty-second of the twelfth lunar month)” (Liu 45).