Jiaozi 饺子

Name meaning and Etymology

“Now I’ve just looked up ‘dumpling’ on the online Oxford English Dictionary and discovered that it is ‘a kind of pudding consisting of a mass of paste or dough, more or less globular in form, either plain and boiled, or enclosing fruit and boiled or baked.’  I am definitely not talking about whatever unappetizing-sounding food that dumpling is supposed to be.  I’m talking about Chinese dumplings, pot stickers, Peking ravioli, jiaozi, whatever you want to call them. Do you know what I mean yet? Maybe you’ve gotten a vague idea, but let me explain, because I am very picky about my dumplings.”  -Lily Wong

The dumpling known as jiaozi is one of the quintessential foods of China.  A popular Chinese saying is “there’s nothing more delicious than Jiaozi.”  In simplified Chinese characters[1], jiaozi is 饺子and in traditional characters: 餃子.  The jiaozi is further subdivided into boiled (shuǐjiǎo 水饺), steamed (zhēngjiǎo 蒸饺 ), and fried (guōtiē 锅贴) dumplings.  Guōtiē are technically known as

jiānjiǎo (煎饺) in Chinese, meaning shallow-fried dumplings (Nguyen 31).      

According to Professor Ming De Xu at Hamilton College, Chinese characters are composed of two parts or “radicals” with the first giving meaning to the character and the second specifying the phonetic sound.  He noted that the first radical “jiao” in 饺子 is “shí,” which signifies food, whereas the second radical indicates the sound “jiao.”  The 子 (zi) character just means “little” and is a type of qualifier (Xu).  The different types of jiaozi also have quite a straightforward translation in that guotie literally means “pot stickers” (Lin 141).  This is because “guo” is the word for wok in Northern China (Newman 73).  Guotie are also known as pan-stickers (wok-stickers) (Chen, Chen, & Tseng 409).  Similarly, shuijiao translates to “water dumpling” and zhengjiao to “steam dumpling.” 

[1] For the remainder of this web document, simplified Chinese characters will be used unless otherwise stated

Beyond the literal translation for jiaozi, further etymology is highly debated.  For instance, some say that the written character sounds like the word for “many sons,” a highly desirable situation for Chinese families (Newman 159).  Moreover, because the Chinese rely heavily on homophones and limited syllables, it is thought that jiaozi means “a happy beginning” because it “sounds the same as the juncture of the old and new years” (Yuan Haiwang in Davis, 228).  According to Ming De Xu, the radical jiāo 交 (as part of jiaozi 饺子) means ‘to overlap’ or ‘to cross,’ and in ancient Chinese, zǐ 子 refers to the time between 11 PM and 1 AM.  Thus, the old and new year meet at the midnight of New Year’s Eve.  In this way, the word jiaozi is said to indicate “bidding farewell to the past and welcoming the new” (Liu 46).  In addition to the themes of time, there is a monetary component to the origin of jiaozi.  For instance, some say that the name for jiaozi dumplings actually comes from the name of the first form of printed, paper money (Pleskacheuskaya 71).  Jiaozi also resemble ingots of gold in their shape and thus, they are often made to symbolically represent wealth and good fortune.

So how have the jiaozi evolved over time?  What is the terminology that has been used to refer to these half-moon dumplings?  In medieval China, the general term of “bing” was applied broadly to pasta, breads, cakes, buns, dumplings etc., though today it is restricted to flat or round cakes (Knechtges 234).  Lao wan is a stuffed dumpling that is likely the predecessor of jiaozi and huntun (wonton) (Knechtges 236).  According to Ming De Xu, láowán may refer to these characters: 牢丸 meaning “firm ball” respectively.  In some instances, jiaozi have been discussed as huntun, a predecessor of the jiaozi, which allegedly existed 600 years earlier, though huntun still exists today alongside jiaozi as modern day wontons in the south of China (Yuan Haiwang in Davis, 227).  Moreover, Chinese legend states that fried jiaozi, also known as potstickers, occurred as a lucky mishap when a Chinese chef accidently let the emperor’s dumplings burn.  The chef refused to admit his mistake and instead he poured hot broth over the dumplings and served them to the emperor with soy sauce, shredded ginger, and green onion: a practice continued today (Sheen 33).