Another Spring Festival has come and gone, and with it, the annual re-enactment of a egregious, decades-long suppression in Chinese media of the rich and storied culinary traditions of one-half of this nation in order to elevate one northern dish as the nation’s holiday symbol: jiaozi, or dumpling, the blandest, most overrated, and least imaginative food of all.
But wait, you say—the Chinese love jiaozi! My Chinese teacher says it’s the default food item for all Chinese festivals, with a variety of auspicious symbolism and historical justifications attached! Even TWOC has talked about it, and anyway every year on the CCTV Spring Festival Gala they show sappy montages of suspiciously well-scrubbed yet humble families reuniting over steaming plates of white dough-wrapped foods. Even the overly hourly countdown to midnight says, “it’s x hours until time for you and your family to put your jiaozi to boil!”
I’m afraid, friends, you’ve bought into the great jiaozi conspiracy. If you’ll notice, the TWOC piece clearly states that the tradition of bringing out jiaozi for every festival is a northern Chinese custom and gives several examples of what southerners eat instead. And yes, I did insist on both items being included in the piece, written by a northerner, thus demonstrating the importance of diversity in the workplace.
Obviously, they don’t have such a system of checks and balances over at CCTV. The question, “Is the CCTV Spring Festival Gala perpetrating cultural imperialism over southern China?” is a perennial topic of debate among Chinese netizens of the forgotten half of the country, supposedly usually the day after yet another edition of the Gala has aired and made us question if we’re really Chinese, because why the hell would we insist on eating some lumpy masses of mashed-up meats and vegetables (which is what you do to food when you don’t want your guests to know how little of it you have in your harsh northern winters) when the table is covered with eye-catching, mouth-watering dishes on the days of the year you’re supposed to celebrate and show off the plentiful state of your larders?
Nonetheless, it’s a deception that runs deep in the psyche of our people; southern netizens complain each year that some of their own family have adopted jiaozi-eating where none was eaten before after watching too many wholesome Gala family-reunion clips, which are presumably supposed to guilt you about not spending time with family and promote national harmony, but have really set off a half-nationwide existential panic about whether we’re really Chinese.
And even when most northerners theoretically know we don’t enjoy wheat-based diet, such as when you suggest certain modifications to your colleagues in meeting when they propose writing a piece on why “the Chinese” love to eat dumpling so much, they innocently follow with, “yeah, but it’s still interesting how we all eat it during holidays and festivals” or “yes, we know you eat glutinous rice cakes or tangyuan for your holidays, which is the same concept as jiaozi only rice-based, don’t you think?”
It’s not really clear how this myth of the dumpling-obsessed Chinese got started, other than the fact that CCTV is based in the northern part of the country and the most of Gala’s programming (such as the comedic sketches and cross-talk) is influenced by northern folk culture and dominated by northern entertainers, especially those from Beijing, Shandong, and Dongbei. Also, undoubtedly, to take the various complicated rites by which each region, each ethnicity, and each family marks the beginning of spring and boil them down to a single folk custom great for the appearance of national unity and promoting a non-intimidating, museum-exhibit version of Chinese culture to export for soft-power purposes—“the Chinese: We’re an ancient, Confucius-worshiping, chopstick-wielding, dough-wrapped-ground-meat-eating race!”
But I say it’s time that we southerners took a stand against the hegemony of jiaozi. First of all, the idea that the Chinese, of all people, would just pick one food item to eat repeatedly every holiday is ludicrous. And to think that of all food items available to us, we’d pick indeterminate lumps of mashed-up meats and vegetables wrapped in colorless dough is, frankly, just offensive. We’re the nation that boasts of eating anything with four legs except the table, anything in the sky except an airplane, anything in the sea except…(you get the idea). Eight major culinary traditions, classic tomes of cookery dating back to 1000 BCE, a geography that spans the northern tundra to tropical beaches, across mountains and plains and rain forests from the Pacific to the Central Asian steppes—and they want dumplings to be known as the heart of our gastronomical tradition? Never!!
I mean, you’re even required to dip it in soy sauce or vinegar to get any flavor. That’s an affront to pretty much every school of ancient Chinese cooking, which are poetic exercises in achieving harmony with taste, texture, and color, of flavors philosophically cooked into the very essence of the food and bursting forth in your mouth in their full-bodied glory.
Let’s cast off the fetters of the jiaozi tyranny! From Jiangnan to Chongqing to the karst-covered lands of Guangxi, bring out your fish and your even numbers of plates and let whatever other of your traditions be known! Coastal Fujian, eat your banquets of punny-named symbolic dishes to your heart’s content. Let the world know that in southern parts of your province, you dismiss employees by inviting them all to a New Year banquet and serving chicken with its head pointed at the unlucky person who won’t be joining you in the coming year! Jiangxi, don’t be ashamed of your glistening rice noodles and fried rice cakes and sweet 八宝饭 (bābǎo fàn), nutritious “eight-treasure rice” packed with sweet grains and dried fruits. Yangtze River Delta, proudly display your soups and shrimp and steamed dishes and braised meats, unless you’re in Shanghai, in which case some people don’t have the soup, and that’s totally okay. We also sometimes eat jiaozi in the South, but as a side dish amid the whole delectable New Year spread, or a few at at a time in a snack dish to go elegantly with our tea along with its other dough-wrapped brethren, the xiao long bao or wontons, because we’re not barbarians and have so many other things we could be eating.
It’s not like we’re asking for a lot: just the recognition that for Chinese New Year or any other festival you don’t have to eat jiaozi, or eat any one food. You just have to eat good food and more of it than usual, which we’re pretty sure is a non-discriminatory message the whole country can get behind.