Across the vast, wheat-rippled north China plains, families will have spent the weekend gathered round the table making and eating dumplings. Many will tell you this is an essential element of a Chinese New Year feast, but it’s worth taking the time to look into the history behind the delightful dough balls, especially if you want to earn some Chinese culture kudos at the dinner table.
Dumplings were created by the founder of Chinese Herbal Medicine, Zhang Zhongjing (张仲景), more than 1,800 years ago. The story goes that when Zhang worked as a government officer in Changsha, Hunan Province, he took time away from his duties to help treat local people’s illnesses. One year, when a devastating plague had ripped through the population, he earned respect and admiration by boiling up herbal medicine in a big pot in front of the government office and then handing it out for free.
After he retired, Zhang headed back towards his hometown of Nanyang City in Henan Province. When he arrived at a nearby riverbank, he stumbled upon huddles of starving people suffering from such dire cold their ears were frozen to decay. Quickly diagnosing typhoid as the cause, he set about administering cures as best he could. When he finally arrived home, his fame had preceded him, so many more people flocked to visit him in search of aid. However, he was most concerned about the pain suffered by the people with frozen and broken ears. With this in mind, he repeated the steps he had trialed in Changsha, and on the day of the winter solstice asked his apprentices to lay a large pot in communal ground and boil up medicine for the patients.
The medicine he made was called Qū hán jiāo ěr tāng (祛寒娇耳汤, a soup that removes cold and relieves the ears), a brew that drew upon 300 years of clinical practice in the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD). Despite its illustrious heritage, making the medicine was very simple. Zhang simply boiled some mutton and cold-dispelling herbal medicine for a while, before removing the ingredients and chopping them up. Then he wrapped the mixture in wheat flour skin to create ear-shaped balls. Next, he tossed the ear-shape wrappings, called jiāo ěr (娇耳), back into the pot and boiled them until they were fully cooked.
Each patient received two jiāo ěr (娇耳) and one bowl of soup. Zhang Zhongjing kept dishing out the medicinal snacks for free until Chinese New Year’s Eve. After eating them, people felt warmth spreading through their bodies, and their blood circulation improved so much that even the tips of their ears glowed. All his patients succeeded in warding off the typhoid and curing their ear ailments. At Spring Festival, people consequently celebrated their recovery at the same time as they welcomed the New Year. Many took the idea and shape of the jiāo ěr (娇耳) home with them and copied the recipe, naming the food Jiǎo ěr(饺耳)，Jiǎozi (饺子, dumplings). Since then, making and eating dumplings at Spring Festival has become a deep-rooted tradition passed down among northern Chinese.
Naturally, the timing behind when dumplings should be served also has a story behind it. Ancient Chinese divided the day to 12 periods, and the earliest period of the day, from 23:00 to 1:00, was known as zǐ shí (子时). On New Year’s Eve, this not only signifies the alternating moment between an old day and a new day, but also that of the old year and the new one. As the period is also called Jiāo zi (交子, alternating period) and the pronunciation of 交子 is similar to 饺子 (dumplings), people naturally took to making and eating dumplings as the clock struck midnight. So around the world, as the firecrackers crackle to bid farewell to the old year and welcome the new, spare a thought for Zhang Zhongjing before tucking into your steaming plate of delicious dumplings.
Do you love dumplings as much as us?