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Bao jiaozi, the material, symbolic and sensorial production of festive food

Bao jiaozi, la production matérielle, symbolique et sensorielle de nourritures festives
Chenjia Xu


Jiaozi is an important festive food as well as a mundane staple food in Chinse culture. The duality of food raises the question how festive food is produced. This article looks into the material process of bao jiaozi – the collective making of jiaozi preceding its collective consumption in both the private and public settings. It delineates the symbolic production of “festivity”, as numerous ethnographies of festive food and feasting have elegantly demonstrated, but also emphasises that the symbolism of festive food is underpinned by the material processes and the sensorial, affective elements. The article thus calls for more nuanced attention to the preparation of festive food rather than simply the festive menu and the consumption practices. It further suggests that it is theoretically fruitful to attend to the materiality and sensoriality of food and its practices both in beyond festive scenarios.

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1Anthropological interest in food consumed at festive occasions has been preoccupied with the social functions of festive food in consolidating collective belonging and forging social bonds as well as boundaries. This has been explored symbolically in two main trajectories. The first approach explores the symbolic significance of different foods. It builds on Durkheim’s insightful conceptualisation of “festive food” as expressing the profane/sacred distinction (Durkheim [1995] 1912), which has been further developed into a range of theoretical articulations (see Douglas 1972; Mintz and Du Bois 2002). Ethnographic elaborations of this framework have provided more nuanced readings of the festive menus across various contexts. Teasing out how different food items signify particular components of belonging, these studies serve to underscore the symbolic potency of festive foods in making, marking and maintaining identities, placeness and group membership (Wu 2016; Avieli 2005; Avieli 2009; Chan 2007). The second approach attends to the amount of time, money and efforts devoted to the preparation and consumption of food, focusing particularly on the symbolic dimensions of the material processes of eating. Research on commensality and feasting explicates how food collectively shared at festive occasions perform a dual function of homogenisation – expressing and reproducing alliances and social bonds, and heterogenisation – creating and reaffirming boundaries and divisions (Appadurai 1981; Bloch 1999; Fischler 2011; Hayden and Villeneuve 2011). Compared to the abundant writings on festive food consumption, research on its preparation has been limited. An exception is Watson (1987)’s detailed and insightful account of poonchoi (common pot), a traditional festive food that requires communal dining among lineage groups in Hong Kong. The article unravels the symbolism of the unusual cooking procedure whereby foods are cooked separately but later deliberately mixed together into a common pot, and demonstrates elegantly how the preparation process is symbolically powerful in fostering the egalitarianism within the lineage groups and thus overshadowing status differentiation in the everyday village life. Overall, there has been a rich body of anthropological literature on what festive foods do in regard to social organisation.

2This article asks a different sort of question. Instead of “what festive food produces,” it interrogates “what produces festive food” – its “festivity” to be precise, which has largely been taken for granted in previous research on festive food. To do so I focus on jiaozi, the Chinese wheat flour dumplings. It is a quintessential “festive food” in Chinese culture, the centrepiece on the feasting tables of traditional festivals, life-cycle events celebrations and ancestral worship. Meanwhile, jiaozi is also mundane by nature, frequently enjoyed as a staple food, a convenient but decent meal, or an enjoyable snack. The dual property of jiaozi invites us to go beyond how festive food produces social alliances, hierarchies, and belonging, and question how food becomes festive.

3By looking into bao jiaozi, the making of festive jiaozi that precedes its commensality, I argue that the production of festivity is not only a symbolic process but also material and sensorial. Increasingly more ethnographies of food and foodways have drawn attention to the materiality and affect of cooking together in communal kitchens (Bernard 2018; Marovelli 2019). These qualities are even more pronounced in festive occasions such as bao jiaozi. On the one hand, the festivity of the food derives from the material process of bao jiaozi – particularly the labour and the division of labour devoted to the making of the delicacy. As I shall explicate, bao, to wrap fillings into the dough, is an important ritual that distinguishes jiaozi for celebrative events from mundane, quotidian jiaozi for sustenance. As an arduous work, it conventionally takes place in private households, performed collectively by family members, which is key to the emergence of an intimate festivity. When bao jiaozi is taken out of the private domain and practised together with people beyond the intimate circle, the festivity lies in the processes and practices by which the risks and danger of the contact with strangers are managed and mitigated. In addition, the materiality of bao jiaozi is closely intertwined with its sensoriality. The ritual gathers people – family and strangers alike – into physical and social proximity. With everybody and every body being close together and orchestrated into a smooth workflow towards a common goal, the convivial ambience and the celebrative atmosphere arises. As bao jiaozi materially cooks up festive food, it also sensorially heats up the “festivity.”

4In what follows I shall elaborate further on the ways in which quotidian jiaozi becomes festive food within and beyond the domestic sphere, and highlight the material and sensorial elements in the production of festivity. The next section provides a cultural biography of jiaozi in Chinese culture, gathering information from a wide selection of writings by ethnographers and historians. It highlights both the mundane and festive facades of jiaozi, and points to the domestic practices of bao jiaozi as key to its transformation from a daily staple to a festive food. This is followed by an ethnographic account of bao jiaozi beyond the private domain, based on a 13-month fieldwork in Beijing from September 2015 to October 2016, exploring the everyday practices of food and eating among middle-class urbanites. The ethnography traces how the intimate festivity is sustained through a series of material, symbolic and sensorial processes that work to contain the potential risks and dangers of such transposition. The concluding section remarks that it is fruitful to look into not only the consumption but also the preparation of festive food, and moreover to attend to its materiality and sensoriality in addition to the symbolic dimension.

Jiaozi: mundanity and festivity

5Jiaozi, fillings of meat and/or assorted vegetables wrapped in a thin layer of dough into bite-sized, crescent-shaped pieces, is a crucial element of the Chinese gastronomy. Its cultural significance is so great that many Chinese scholars consider them to be “China’s ‘national food’” (Zhao 2015 : 38; Zhou 2007). Dumplings also feature prominently in Chinese diaspora. Many overseas Chinese communities celebrate key Chinese cultural festivals and embrace their cultural identities with dumplings, along with other regional celebrative, ritual foods. (Avieli 2005) The history of jiaozi can be dated back to the Early Chinese Empire (221 BCE - 220 CE) (Zhou 2007; Z. Zhang 2013). At that time, it was still undifferentiated from wontons, which share the same structure but only differ in shape. It was not until the Tang Dynasty that jiaozi became a distinctive type of food from wontons. This was also the period when diversification in dough (wheat, rice, and soy flours), fillings (mutton, vegetarian, vegan) and cooking methods (boiled, fried and pan-fried) began to grow (Zhou 2007 : 83–84). By the late Imperial period (14th - 19th century), dumplings became a popular festive food for the Spring Festival (the Chinese New Year), the most important cultural event especially for the Han Chinese. To date the practice still persists and prevails.

6Today, jiaozi can be told from other Chinese dumplings eg. baozi, and wontons through three features. First, the wrapper. The dough is mostly made of wheat flour in North China where jiaoz is an important part of everyday diet. Variations persist in other regions though. For instance, in the Yangtze River area rice flour is a common ingredient for jiaozi wrappers; further down south, the Cantonese have developed jiaozi dough of wheat and corn starch. Second, the fillings. There is no rule over what can or cannot go into the pocket of jiaozi. Generally, the fillings are a mixture of meat – pork in particular – and seasonal vegetables. But jiaozi can also go without any meat. In fact, vegetarian jiaozi were common before the 1980s, when animal products, and even food in general, were scarce. This distinguishes jiaozi from wontons, as the latter can go without vegetables but almost never without meat. Third, the cooking method. Jiaozi can be boiled, steamed, pan-fried and even deep fried, making it the most versatile among the Chinese dumplings. In North China, boiling is the most ubiquitous method, whilst the other methods prevail in South China and the coastal areas. It is worth noting that boiled jiaozi are served “neat” – that is, without soup or sauce (a dipping sauce is common but not essential), hence distinguishable from wontons.

Quotidian Jiaozi

  • 1 Moreover, the structure of Chinese food builds on the fan/cai distinction, and a meal consists of b (...)

7There is little doubt that jiaozi is a quintessential “festive food” in China. However, equally worth noting is it being quotidian sustenance among Chinese households. In North China, these small parcels of meat and vegetable concoction have long been favoured as a staple food (Y. Yu 2005; Anderson 1988). The pervasiveness is in part attributable to jiaozi’s unique structural composition, which allows jiaozi to constitute a full meal on its own1. The demand has been rigid for this bare necessity through history. In South Song (1127-1279) the manufacturing of jiaozi was already professionalised in large workshops (Freeman 1977 : 162) and small cook shops specialised in jiaozi prevailed (Höllmann 2013 : 139). In Modern Beijing, jiaozi halls could provide millions of dumplings on a daily basis (Anderson 1988 : 218). No wonder that the socialist regime (1949-1976) would appropriate jiaozi into the ultimate symbol of livelihood, “a human minimum guaranteed by the revolution” (Farquhar 2002 : 89), and underscore how the life under the new liberation government was bounded with jiaozi as a way to justify its legitimacy (Yue 1999 : 152–53).

8Simple and “rather humble” (Stafford 2000 : 100) as they may be, dumplings are nonetheless “the good-times food of the common people” (Farquhar 2002 : 114). They are one of the few food items that cut across social hierarchies as well as the regional and ethic boundaries, which is astounding in a country so vast and so diverse as China. Jiaozi could appear on the emperor’s dinner table (Spence 1977 : 282), and may also constitute an inexpensive yet decent meal for day labourers and rickshaw coolies in restaurants (Hsu and Hsu 1977 : 307). Whilst steamed and boiled jiaozi is standard food in North China where wheat is the predominant crop, is also found in areas where rice is more prevalent, and in “almost everywhere else in the country” (Anderson 1988, 144), though with minor variations. For instance, in Jiangsu, jiaozi is an offering to the ancestors during the demon festival (see Feuchtwang 1996 : 167). In Guangdong, jiaozi is eaten as a snack rather than a staple food (Klein 2009 : 459). Furthermore, not only do Han Chinese fall for dumplings, ethnic minorities were also fervid about them. Gladney (1996 : 190) provides an observation of how young Muslims in Beijing were passionate about lamb dumplings served in the state-run qingzhen (halal) restaurants. Hence writes Anderson, when discussing popular and folk food culture:

… there is still a large body of food that qualifies as focally popular by any definition. The small dumplings known as jiaozi are a good example. Few well-populated places in China are out of reach of a stand selling some form of this prototypic comfort food. Rich and poor, rural and urban, Han people and minorities eat crowded closely together in many a jiaozi house. (Anderson 1994 : 36)

Festive jiaozi

9Though popular, ubiquitous and quotidian, jiaozi is the key “signifier” of festivals and holidays. Anthropologist Liu Xin observed in a North China village that jiaozi was indispensable to a range of festivals, including the first day of the first month (the Spring Festival), the fifth day of the first month (to receive the God of Fortunes), the fifteenth day of the first month (the Lantern Festival), and winter solstice (the Dongzhi Festival) (Liu 2000 : 93–97). Jiaozi as a festive fare also features in many life cycle events including birthdays, wedding banquets, etc. Besides, jiaozi is an important offering to ancestors (Kipnis 1997), since the celebration of many festivals often begins with the rites of ancestral worship. An important aspect of the New Year event is to receive the ancestors, first, with an offering of jiaozi, mostly vegetarian or vegan (Y. Yu 2005), in the early morning. It is only after the performance of this duty that the families may enjoy the jiaozi as festive food. (Cohen 2005 : 177).

10The associations with festivals can be attributed to the symbolic significance of jiaozi. Historians and folklorists have gathered a range of indigenous explanations for the prominent role of jiaozi in festive occasions. In some areas, jiaozi is thought to symbolise a fresh start, as the appellation is homophonic with passing into the new day, where jiao means to cross and zi the midnight. The linguistic quality gives rise to the symbolic significance of jiaozi as the marker of new beginnings (Zhou 2007; Z. Zhang 2013; Q. Zhang, Qi, and Zhang 2015). A variation of the homophonic interpretation considers jiaozi to be the sign of “luck,” jiao xing, (Stafford 2000, 100–101). Other meanings of jiaozi are derived from their characteristic plump, crescent shape. This shape, on the one hand, is similar to yuanbao, which the traditional Chinese gold and silver ingot, the main currency during the Imperial period. The resemblance to yuanbao in shape makes jiaozi a powerful symbol of wealth (Höllmann 2013 : 132), which, like luck, is the common theme for festivals and key social events. (Zhou 2007) Besides, jiaozi is also thought to look like ears, and many folk cultures believe that eating jiaozi on key festivals and holidays will protect ears from extreme cold or being bit off by demons (Feuchtwang 1996). Because of these auspicious and protective connotations of jiaozi, they are customarily made and enjoyed on the night before the Spring Festival to celebrate the passage into the new year, and feature prominently in other festive occasions such as winter solstice to mark the transition into the new season, and in important life-cycle events including coming-of-age and wedding ceremonies (Y. Yu 2005).

  • 2 Traditionally women were in charge of bao jiaozi, and they would prepare a few days in advance hund (...)

11From the anthropological perspective, jiaozi is festive in these occasions because of their social conductivity (Bloch 1999), diminishing both hierarchy and distance and asserting a circle of commensals who are treated as “one family”. This one-ness is especially pronounced in the customary appellation “reunion (tuanyuan) jiaozi”. It can be viewed as “super conductors of social consubstantiation” because they are “good conductor food” prepared in a highly conductive manner (Bloch 1999 : 145). Reunion jiaozi is always collectively made and cooked by the group of commensals2, as Anthropologist Charles Stafford observes:

[Dumplings] are almost always produced by groups of friends and relatives in a time-consuming and sociable process which repeatedly suggests “roundness” and “completion” – and, by extension, “reunion.” During this process, a large round ball of flour is rolled out and cut into smaller round shapes, which are then wrapped around pieces of filling, placed on a round bamboo tray, dumped into a round pot of boiling water, and then, finally, shared by a circle of people (who are usually sitting around a round table). During the new year, the outcome of this process of “completion” of the dumplings is itself said to reflect family fortunes. (Stafford 2000 : 101)

12Making jiaozi entails three primary procedures, to form the dough, to prepare the fillings and then to assembly the two elements. When preparing festive jiaozi at home, the family usually start with the dough, mixing flour with water into a rough lump, which is then set aside. While the dough is resting, the family waste no time to work on the fillings. Pork pieces are finely cut into small cubes then chopped into mince, and the vegetables diced in the same manner, all of which are then fully integrated in a mixing bowl. Then it is about the time to go back to the dough, giving it some kneading to make it smooth. By now, the materials required for jiaozi are all set for the most important and laborious step, bao – that is, to wrap fillings into small dough segments. The step is so critical and essential that making jiaozi is often referred to simply as bao jiaozi. Moreover, even when fillings preparation is sometimes simplified by directly purchasing minced meat from the market, and the chore of dough making evaded with ready-made jiaozi wrappers (usually by machine), this step bao is indispensable to festive jiaozi and is rarely, if ever, omitted. The festivity of dumplings is deeply rooted in this “time-consuming and sociable process” of bao.

13If we focus on the symbolic dimension, following Stafford, bao jiaozi can be seen as a ritual process. The seemingly paradoxical nature of jiaozi – being both quotidian and celebrative, profane and sacred – therefore makes better sense. The festivity does not pertain only to the food per se but more importantly to the collective nature of its preparation. The co-production of jiaozi among a close-knit group of people opens up a liminal space in which the boundaries between host and guest, giver and taker, insider and outsider blurs and breaks down. In other words, the collective cooking places jiaozi in the category of festive food. It is also what underlies the symbolic association between jiaozi and reunion: as the material production of festivity emphasise intimacy, equality and solidarity as opposed to distance, hierarchy and segmentation, festive jiaozi are pronounced in the semiotic functions of homogenising “food transactors.” (Appadurai 1981) Underlying such symbolic efficacy of jiaozi in social integration is the materiality of collective bao jiaozi, by which I refer to not the food ingredients but the actual labour and its organisation that is necessary to turn raw food stuffs into numerous little delicate parcels of flavours. As Stafford elegantly captured, bao jiaozi is a dynamic process organised on a sophisticated division of labour: a team in charge of turning the dough into small pieces and rolling each one of them into thin wrappers, and a division responsible for scooping out fillings of suitable sizes to bao them with the now paper-like dough into jiaozi. The constant but often effortless coordination between the two composes a rhythm that sets the undertone of the festive sensoriality, which I shall elaborate in the next section.

14In a nutshell, jiaozi are paradoxical. On the one hand they are among the favourite staple foods for Chinese households throughout history. On the other, they have long served as the important signifiers for culturally significant events such as traditional festivals, life-cycle rituals, ancestral worship, etc. The duality of jiaozi – being both festive and mundane, sacred and profane – raises the following questions: how do jiaozi transform from being quotidian to being festive? How is their ‘festivity’ produced? As the section already elucidated, the festivity arises from not only collective dining but also collective cooking that precede commensality. In the following, I shall further explicate the production of festivity as jiaozi moves from the private and intimate domain into the public space.

Bao jiaozi with strangers: intimate festivity in the alternative social space

15Since festive jiaozi conjures up intimate festivity among participants of its consubstantiation, they are often used as an effective instrument to nurture social ties and bring people - acquaintances and strangers alike – closer together. In this section I delineate how festive jiaozi was made at a farmer’s market. In this alternative social space, the festive food was shared among strangers instead of family members. In other words, the intimate gastronomic idiom is extended from one’s immediate family onto people who are of further social distances. This will inevitably provoke, as Bloch (1999) reminds, “fears of poisoning” and general suspicion of the safety of the food, which potentially undermines the intimate festivity of jiaozi. Therefore, the key to festive jiaozi, once it is transposed from the private into the public, is found not only in collective cooking followed by collective consumption but more importantly in the mitigation of such fears of poisoning. The ethnography below thus looks into how the risks and dangers associated with the consubstantiation of festive foods are managed and contained at a public event. By doing so, it elaborates on the ways in which the festivity of festive food is materially, symbolically and sensorially produced.

16Before going into the “festive scene,” a note about what I call an “alternative social space” is warranted. This is a young and vibrant farmer’s market, From Farm to Neighbors (F2N), operating in Beijing. Due to the widespread food safety hazards in China during the past decades, many middle-class urbanites have become anxious about the safety and quality of daily food provisioning (Yan 2012). In addition to various everyday approaches to food safety (Klein 2013), alternative food networks (AFNs) have been on the rise especially since 2010 (Xu 2019; Li and Loconto 2019; Zhang and Qi 2019; Pang 2018). F2N is also founded with the common mission to provide green and healthful foods and promote the values of sustainability and ethical eating. In order to achieve self-sufficiency and make a wider impact, F2N has deployed a range of strategies to attract consumers, including family activities, food and crafting workshops, themed market events, and anniversary celebrations. It is at these celebrative occasions that the intimate festivity of jiaozi is utilised as a strategy to build communal ties between and among shoppers and vendors.

The dumpling station for celebration

17During my fieldwork in Beijing from September 2015 to October 2016, the biggest event at F2N was the second anniversary on 16 July 2016. The vendors and staff members had prepared for weeks on the organisation of a mini concert, an award ceremony, and a “dumplings station” for people to gather and bao jiaozi together, which was absolutely the highlight of the day. I learnt about it the weekend before the event. The vendors, Zhangge and Xiaopang, the “masterminds” behind the dumplings station, invited me to the occasion: “Come next week and help bao jiaozi! It’s going to be the market’s birthday, of course there have to be jiaozi. How wonderful would it be for the whole family to bao jiaozi together!” I was excited by the idea of bao jiaozi as a group with people of the market, whom I became close friends with throughout time, and happily accepted the kind invitation.

18For the whole week I was filled with anticipation. When the day finally came, I got myself dressed up and ready to embrace the festivity at the marketplace. At 1:30pm I arrived at the marketplace. The first thing I did was to look for Zhangge’s stall. It was not difficult at all for the it was such a “sensorially rich social space” (Chau 2008 : 489). Zhangge and Xiaopang had their colleagues lined up five tables to make a very long workstation. One end of it was where rolling, wrapping and folding took place, and the cooked dumplings were placed in small containers neatly aligned on the other end. In the middle there placed two giant pots, one for the vegetarian and for the others, to cook jiaozi.

  • 3 Ayi literally means aunt, but is usually used to address any women around one’s mother’s age.

19I have to admit that this was not what I had imagined from Zhangge and Xiaopang’s invitation. When they told me about the event, the image emerged in my mind was an intimate group of people – vendors, staff, frequent shoppers and those closely involved in the F2N operation –making jiaozi side by side then sharing the festive food together afterwards. The dumplings station deviated from the stereotypical image associated with festive jiaozi in that it was occupied by strangers and unfamiliar faces rather than the usual circles of close kins and people who can be treated as immediate family. Nevertheless, the dumplings station was running quite smoothly, though it felt somewhat surreal as I stood next to many strangers and worked closely with them to make numerous pieces of jiaozi. A small “unit” spontaneously formulated between me and two other ayi3. One of them was “obviously a Northerner”, for she was “impressively seasoned” in rolling small doughs into thin wrappers, according to the other ayi, with whom I took turn to pick up the wrappers the first ayi swiftly made, placed fillings in the centre, and folded them into shape. We did not talk much but somehow, I felt bonded with them, at least in that moment. As time passed by, my two “partners” left in succession. But as soon as one person moved away someone else would fill in and immediately merge into the “assembly line.” A sense of “communal” life was thus conjured up.

The fear of poisoning amid intimate festivity

20At the dumplings station, the intimacy of festive jiaozi was extended beyond one’s immediate family. Whilst such “adventurous” endeavour is key to the expansion of social network, which is particularly crucial for AFNs like this farmer’s market, it is nonetheless risky and dangerous to do so. Commensality and consubstantiation with people outside the intimate circle of those who can be treated as family easily arouse the disturbing feelings of horror and disgust, and in particular the fear of poisoning (Bloch 1999; Fischler 2011). In this regard, the dumplings station seems too good to be true. How could there be no such concerns with the safety of the food holding people back? Why, then, were so many people, myself included, willing to submit themselves to the adventurous yet risky event? The answer is three-fold.

“Make 10 and get 6 for free”

The dumpling station was designed, at the first glance, as a vending stall of fresh hand-made jiaozi made from organic farm produce. In other words, Zhangge and Xiaopang were simply selling jiaozi. With 10 yuan (approximately 1.26 euros) one could get six pieces of “organic” jiaozi. In this setting, the dumplings station was of no difference with any diners or dumpling halls provisioning jiaozi as a snack or a quick meal. A structural demarcation is customarily placed in between those who make the food and those who consume it. In this setting the concerns with consubstantiation are contained by the commercial arrangement.

21However, Zhangge and Xiaopang also applied a promotion: anyone who helped making ten pieces of jiaozi could have a standard portion for free. It was actually why many people partook the dumpling station. The promotion replaced private money with personal labour as the customary equivalent for jiaozi as the merchandise, and incorporated the consumer into the process of preparation. In this way, a stage of co-production was added to the collective partaking of the food, which, by the same process, became more festive. Moreover, the promotion also effectuated generalised reciprocity among people. In theory, the exchange of one’s labour for food would still be balanced as long as the patron made ten dumplings in exchange for six dumplings. However, in practice, according to my observation, many people would continue their contribution after reaching the “magic number”. They were no longer working for the commodity but rather enjoying the experience of bao jiaozi. In these cases, symmetrical reciprocity transformed into more generalised one in that the givers offered more than they received and the immediate return for their contribution was postponed, even though only slightly. This is especially the case for those who prepared dough into jiaozi skins: their labour was crucial but not readily quantifiable in terms of numeric value.

22In short, the dumplings station in a way lured people into a relatively intimate circle of transaction with the symmetrical market exchange as its disguise. The point here is that it is precisely such disguise that helped mitigating the initial concerns and fear of poisoning (Bloch 1999), as the risk of consubstantiation was offset by the relatively impersonal transaction between that who prepares and that who eats the food. The commercial undertone was further curbed by the de facto generalised reciprocity, when people lingered to make more dumplings.

Plastic gloves and hygienic responsibility

23The fear of poisoning was further contained by a deck of plastic gloves lying at the corner of the dumpling station. As I arrived there and ready to join the making of dumplings, Zhangge picked up a pair of plastic gloves and kindly offered them to me. Surely, the plastic gloves underscore as much as provide a solution to the potential risks in establishing new bonds with people outside the existing social networks. Disposable gloves, once in use, separate the food to be consumed away from the stranger’s body, therefore offer a viable means to resolve the concerns for hygiene and contamination. However, no one would expect disposable gloves to be used in this manner within private households: the physical boundary that gloves created is only necessary for shielding off the stranger’s body. Whilst the dumpling station was cooking up the intimate feeling of belong to a community, or “a family” as Zhangge put it, disposable gloves were the reminder that actually we were, after all, strangers.

24Having said that, no one was wearing those gloves at the dumplings station. I myself also turned down the kind offer of Zhangge. Making dumplings with disposable gloves on is practically impossible. They inevitably get sticky with the dough, and they always tend to be oversized and clumsy, making it extremely fussy to fold the creases. This is what happened with one ayi who I was observing before I joined in the production. She was turning small pieces of dough into wrappers with a rolling pin. But as she tried to roll out the circular wrapper, the excessive bits of the gloves got winded up on the pin and stopped the otherwise very smooth workflow. A few interruptions later, she took off the gloves. Then I heard: “These are so difficult to work with. I’d rather not wear them. After all my hands have been washed clean”.

She was speaking to nobody, or to everybody. The point is that her words were capable of bringing out a sense of reassurance that her bare hands would not bring contamination or threat. Such performance of hygiene was a crucial aspect of bao jiaozi in this social setting. This also reveals the actual effects of plastic gloves: instead of serving as the physical boundary between food and the stranger’s body, they orchestrated the individual and collective performance of hygiene, inculcated a sense of mindfulness for the safety of not oneself but of others, thus called into being a responsible member of the community. Therefore, in provisioning disposable plastic gloves, Zhangge and Xiaopang presented themselves and F2N as a trustworthy host, who one can feel safe to eat with. In so doing, it showcased the awareness of potential hygienic risks and the acknowledgment of concerns about food safety hazards, and at the same time provided a solution to both. The plastic gloves sent the message that one can entrust this market, this social space, about the safety, healthfulness of the dumplings but also other foods proffered at the marketplace.

The renao sociality

25The third component that made possible the transposition of festive jiaozi from the private domain to the social space has to do with the dumpling station being a “sensorially rich social space,” which I already mentioned earlier. It was overwhelmed with with multiple sensations. “Jiaozi! Jiaozi! Delicious jiaozi, fresh out of the pot!’ Zhangge and Xiaopang “yelled” every now and then to attract shoppers. Their helpers were also busy talking with one another like a crew in a professional kitchen so that the station could operate smoothly. Steams rose from two big pots infusing the air with floury sweetness and alluring aroma of pork, fresh green leaves and earthy root vegetables that had already been wrapped in countless little parcels. The convergence of people, strangers and friends, also contributed to the convivial ambience, or more precisely, the “sociothermic affect,” which is derived from the “very convergence of a lot of people” but “more diffused than ‘feelings’ and more complex than simple excitement” (Chau 2005 : 163).

26Such convivial, lively and vibrant affect is named renao in Chinese, re means hot, heat, headed, passionate, fervid and feverish and nao denotes noisy, hustle and bustle, playful but also agitated to be naughty, to vent, to turn upside down. Renao is the quality for any marketplace, festive event or social gathering to be deemed successful in Chinese culture (Yu 2004; Ackerman and Walker 2012). It is fair to say that, renao is the sensorial manifestation of festivity, which is essentially a “sensorially rich social world” created by the active participation of social agents (Chau 2008 : 485). People in general like cou renao– that is, to approach and be near renao. This feature allows renao to draw more people into the sensorially invigourating mode of social co-presence and therefore augment itself.

27In this light, the renao sociality at the dumplings station was built on the convergence of strangers and kept drawing more people into it. The positive quality of renao overshadowed the concerns with contamination and with coming into contact with unfamiliar bodies. As more strangers joined in the dumpling station, they effectively contributed to the creation of a social world, an alternative social space and network, in which it was possible to connect with strangers through the kind of intimate festivity shared with families. In this regard, what the dumpling station established through the festive dumplings was not a community in the conventional sense, but a network of social agents whose connections are readily actualised and to be re-actualised.

28When festive food jiaozi is extracted from the intimate domestic households and re-inserted into the alternative social space at a farmer’s market, risks and dangers may arise. Hence the festivity of jiaozi hinges on the extent to which such fears of poisonings from strangers are successfully contained. At the F2N’s dumpling station, the “10 for 6” promotion on the surface affirmed it as a conventional commercial operation and established the structural distinction between those who produced the food and those who ate it, therefore served to mitigate the concerns with contamination from consubstantiation. In effect, it also attracted people into co-production of festive foods and into the cycle of generalised reciprocity. The plastic gloves provided the material means of shielding potentially risky contact, but more crucially functioned symbolically to denote the dumpling station and the F2N marketplace as a space of hygiene and purity, a place in which people can entrust the quality of food and the safety of eating. Moreover, renao sociality, as a positive feature of festivals and celebrative events, pushed the fears of poisoning to the background, and incorporated more strangers into the sensorially abundant social co-presence. Through these material, symbolic and sensorial channels, the festivity of jiaozi was produced.

Concluding remarks

29Jiaozi is perhaps the most significant festive food in Chinese culture throughout history. But they are also one of the most mundane and pervasive food for sustenance. The seemingly paradoxical nature of jiaozi renders them a felicitous case with which we may begin to interrogate how festivity of festive food comes into being. In private households, it is the collective contribution to making jiaozi that gives rise to its festivity. As this intimate ritual is transplanted into the public space, the festivity hinges heavily on how the risks and danger of the contact with strangers are managed and mitigated.

30The ethnographic details further elaborate how festivity emerges from symbolic but also material, and sensorial processes. In the case of jiaozi, the material process of cooking together synchronises individual bodies into the common workflow and shared goal. The collaboration produces festivity into a temporal-spatial field in which family and strangers alike experience and enjoy greater physical and social proximity. Building on the material bases, the symbolic dimensions in the ritual of festive jiaozi further homogenise the commensal who are technically and materially feeding each other. From abundant signs of reunion, wealth and good luck to the plastic gloves signifying hygiene, purity and responsibility, these symbols effectively consolidate festivity and subsume participants into collective belonging. On top of the material and symbolic process, festivity manifests as the renao sociality, which emerges from the collective presence of many people. The convivial, celebrative ambience draws more people into the social co-presence, which nurtures greater renao hence festivity. The sensorial, affective qualities of renao constitute the social tissues of a collective space, in which quotidian food becomes festive.

31Therefore, festive jiaozi not only invite enquiries into how food becomes festive but also highlight the material and especially the sensorial aspects in the production of festivity. Reading food as a cultural system of symbols, categories and meanings, the semiotic approach that has dominated the study of festive food and feasting is undoubtedly fruitful in elucidating the role of festive food in establishing roles, relationships and statuses in and among social groups. Festive jiaozi, on the other hand, reminds us that underpinning the symbolic potency of festive food is precisely the material processes and the sensorial, affective elements of its preparation and consumption. The article thus calls for more attention to the materiality and sensoriality of food and eating in and beyond festive occasions for a deepened and more nuanced understanding of how food creates collective spaces. After all, food is not only good to think or to eat, it is also good to make and to experience.

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1 Moreover, the structure of Chinese food builds on the fan/cai distinction, and a meal consists of both fan – staple food, and cai – vegetable and meat dishes (Chang 1977, 7–8; Klein 2009, 454). Jiaozi joints up both elements - fan in the wheat flour skin and cai in the meat and vegetable fillings, hence has a complete meal structure in itself.

2 Traditionally women were in charge of bao jiaozi, and they would prepare a few days in advance hundreds and event thousands of dumplings for the New Year feast (Hsu and Hsu 1977 : 298–300). Nowadays many young men have also mastered the skill and customarily contribute to the preparation of dumplings at home (Yan 2003).

3 Ayi literally means aunt, but is usually used to address any women around one’s mother’s age.

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Electronic reference

Chenjia Xu, Bao jiaozi, the material, symbolic and sensorial production of festive foodAnthropology of food [Online], Online since 24 November 2021, connection on 07 December 2023. URL:

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About the author

Chenjia Xu

Anthropologist, Institute for Science, Technology and Society, South China Normal University; Department of Anthropology, SOAS, University of London,

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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