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Recap: Pieces of China (S3, E1): Miranda Brown on the Chinese Dumpling, 1.7.21

Recap: Pieces of China (S3, E1): Miranda Brown on the Chinese Dumpling, 1.7.21

Pieces of China is an online series using objects to tell the story of China.


Season 3, Episode 1– the season opener- explored the history of the most iconic Chinese of foods: the dumpling. But, did you know that the dumpling, a world-renowned symbol of Chinese cuisine, did not originate in China?

Cultural historian Miranda Brown will take us all the way back to the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 AD) to trace the dumpling’s roots deep into Central Asia. It’s a journey that will take us through foreign dynasties, epic Mongol expansion, and the family recipes of a Ming dynasty Shanghai noble, to understand the how the ubiquitous “Chinese” staple came to be.

Miranda Brown, is a cultural historian who specializes in food. A Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan, Brown has published widely on Chinese medical, culinary, and cultural history. She is the author of numerous books including: The Politics of Mourning in Early China (2007), the co-author of A Brief History of Chinese Civilization (2012), and most recently, The Art of Medicine in Early China: The Ancient and Medieval Origins of a Modern Archive (2015).

Selected Quotes from Miranda Brown:

Is the dumpling Chinese?

It depends on what we mean by ‘Chinese,’ but it probably didn’t start out that way.

The earliest word for dumpling, which we start to see around the third century is a term that today means steamed bun: mantou. It is actually borrowed from a Turkic language, into Chinese, in the medieval period.

The dumpling was among many things Chinese imports from outside it’s boarders – from the Turkic world, from what we think of as the proto-Mongol world, and from the Persian world — including red wine, horse milk, steppe culture, and even philosophic traditions such as Buddhism from India.

What makes Chinese food interesting is that it reflects centuries of creativity, centuries of multiple cultural and culinary influences.

Like most empires, China has historically been a melting pot. And so I think of the dumpling as a case study, or another piece of evidence that supports this idea that there have been more than just people that we think of as classically Han Chinese, people whose ancestors came from the Yellow River Valley. China is really the product of a lot of different groups, some of whom today are considered minorities or outside of China, but they have had a very important role in making Chinese food and Chinese history what it is.


Full Video of Pieces of China with Miranda Brown


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