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Food Science

Periodic Graphics

Periodic Graphics: The chemistry of Chinese New Year

Chemical educator and Compound Interest blogger Andy Brunning explores the colorful and delicious chemistry behind several Chinese New Year traditions.

by Andy Brunning, special to C&EN
January 28, 2024 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 102, Issue 3


An infographic that examines some of the customs of Chinese New Year and the chemistry behind them.
The first section focuses on jiaozi, a type of dumpling traditionally made during Chinese New Year. Jiaozi dough is made from water and flour. Varying the temperature of the water affects the dough's properties, yielding different dumpling wrappers. Near-boiling water denatures flour proteins and gelatinizes starch. This inhibits gluten formation, producing a softer, less elastic dough that's easier to shape.
The second section focuses on the color red. In China, red is associated with happiness, success, and good luck, and it is prominent in New Year celebrations. Historically, people in China used the Chinese red pigment (mercuric sulfide) to color murals and ceramics. Because of its toxicity, it's no longer used. People in China also used dyes extracted from safflower and madder roots to color clothes red. Today, people use a range of synthetic dyes instead.
The final section focuses on firecrackers. Firecrackers are widely used to celebrate Chinese New Year. The first natural firecrackers were heated bamboo stalks that exploded as air pockets inside them expanded. Later, black powder produced their bang. Today, manufacturers use flash powder for a louder boom.
Credit: Andy Brunning

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References used to create this graphic:

Mocella, Chris, and John A. Conkling. Chemistry of Pyrotechnics: Basic Principles and Theory. 3rd ed. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2018. DOI: 10.1201/9780429262135.

Serious Eats Team. “What Is Gluten? The Science behind Great Dough.” Serious Eats, May 26, 2023.

Spindler, Ellen. “The Story of Cinnabar and Vermilion (HgS) at the Met.” Metropolitan Museum of Art blog, Feb. 28, 2018.

Yang, Tao, Pei Wang, Qin Zhou, Yingxin Zhong, Xiao Wang, Jian Cai, Mei Huang, and Dong Jiang. “Effects of Different Gluten Proteins on Starch’s Structural and Physicochemical Properties during Heating and Their Molecular Interactions.” Int. J. Mol. Sci.( 2022). DOI: 10.3390/ijms23158523.

A collaboration between C&EN and Andy Brunning, author of the popular graphics blog Compound Interest

To see more of Brunning’s work, go to To see all of C&EN’s Periodic Graphics, visit



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