And Finally

Big biang

The most difficult Chinese character to write is…

biang w

In the same way that a student of English might find it daunting to write hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, for Chinese students, there is biang. Last week the rarely-used character gained popular attention after it emerged that a teacher in Sichuan was employing it to teach pupils a lesson: students who arrived late to class were sentenced to write the elaborate Chinese character 1,000 times.

In its traditional form the character requires 56 brush strokes – a substantial increase on the average of nine. One of the students subjected to this punishment managed to write the character 200 times in two hours before being unable to continue, and opted to draw 200 Terracotta Warriors instead – apparently a less strenuous task. Hong Kong’s TVB News noted that it took their reporters at least 30 seconds to write the character, extrapolating that it would then take over 8 hours to complete the punishment.

But unlike hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia (which means the fear of long words), biang doesn’t even mean anything. It can’t be found in any dictionary and can’t be typed into a computer. Its only application is in the name of a special dish from Shaanxi – Biangbiang noodles – which is considered a poor man’s food.

How did this character come to be? The pronunciation of the word is thought to mimic the sound of people chewing the belt-like noodles (they’re broad and flat).

But the origin of the character is shrouded deeper in legend. One story has it that when the first emperor of China Qin Shi Huangdi (260-210BC) tasted the noodles, he was so enamoured with their flavour that he promptly bestowed their elaborate name so as to prevent anyone else from ordering them. (This story seems farfetched. Qin Shi Huangdi was more commonly associated with unifying the written Chinese language. Moreover most Chinese were illiterate at the time so a simple character would have sufficed. And lastly, food orders tend to be placed verbally.)

An alternative tale contends that a student once ordered a bowl of the Shaanxi delicacy but then found he had no money. He asked the owner what the dish was called and was told “Biangbiang noodles”. Promptly the student rebutted, “Do you know how to write it? Here, I’ll teach you, and then my meal is free.” He then drew out the intricate character and the crowd was so impressed that they applauded and the owner tore up the bill.

The second story does something to explain the character’s peculiar construction. Although appearing complicated as a whole, biang is actually comprised of a few simpler and very common characters, such as moon (月), speech (言), horse (馬) and heart (心).

That means this unique character seems to have broken a golden rule in marketing, in which the usage of difficult words in brand names is considered a mistake. But it isn’t hurting sales. More trendy restaurants in major cites are now serving biangbiang noodles. It was even on the menu when Xi Jinping hosted a banquet for Lien Chan, the honorary head of Taiwan’s Nationalist Party in Beijing last year.

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