Minru Li sent me this photograph which appears at the top of the China English blog:
Upon first glance, I was mystified because of the large space between the first three Chinese characters and three English words in red, and the last two Chinese characters and two English words in green. Within two seconds, however, I figured out what had happened to bring about such a hilarious translation, but was still curious what the missing top half of the first character was.
Fortunately, Gianni Wan sent me a photograph of nearly the whole sign from ChinaBlog.nl, a Dutch site:
So the name of the restaurant is Méndīng Lǐ ròubǐng bàodǔ 门钉李肉饼爆 肚, which at first glance would seem to mean something like "Doornail Li [who sells] pan-fried buns filled with beef and quick-boiled/fried tripe". We'll worry about the ostensible name of the owner later. For the moment, I simply want to point out that, although ròubǐng 肉饼 might superficially seem to mean "meat patty", it actually refers to a type of meat-filled bun. It reminds me somewhat of the huǒsháo 火勺 // huǒshāo 火燒 ("Dalian style flat cakes with filling") that I wrote about extensively in "Google me with a fire spoon". As for bàodǔ 爆肚, the first character can indeed refer to explosions, but as a type of food preparation it signifies cooking quickly with high heat, and the second character refers not to any old stomach (certainly not that of the person eating this snack!) but to the lining or tissue of the first three chambers of the stomach of a ruminant (especially bovines).
Now, about the name of the would-be proprietor of the shop. Méndīng Lǐ ròubǐng bàodǔ 门钉李肉饼爆肚 ("Doornail Li [who sells] pan-fried buns filled with beef and quick-boiled/fried tripe") is said to be a famous lǎozìhao 老字号 ("time-honored brand") in Beijing (AKA Peking, for those who still remember). However, as I started to search for information about this shop, unsettling doubts and confusion swiftly began to assail me. For example, in the same article, a shop might be referred to — in pictures and in words — as Méndīng Lǐ 门钉李 ("Doornail Li") and as Méndīng Lǐ 门丁李 ("Gatekeeper / Doorman Li"), for example, here (the ròubǐng 肉饼 ["meat-filled pan-fried buns"] are shown in the bottom right of the four small pictures next to the photograph of the restaurant, which is painted blue, and the bàodǔ 爆肚 ["quick-boiled/fried tripe"] is discussed and shown here), and sometimes a shop would advertise itself as selling one or the other or both of these two famous Beijing snacks. "Whoa!" I thought. "What is going on here? Is this supposedly celebrated snack shop called Méndīng Lǐ 门钉李 ('Doornail Li') or Méndīng Lǐ 门丁李 ('Gatekeeper / Doorman Li')"?
Before answering that question, I should mention that 钉 and 丁 are perfect homophones, both pronounced dīng, with the first meaning "nail" and the second meaning "able-bodied male", which may be used as an occupational suffix, e.g., méndīng 门丁 ("gatekeeper / doorman") and yuándīng 园丁 ("gardener").
Statistically, it seems that the "Gatekeeper / Doorman Li" ("门丁李") variant is more common, with 175,000 ghits, while the "Doornail Li" ("门钉李") variant is less frequent, with 101,000 ghits, but that does not necessarily imply that the former is the original and the latter is a later offshoot.
I speculated that the relationship between Méndīng Lǐ 门钉李 ("Doornail Li") and Méndīng Lǐ 门丁李 ("Gatekeeper / Doorman Li") may be similar to that between the fabled food "trucks" (actually small trailers) parked across Spruce Street from each other right outside the door to Williams Hall where my office is located: The Le Anh and The Real Le Anh. There is much lore in the Penn community about the allegedly troubled relationship between The Le Anh and The Real Le Anh, and I seem to remember a time long ago when there was also The Original Le Anh.
It turns out that my initial speculation about the relationship between Méndīng Lǐ 门钉李 ("Doornail Li") and Méndīng Lǐ 门丁李 ("Gatekeeper / Doorman Li") was wrong, since — contrary to what statistical frequency indicated — the original form of the name was Méndīng Lǐ 门钉李 ("Doornail Li"), and Méndīng Lǐ 门丁李 ("Gatekeeper / Doorman Li") is merely a hypersimplified version of 門釘李 ("Doornail Li"). See this webpage.
This is a phenomenon to which I have often alluded, viz., the phoneticization of the morphosyllabic script. In fact, a considerable portion of the radical simplification of the Chinese script that has taken place since 1949 amounts to phoneticization, i.e., the replacement of whole characters or phonophores (sound-bearing elements) with simpler homophonic or near-homophonic forms.
To return to our fictive proprietor called Méndīng Lǐ 门丁李 ("Gatekeeper / Doorman Li"), there never was such a person associated with these shops. Méndīng Lǐ 门丁李 ("Gatekeeper / Doorman Li") is merely an artifact of hypersimplification-phoneticization. The real name of the original shop that spawned all the chains and imitators in Beijing and the surrounding area was Méndīng Lǐ 門釘李 ("Doornail Li"), which was subsequently simplified as 门钉李 with the same sound and meaning. Of course, "Doornail Li" doesn't make sense. In the context of these shops, what Méndīng Lǐ 门钉李 actually means is "a guy surnamed Li who was very good at making meat-filled pan-fried buns that look like the large, rounded, ornamental nail heads found on palace doors". The following photographs will prove the point:
Most Language Log readers, upon seeing the large, round, ornamental heads of the nails in the red palace doors (specifically the Forbidden City) of Beijing will immediately recall this celebrated moment in President George W. Bush's visit to the Chinese capital.
A final note: these delicious snacks and the shops that sell them are characterized as qīngzhēn 清真 (lit., "pure and true", i.e., ḥalāl حلال). Although they are operated by Muslims, that certainly does not prevent the broad populace from flocking to them and treating them as an authentic part of traditional culinary culture of Beijing and the surrounding region. If you ever find yourself in Beijing and have a hankering for "ornamental doornail-head shaped pan-fried meat-filled buns and quick-boiled/fried tripe", a list of restaurants selling them may be found here.
[Thanks are due to Cheng Fangyi, Maiheng Dietrich, Zhao Lu, and Liu Xinru]