Meat patty explode the stomach

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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, 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]


  1. Observation said,

    December 28, 2011 @ 4:23 am

    That's a lot of wisdom! Thanks for writing this article! I didn't know that 肚 should be pronounced in the third tone when referring to food. I have a question. Is man 丁 a common simplification of nail 釘? Or was it just the people involved in the restaurant that simplified it as such? (Would 伶仃 vs 零丁 be a similar case?)

  2. Bob Violence said,

    December 28, 2011 @ 8:51 am

    钉 was merged with 丁 in the abrogated second-round simplifications, so "门丁李" could be a legacy of that. On the other hand, many of the second-round simplifications (as with the first round) already existed in informal use, so this is jumping to conclusions somewhat. The case of 釘/钉/丁 is interesting in that most character etymologies claim 丁 (at least in its present form) is a pictograph of a nail.

  3. Bob Violence said,

    December 28, 2011 @ 8:58 am

    I broke the link in the above post, here's the correct and proper one:

  4. Zubon said,

    December 28, 2011 @ 9:03 am

    Without knowing the Chinese, my inclination was to interpret "Meat patty explode the stomach" as an attempt at "belly-buster burgers." As you suggest, the literal translation does not do much for a non-Chinese audience.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    December 28, 2011 @ 10:14 am


    Thanks for the good observations!

    The hypersimplification of 釘 as 丁 is not accepted by the authorities, but in daily, informal writing, this sort of thing happens all the time. People will often take the simplest way out to record the sound (or even the approximate sound) of a word / syllable when hurriedly putting things down on paper, and this kind of phoneticized writing (often employing pinyin as well as Roman letters, English words, and topolectal pronunciations of characters) has become wildly epidemic in online discourse and text messaging, especially among younger people.

    One of my favorites of longstanding, but frowned upon by teachers and officials, is jiāng 江 ("large river, especially the Yangtze") for the jiāng 疆 ("territory; frontier; boundary") of Xīnjiāng 新疆 (lit., "New Boundary / Frontier / Territory", i.e., the customary short name of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region). But I am such an XYZkòng XYZ控 ("obsessive about nearly everything") type person that I, who frequently have to write the place name Xīnjiāng 新疆 because of my work on the ancient mummies of the Tarim Basin in that region, usually force myself to slog through all 19 densely packed, contorted strokes of 疆 — unless I'm in a huge hurry, or if I know that nobody else who matters / cares will see what I've written. (For this recent, but rampant, usage of kòng 控, see "Morpheme[s] of the Year"

    Ditto for the first syllable of Táiwān, which now nearly everyone on the planet (including on both sides of the Taiwan Strait) writes in the simplified form 台 with its five strokes, whereas I, even now, compulsively and laboriously, when writing formally, sometimes struggle through all 14 of the cramped strokes of the traditional, "proper" version 臺. The futility of writing the Tai- syllable of Taiwan "correctly" is borne out by the fact that the name ultimately has nothing whatsoever to do with the false etymological explanation "Platform/Terrace Bay" that is commonly offered for it, deriving instead from the transcription of the name of an Austronesian tribe that the Dutch encountered when they came to the island in the early 17th century. Thus, it is now perfectly acceptable among the broad populace to write Taiwan as 台灣 and consider that "traditional", whereas purists will still insist upon writing 臺灣. On the mainland, the simplified form is 台湾.

    As for your example of língdīng 伶仃 vs língdīng 零丁 (both disyllabic terms mean "lonely; left alone without help"), that is indeed a good instance of how phonetics trumps orthography (i.e., the sounds conveyed are more important than the form in which they are presented), though both forms are acceptable to the authorities. By themselves, líng 伶 means "actor / actress" (in traditional contexts), dīng 仃 doesn't mean anything (it means something only when combined with líng 伶), líng 零 means things like "withered; fractional; zero", and dīng 丁 (as we have learned) means "able-bodied male", though it also signifies one of the calendrical-astronomical Heavenly Stems, "encounter; incur", "a small cube of meat or vegetable", part of the disyllabic expression dīngníng 丁宁 (also written 叮咛, and there are other forms which I won't go into here; "exhort; remind; warn; urge repeatedly"), part of the disyllabic onomatopoetic expression dīngdāng 丁当 (also written 叮当) which is roughly equivalent to English "jingle", and, pronounced zhēng and repeated (zhēngzhēng 丁丁), it is used to imitate the sound of chopping wood or plucking the strings of a musical instrument.

    But to return to your língdīng 伶仃 vs língdīng 零丁, if someone is in a tremendous rush, they will write 0丁 and be done with it. That gets the sounds across well enough and, hey, "0" is more or less official for líng 零 ("zero"), though the teachers would frown upon 0丁 and the officials might forbid it.

  6. Sheldon said,

    December 28, 2011 @ 10:15 am

    I think 伶仃 and 零丁 have the same meaning of lonely and helpless. But they are not just a simplification case. Such as 彷徨、旁皇 and 旁遑, they are not just the simplification case. There were no strict standard for the using of characters and words. 孔乙己 even prond of his knowing of many patterns of one character 茴.

  7. Bob Violence said,

    December 28, 2011 @ 10:52 am

    dīng 仃 doesn't mean anything (it means something only when combined with líng 伶)

    …although it's used informally all the time as a simplification of 停 tíng "stop" — I see it constantly in handwritten signage for parking lots (仃车), and an ATM near me has a 暂仃 "pause(d), suspend(ed)" notice placed upon it at least one or two days out of every week. This is definitely not accepted by the authorities, although it was included among the second-round simplifications.

  8. Janice Byer said,

    December 28, 2011 @ 7:03 pm

    Prof. Mair's meaty essay (bun intended) recalls, in its satisfying uncovering of the intent of 'Doornail', another such doughy 'doornail' mystery, one surrounding an English expression and acknowledged by Charles Dickens in "A Christmas Carol":

    "Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail."

  9. Simon said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 12:46 pm

    A very interesting post. However, it feels like there is one step missing: what might be some actual English translations for use on the sign? We have a full exegesis of various linguistic, graphemic, and intercultural issues, we have a literal/close translation, but no proposal for a translation that would actually fit on the store's sign and that would be meaningful to anglophone passers-by. After all is the task of a translator is this: to come up with a rendering into the target language that not only conveys the meaning but also suits the context (here, a storefront sign).

  10. Victor Mair said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 2:46 pm


    Li's Doornail Head Buns and Tripe

  11. Observation said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 9:04 pm

    If Bob Violence is right about 丁's etymology, it all makes sense! As many characters (反/返, 莫/暮, 梁/樑, 暴/曝, just to name a few) didn't get their radicals until later (because of confusing polysemy), 丁 might have first meant nails, then someone thought for some reason that using nails to describe man is a brilliant idea, and the alternative meaning stuck. Then people started confusing men with nails, so they added the metal radical. Maybe the 丁 was preserved in modern informal writing. Weird, though, that the Shuowen article about 丁 doesn't mention nails.

    By the way, has anyone noticed that people seem to prefer 零丁 when they are talking about the sea near Hong Kong historically – 惶恐灘頭說惶恐,零丁洋裏歎零丁 – although 伶仃洋 seem to be preferred when talking about the sea as it is now?

  12. Victor Mair said,

    December 29, 2011 @ 10:15 pm

    Mary Ma sent in a blog that introduces another shop, this one using the 丁 variant, and with extensive description of the dishes served:

  13. Victor Mair said,

    December 31, 2011 @ 9:10 pm

    The "nail form" of the Chinese DING derived from the late-Shang / early-Zhou globular bronze form of the square graph of the Shang that shows a tendency from the square to the vertically elongating shapes. I don't believe at all that it originally meant "nail" (and I don't believe that the Shang had metallic nails) but took on that meaning much later because it indeed looked like a nail and the word for nail must have been a homophone of that for "above," i.e., the spoken sound of the square DING (and later nail-form) graph. DING (square and later nail form) originally meant "above," derived from the square's location above, formed from the four bright stars that sat at that time at or near the true northern celestial pole. From this derives, I must believe, the "able-bodied male" meaning. That is, it was applied to one whose most vital characteristics were superior, or "above." Please see again Ch. 5 of Vol. II of SPP 192. Below I paste a couple of paragraphs from p. 176, but, as you recall, that entire long chapter (and the preceding Chapter 4) is devoted to explaining DING with voluminous and varied evidence.

    Following the promulgation of my thesis that the square ding is modeled on the square at the northern celestial pole, another has posited that the square rather was the square of Pegasus (I-iku) in the ecliptic. But the Pegasus thesis is not at all believable for many reasons but mostly because it relies on just a couple of dubiously vague Warring States references to a square (or mouth? = 口 KOU in Chinese, as it must be in any Warring States text, since nobody then knew that the original DING had been a square), and it otherwise posits that the Chinese, from Shang and on, recognized the square of Pegasus. However, they did not at any time in their astrological traditions formulate a single square asterism from the four stars comprising the Babylonian Pegasus. Rather, the Chinese have, from the Warring States and forward, always divided these four stars two apiece into the celestial lodges of SHI (YINGSHI) and BI and never have combined them to form a single four-star lodge or asterism. And, anyway, again, the Chinese of the Warring States period did not know the square as DING but rather as KOU, "mouth."

    From Didier, SPP 192, Vol. II, Ch. 5, p. 176:

    >From the 1930s through the 1960s prominent Chinese scholars of oracle bones, such as Jin Zutong 金祖同, Yang Shuda 楊樹達, Wu Qichang 吳其昌, Chen Mengjia 陳夢家, Chen Bangfu 陳邦福, Chen Zhi 陳直, Wang Guowei 王國維, Ye Yusen 葉玉森, Fu Sinian 傅斯年, and Tang Lan 唐蘭, realized that the 口 design that scriptologists erstwhile had conceived of as simply the calendrical stem and temple name ding was in fact something much more complex. Early on several of these scholars proffered that, aside from the Heavenly Stem ding, the form 口 was also related to the box surrounding the cross in the character for the name of the high ancestor (that is, the first of the pre-dynastic lineage ancestors of Shang kings to receive cult, or Ancestor 1 [A1]), whose name they knew from later records to be Shangjia 上甲, meaning “High Jia.” The cross 十 of Shangjia’s inscriptional name they already knew to represent the second syllable of the name, jia, in that it is the first of the Heavenly Stem numerical calendrical symbols. Therefore, these scholars also knew, the 口 form of Shangjia’s name here had to constitute the shang 上 of Zhou and later Chinese, which means “high” or “above.”

    >Some, such as Ye and Wu, hoped to relate this meaning of “above” with the shape or form of the Sinitic character ding in its various simplified or smudged appearances in mostly Shang and Zhou bronze inscriptions, which they commonly believed represented the shape of a nail (please see several of these forms above in Chapter 3). They worked from the facts that the phonetically and graphemically Chinese ding 丁-derived Chinese characters ding 釘 and ding 頂 mean “nail” and “top,” respectively. While the meaning of “nail” likely derived from the later, Zhou, graph for ding, that is, 丁 (or this character later took on the meaning of “nail” because it looked like a nail), Ye and Wu probably were correct that the base meaning of Sinitic ding, that is, 口, was — or was derived from the position of something that was — “above” or “top.” This will become apparent below.

  14. Bob Violence said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 9:31 pm

    I just checked out the SPP article online, though only part of it since there's a lot to chew on there. Anyway, if I'm reading it correctly (including the excerpt above), there's a possibility that dīng only means "nail" because 丁 happens to look like one — effectively a word derived from a character, perhaps roughly analogous to 囧 jiǒng in the sense of "embarrassed" (although 窘 jiǒng already had that meaning, so maybe that's just an existing word given a new character). All that said, I notice The ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese doesn't seem to have an entry for 丁/釘 "nail," though it includes other senses of 丁. Is "nail" a late word, or is the etymology too hazy?

    I was aware of the old square/blobish form of 丁 as well as its various ancient meanings, which was why I was careful to hedge my words in my earlier post. Amusingly I have seen claims that the square form is supposed to be a pictograph of the head of a nail, as viewed from above. I've seen plenty of credulity-straining character etymologies, but that one might be the winner.

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