Reclamation of a wasteland by an army unit

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Jane Skinner received this from a friend who saw it in Chengdu, Sichuan:

The translation for the mysterious fourth item on the menu, "reclamation of a wasteland by an army unit" is taken directly from Baidu Fanyi for jūntún 军屯.  The translator simply ignored the last two characters, guōkuī 锅盔, which literally mean "pot helmet".

In actual usage guōkuī 锅盔 is a Shanxi topolectal expression for a type of large, round baked wheat cake:

Guokui is a kind of pancake made from flour from Shaanxi cuisine. It is round in shape, about a foot long in diameter, an inch in thickness, and weighs about 2.5 kg. It is traditionally presented as a gift by a grandmother to her grandson when he turns one month old.


The name is sometimes translated as "crusty pancake", though I might suggest "helmet pancake" as an alternative.

In this Google gallery of images, you can see the variety of sizes, shapes, and types that go by the name guōkuī 锅盔 (lit., "pot helmet", i.e., "helmet pancake").

As for jūntún 军屯, it refers to army encampments, so this kind of "pot helmet pancake" must evoke memories of being in the field for those who have been soldiers, especially those who served in túntián 屯田 ("military agro-colonies") and bīngtuán 兵团 (“army unit; army formation”) in border regions such as Xinjiang where vast reclamation projects are undertaken.  The bread / pancake certainly looks spartan to me.

Updated 8/29/22

This is all about paramilitary production units called "bīngtuán 兵团 / 兵團" ("corps") that go all the way back to the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–9 A.D.) as agents of colonialism in Central Asia.  I will soon make a LL post that deals with this subject.  For now, just keep in mind that the bīng 兵 of bīngtuán 兵团 means "weapon; soldier" (see the title page of VHM, The Art of War: Sun Zi's Military Methods [Columbia University Press, 2007] for a graphic depiction of the protoform of the character]) and the tuán 团 means "group; organization".

Most of the items on this menu need some 'splainin'.  I'll just focus on this one, but welcome readers to tackle a few of the others.

jūntún guōkuī


jūntún 军屯 are troops which farm and carry out garrison duties, usually in frontier areas

also called túntián 屯田 ("have garrison troops or peasants open up wasteland and grow food grain") (source)

guōkuī 锅盔 is a kind of pancake popular in Shaanxi and Gansu (source)

The system of frontier garrison troops that engage in agriculture to support themselves (i.e., "military farms") arose during the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC-9 AD) and still exists today.  Some of my significant archeological work in Eastern Central Asia (Xinjiang) was carried out on vast lands reclaimed from the desert by such military organizations.

There is a village named Tūntún 军屯 in Sichuan Province, Chengdu, Xindu District that specializes in this type of snack, a flatbread made of flour.  You can see how it is made in this video (there are many other videos that can be found by searching under 军屯锅盔 or just 锅盔).

The dish is said to have been invented during the Tang Dynasty by a laborer who cooked flatbread in his iron helmet over a wood fire. There are many different versions including Shaanxi, Jingzhou (Hubei), Henan, Sichuan, and Gansu. (source)

Since the name of this snack is not only written as guōkuī 锅盔, where the kuī 盔 portion means "helmet", but also as guōkuí 锅魁, where the kuí 魁 portion means "first; leading, chief; leader; stalwart; tall and big; monstrous; (literary) dipper; spoon; the best", there may be some hesitation over what the actual second morpheme is.  The first morpheme is unmistakably MSM guō / Cant. wo1 锅 ("pot; pan", though many people also say that it means "wok", but the latter is from Cant. wok6 鑊 (cf. Mandarin  huò).  (entered English 1952, according to Etymonline)


Selected readings



  1. Ariovistus said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 12:23 pm

    Why not just leave the name of the food untranslated (i.e., "guokui") as is usually done with Indian, Japanese, Arabic, and even Southeast Asian Chinese food names?

  2. Colin McLarty said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 12:26 pm

    There is a lot of speculation on-line, in English and Chinese, about the exact identity of a related (possibly fictitious) food: That is 拤饼, from Mo Yan's Red Sorghum, translated as fistcakes. Personally, I believe Mo Yan made up 拤饼 as an evocative word, and there is no specific meaning beyond the generic idea of egg-and-onion 饼. But I would be happy to learn I am wrong about that. Does the word 拤饼 mean anything outside Mo Yan's fiction?

  3. Bill Benzon said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 4:10 pm

    2.5 kg, really? That's five and a half pounds. Must be a dense pancake.

  4. F said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 6:35 pm

    Dense? If you assume the foot diameter and inch thickness are precisely accurate the density is a bit under 1.35. However, if the cake is 13 inches diameter and 1.2 inches thick its density is 0.95 (it would float on water). Note the word "about".

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    February 12, 2019 @ 5:27 am

    Whilst I admire Bill B & F for sticking to Imperial units despite the modern world's obsession with "going metric", F's estimates of density as "a bit under 3.5" and "0.95" leave me confused. In what units are these two densities being expressed ?

  6. ~flow said,

    February 12, 2019 @ 11:35 am

    @Philip Taylor quoting "Relative density, or specific gravity, is the ratio of the density (mass of a unit volume) of a substance to the density of a given reference material. […] It is defined as a ratio of density of particular substance with that of water."
    Since it is a ratio of two quantities with the same units, it is a dimensionless number; since water is so commonly used as a point of reference, that is often omitted, too.

    But I made the same mistake, too; I guess it must have been the odd wording of "round in shape, about a foot **long in diameter**, an inch in thickness" that threw me off and made me imagine a round stick one foot (30cm) long and 1 inch (2.5cm) thick. There's no way to make an object like this out of dough and have it weigh in at 2.5kg. But, it's a disk.

  7. Trogluddite said,

    February 12, 2019 @ 3:36 pm

    I couldn't help but think of cutting strips of buttered toast to make "soldiers" for dipping into a boiled egg (common in BrE, but I don't know about other dialects). I had never thought of them collectively as a "military unit" before, but I might now! ;-)

  8. IMarvinTPA said,

    February 13, 2019 @ 11:22 am

    What strikes me odd is "about a foot long in diameter," I generally encounter diameters being described as widths, not lengths. Either that or I should measure my pancakes with sub sandwiches or hoagies. How frequently does "long and diameter" appear with each other versus "wide and diameter"?

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