Noodle devils

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Nathan Vedal wrote to tell me about an interesting mistranslation into Chinese that he recently came across.

Having purchased some not particularly healthy, but quite delicious, instant noodles produced by a Korean company, he was perusing the Chinese instructions, which included the following sentence:

Jiāng 550CC de shuǐ fàngrù guō zhōng, dài shuǐ kāi hòu, fàngrù miànguǐ jí tāngfěn.  Guò 4 fēnzhōng hòu, jué bàn jí kě shìyòng.


"Pour 550 CC of water into pot and wait till it boils, then add the noodle devils and soup flavoring.  After 4 minutes, sense/feel-stir; can be eaten at once."

The directions are baffling.  What in the devil is miànguǐ 麵鬼 supposed to mean?

miàn 麵 ("flour; noodles")

guǐ 鬼 ("demon; devil; ghost")

Are they telling us to put "noodle devils" into the boiling water?

Nathan was ultimately unable to solve the problem until he found someone online who proposed a reasonable explanation.  As the author of this blog points out, it seems likely that what is intended is miànkuài 麵塊 to refer to the "block of noodles".  A similar omission of the radical (semantic key; semantophore) occurs in the last phrase where juébàn 覺拌 ("sense/feel-stir") should read jiǎobàn 攪拌 ("to stir"), the hand radical having been dropped from jiǎo 攪 ("stir; mix; disturb; annoy").

One would expect this kind of orthographically incorrect character to appear in handwriting, and, in fact, I've often encountered such mistakes in reading old manuscripts and letters from friends.  For typing with phonetic inputting (which is employed by the overwhelming majority of those who enter characters into electronic devices such as computers and cell phones), the more common kind of error would be to call up a different character or characters with the same or similar pronunciation, thus:

miánkuài 綿塊 ("cotton block")

instead of:

miànkuài 麵塊 ("block of noodles")

And, instead of:

jiǎobàn 攪拌 ("to stir")

the following might be mistakenly entered:

jiāobàn 交辦 ("assign to take care of")

jiǎobǎn 腳板 ("sole of the foot")

jiàobǎn 叫板 ("rhythmic passage at the end of a spoken part in an opera")

jiāobān 交班 ("hand over to the next shift [at work]")

jiàobān 轎班 ("palanquin / sedan-chair bearers")

jiāobǎn 膠版 ("offset plate" [for printing])

jiǎobàn / chāobàn 剿辦 / 勦辦 ("suppress by means of military action")

Whether as the result of phonetic inputting or shape-based inputting, one must be wary of entering incorrect characters in texts one is typing.  The only real safeguard against making such errors is to have a high level of literacy to begin with and to check constantly in dictionaries when one is unsure of oneself.

May your Easter dinner not consist merely of instant noodles, much less demon noodles!


  1. Daniel said,

    March 31, 2013 @ 10:51 am

    "After 4 minutes, suppress by means of military action."

    Pure gold.

  2. Neil Dolinger said,

    March 31, 2013 @ 11:18 am

    Thank you for delving into this mystery. If I had encountered these instructions I would have assumed that 麵鬼 was simply an idiom I had never seen before, referring to dried noodles. I am wodering whether the first sentence is poor grammar. Shouldn't a locational phrase like放入鍋中 normally occur before the action it modifies, similar to zai phrases?

  3. Matt said,

    March 31, 2013 @ 7:39 pm

    Now do you see what happens when a language stops using Chinese characters to write its Sinitic words? Dogs and cats, living together! Noodle devils! Mass hysteria!

  4. KWillets said,

    March 31, 2013 @ 11:25 pm

    @Matt you remind me of a Korean drama I recently watched about King Sejong and the struggle to introduce Hangul. There were a number of arguments depicted about "savage characters" and the downfall of any country that strayed from the fold. A lot of it was likely based on real history, such as the opposition of the Yangban class, and some anatomical research into the phonetics of ㅎ, but much was not.

    If you long for the good old days of linguistics when a phonetic alphabet could get you assassinated by flying swordsmen, this is your drama.

  5. maidhc said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 12:30 am

    Noodle devils! I knew there had to be a reason why every time I eat noodles I get stains on my shirt!

  6. Sara Scharf said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 9:48 pm

    The image here has less to do with Chinese than with evil noodles.

  7. Sara Scharf said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 9:49 pm

    Oops. Click my name above for the link, which can also be accessed here:

  8. Mat Bettinson said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 11:33 pm

    This is gold. Relaying this post to a social network I found that the Google Pinyin IME doesn't seem to want to give me the option to type the genuine traditional version of 麵 when switched to traditional mode. The ngram-nature of it's dictionary got me there by typing 麵包 and just deleting the second character. Which may be uninteresting but just last week I saw someone write 面塊 which seems to be a mixture of trad/simple possible based on the same sort of issue with an IME.

    One wonders if the complexity of Chinese orthography ends up being a fertile ground for digital forensics in analysing these sort of issues.

  9. Jens Ørding Hansen said,

    April 2, 2013 @ 6:24 am

    The 適用 at the end is also a mistake. It should have been 食用.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    April 2, 2013 @ 3:57 pm

    @Jens Ørding Hansen

    That's interesting, because this mistake is based on sound, not shape, like the other two errors.

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