"Q" as a Sinogram and a Sinitic morpheme

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Jules Quartly (appropriate surname!) has an informative article on this subject in Taiwan Business TOPICS, "The True Story of Q" (1/21/20) — a takeoff from the most famous Chinese short story of the 20th century, "The True Story of Ah Q" (Ā Q Zhèngzhuàn 阿Q正傳 /  阿Q正传; serialized 12/4/21-2/12/22, published 1923).  Toward the end of his article, Quartly quotes extensively from this post of mine:  "Is Q a Chinese Character?" (4/15/10).  In the rest of the article, however, he offers a panoply of his own and others' insights about just what "Q" signifies as a mouthfeel in Taiwan.

Here follow some delicious, selected passages from Quartly's article:

A decade or so ago, the restaurant reviews by local writers in the Taiwan newspaper where I was features editor often dwelt at great length on the chewy nature of certain dishes.

To vary the wording, the reviewers resorted to ever more tortuous ways to describe the texture of the delicacy in question. Among the adjectives plucked from the pages of Roget's Thesaurus were "leathery," "gristly," and "globular" – terms that reviewers in Western publications might only apply with malice aforethought.

As a then relatively recent arrival in Taiwan, I sensed that something was clearly going on that I was sadly ignorant about. When I asked the authors about their perceived need to describe the essential "bounciness" or "springiness" of food in such detail, they responded that it was all about "Q" – the degree of chewiness of a given food and how it feels against the teeth and tongue.

Q is considered one of the keys to good food in Taiwan, on a par with taste, color, and consistency. Given how frequently Q is referred to on menus and in general conversation, it appears that Taiwanese appreciate mouthfeel or texture more than most people. The Italians do have al dente, which literally means "to the tooth" and describes pasta or rice that is slightly undercooked, but it's not easy to find other examples.

Making his own attempt to explain Q, journalist George Liao says: "In Taiwanese, when we say something is very 'Q,' we mean it tastes good-chewy, which is usually associated with being delicious. Some snacks have to be chewy to be delicious, and when that quality comes out, we usually praise the food by saying it's very Q. Sometimes it also means sticky, as some Chinese or Taiwanese foods need to be sticky to be delicious, such as mochi" (the Japanese-style confectionery made with glutinous rice).

So, is Q now a Chinese character? Robert Matthews, a former university instructor, alludes to a rare Chinese character, 飲蚯, pronounced kiu in Mandarin. It is a fusion of the characters yin (drink, 飲) and qiu (sip, 蚯)… [VHM:  Question to the assembled readership — is that in Unicode or otherwise available online?]

In reply to Quartly's question, there's no doubt that Q has been part of the Chinese writing system for at least nearly a century.

For me, the quintessential "Q" texture is that of the chewy, round balls in boba (also known as pearl milk tea or bubble milk tea; zhēnzhū nǎichá 珍珠奶茶, bōbà nǎichá 波霸奶茶) that you swish around in your mouth before biting them and slurpily swallowing them down.  One of my favorite desserts, which I loved long before I started drinking bubble tea (fairly recently), is tapioca the way my sister Heidi and I prepare it — with meringue generously folded in and decadently rich whipped cream piled on top served with sugared cut strawberries.  Unfortunately, for it to be super good, you need big pearl tapioca, and with boba having taken the world by storm, it has become increasingly difficult to find big pearl tapioca. (I realize that it is still available through specialized sources, but you have to try harder to get it than in the past.)

 

Selected readings

"cactus wawa: the strange tale of a strange character" (11/1/14)

"Cactus Wawa revisited " (4/24/16)

"Bubble tea blooper " (9/28/17)

[h.t. John Rohsenow]



23 Comments

  1. Philip Taylor said,

    January 24, 2020 @ 2:53 pm

    "a rare Chinese character, 飲蚯, pronounced kiu in Mandarin. It is a fusion of the characters yin (drink, 飲) and qiu (sip, 蚯)… [VHM: Question to the assembled readership — is that in Unicode or otherwise available online?]"

    I have not so far been able to locate it, but what tone is "kiu" ?

  2. Matt Kosko said,

    January 24, 2020 @ 3:27 pm

    Is it this? It has encoding but it doesn't show up in my browser.

    https://www.unicode.org/cgi-bin/GetUnihanData.pl?codepoint=296A8

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    January 24, 2020 @ 3:34 pm

    Looks like it — well done ! Renders fine in Seamonkey 2.49.5, 32-bit, Windows 7 Enterprise (64-bit).

  4. Victor Mair said,

    January 24, 2020 @ 3:48 pm

    Many thanks, Matt.

  5. cameron said,

    January 24, 2020 @ 4:06 pm

    – will it just cut/paste?

  6. cameron said,

    January 24, 2020 @ 4:06 pm

    I guess not . . .

  7. Matt Kosko said,

    January 24, 2020 @ 4:11 pm

    HT: The encoding link came from this Quora post by the Robert Matthews cited in the Quartly article:

    https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-Chinese-character-pronounced-as-Q-for-al-dente-meaning-springy-for-pasta

    But Philip, I'm also curious what tone it is.

  8. Noel Hunt said,

    January 24, 2020 @ 5:52 pm

    '… but it's not easy to find other examples'—in Japanese 腰 (koshi), literally 'waist', with various transferred meanings, is also used to describe the 'elasticity' or 'stickyness' of noodles etc., which are described as 'having koshi'.

  9. Bathrobe said,

    January 24, 2020 @ 5:57 pm

    This character, , renders on a Mac. Are others not able to see it?

  10. Bathrobe said,

    January 24, 2020 @ 5:58 pm

    Well, obviously not. I can't see it in my comment above, even though it was visible when I was writing the comment.

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    January 24, 2020 @ 6:16 pm

    Trying in various ways — literal: []; decimal: [𩚨]; hex: [𩚨].

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    January 24, 2020 @ 6:18 pm

    So decimal (𩚨) and hex (𩚨) work, but literal does not.

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    January 24, 2020 @ 6:25 pm

    But that was not mean to happen; I escaped the ampersands as <ampersand>amp;, but they were treated as real ampersands and the following decimal/hex strings therefore interpreted as indicating a character. So this time I will try spelling them out in full :

    Decimal : <ampersand><hash>169640<semi-colon>
    Hex: <ampersand><hash>x296a8<semi-colon>

  14. Jonathan Smith said,

    January 24, 2020 @ 6:29 pm

    From the Taiwan Minnanyu Changyongci cidian 台灣閩南語常用詞辭典 (though the character in question presumably won't display…):

    khiū 形容食物柔軟而有彈性、韌性。例:紅龜粿真。Âng-ku-kué tsin khiū. (紅龜粿很有彈性。) 

    So mid-level tone if I understand correctly, "Yang qu" 陽去 in Sinitic terms.

  15. Nick said,

    January 24, 2020 @ 7:32 pm

    I think that "succulent" is a good "Q" translation, when things such as cooked shrimp are being described.

  16. Michael Watts said,

    January 24, 2020 @ 8:36 pm

    U+296A8 renders fine in my browser, but it's not a fusion of 飲 and 蚯 — it's a fusion of 食 (well, the 食字旁) and 丘. Is that the same character as described above?

  17. Chas Belov said,

    January 25, 2020 @ 1:53 am

    I don't accept succulent as a translation. "Al dente" would work better for me.

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    January 25, 2020 @ 6:04 am

    I go along with Chas in not accepting "succulent" as a synonym for 𩚨 — for me, "succulent" suggests "releasing lots of wonderfully flavoured juices when chewed". But "al dente" doesn't work for me either. If I understand the texture of 𩚨 ("Q") correctly, then it doesn't suddenly yield to tooth pressure, as does (e.g.,) al dente rice, but rather continues to resist in a pleasantly satisfying manner. Possibly the small pieces of condensed coconut jelly in (e.g.,) lychee or mango jelly fruit puddings exemplifies my ideal of 𩚨.

  19. ~flow said,

    January 25, 2020 @ 1:51 pm

    There's also U+02971e 𩜞 but I couldn't find any data on this codepoint. This one and 𩚨 are the only characters I was able to identify that combine 飠and 丘.

    Did I understand correctly that both that elusive character and Q are read as 'kiu' in Taiwan? FWIW my Neues Dt-Ch. Wtb. (Peking 1985) offers both A Kiu and A Qiu for 阿Q. I remember being somewhat baffled by the "foreign letter" in the Chinese word (but that's how Lu Xun wrote it) and the "impossible" syllable kiu.

  20. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 25, 2020 @ 2:02 pm

    By coincidence I just came across this piece written by a Filipino fellow about the differences between Minnan/Hokkien (the most common topolect among ethnic Chinese in the Philippines) and other topolects. It starts with differences in greetings for the Lunar New Year, but he mentions the usefulness of "Q" (and its absence in putonghua script) toward the end. https://opinion.inquirer.net/46435/kiong-hee-please

  21. Philip Taylor said,

    January 26, 2020 @ 7:34 am

    Do you have any idea, JWB, what the author meant by "pasubo ng buwaya" towards the end of the piece ? I can find only three example via Google, and all appear to refer to the same source.

  22. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 26, 2020 @ 2:10 pm

    @Philip Taylor, I have no idea, although google translate's first guesses are "fruity crocodile" or "Initiation of crocodile." But on further googling I suspect it may be the ritual referred to here: https://www.jstor.org/stable/29792503?seq=1.

  23. Philip Taylor said,

    January 26, 2020 @ 3:00 pm

    I think you are spot-on, JWB. For any interested parties, the relevant extracts read :

    The devotion (panata) to Santa Marta in Pateros, Metro[politan] Manila, traces its roots to primeval beliefs in a water goddess and in ancestral spirits (nuno) embodied in the powerful image of an ancient crocodile (buaya). […]
    The displeasure was usually appeased by pasubo, the ritual of throwing food offerings into the river where the crocodile and the spirits were supposed to dwell.

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