Sinitic spelling: winter melon and bean curd

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From a Telegram channel on an Instagram site (canto_calligraphy):

The large, dark indigo characters, which I find esthetically pleasing, seem to pose no particular problem:

Mand. dōngguā dòufu / Cant. dung1 gwaa1 dau6 fu6


"winter melon tofu"

[see below for additional explanation of what this means — a lot!]

As soon as I saw the smaller, chartreuse characters to the right of the larger characters, I realized that they are phonetic annotations for the latter.  They are an ad hoc example of one way you can indicate the sounds of Chinese characters when you don't have an alphabet or syllabary.  Another way, called dúruò 讀若 ("read as") is to find a homophonous character you think your reader might know and use it to annotate the character whose sound you're afraid your reader doesn't know.

After the advent of Indian phonological science (via Buddhism), the most common way for indicating the sound of a character was called fǎnqiè 反切 (Cant. faan2 cit3).  With this method, you take the initial of one character and the final of another character and combine them to form the sound of the character whose pronunciation you wish to indicate.  I used to call this method "cut and splice", but for the last few decades or so have been referring to it as "countertomy".

Here's an example of fanqie in action:

dé 德 ("virtue") + hóng 紅 ("red") = dōng 東 ("east")

Let's apply this countertomic procedure to the phonetic annotation of the first character of the calligraphy above, bearing in mind that this expression, "winter melon tofu", has a special idiomatic meaning in Cantonese, so we should read it in the latter language:

daai6 大 ("big") + gung1 工 ("work") = dung4 冬 ("winter")

Actually, the tone of  is dung1, revealing that the faan2 cit3 is based on the phonological principle of the first character being divided into yin ("raised") and yang ("lowered") tone classes, while the second character is divided into ping ("even") and ze ("oblique") types, with the short strokes at the top right being used to indicate the tones within these classes and types.

The neat twist that has been devised here is that the first and second characters (Chinese refer to them as "upper" and "lower" (shàngxià / soeng6 haa6*2 上下) are here combined into what looks like a single character.  I don't recall having seen this clever trick being used elsewhere, but I wouldn't be surprised if it had been discovered more than once throughout the great length and breadth of Sinitic time and space, just as I'd wager that the creation of a syllabary based on the character system occurred more than once, as it did with the famous Nǚshū 女書 / 女书 ("women's writing script") of Jiangyong County in Hunan Province, which reached its peak in the late 19th-early 20th centuries.

I stated above that dōngguā dòufu / dung1 gwaa1 dau6 fu6 冬瓜豆腐 means a lot more than simply "winter melon tofu" and that I would explain what its additional implications are.  CantoDict says it means "an emergency or crisis such as death" — that's putting it mildly.  Some native Cantonese speakers say that it means "die" — but that's putting it too bluntly.  The Baidu encyclopedia states that a winter melon is big and hard, while tofu is small and soft, but if either of them encounters an unforeseen misfortune and are thrown to the ground, they will be smashed to smithereens — sort of like Humpty Dumpty.  According to this explanation, dōngguā dòufu / dung1 gwaa1 dau6 fu6 冬瓜豆腐("winter melon tofu") implies that one has encountered an undesirable and unexpected consequence.  In earlier times, it used to be common for people to use this expression euphemistically at funerals, but such is not the practice nowadays.  In light of what we learn in the following paragraph, I suspect, however, that this is a secondary explanation.

On p. 245c of Robert S. Bauer's ABC Cantonese-English Comprehensive Dictionary (Honolulu:  University of Hawaii Press, 2021), there is a more nuanced and lengthy definition with example sentences, from which I here extract only the English portions:

the two foods which were customarily served to people who helped out in arranging a funeral; in addition, winter melon and beancurd are fed to ghosts during the ghost festival, so they carry neg. connotation

"If you have some serious emergency, don't come looking for me".

"Everybody in the family completely depends on you, so if you have some misfortune, they won't know what to do!"

Your spelling lesson for the day.

Selected readings

[Thanks to Pui Ling Tang, Chris Fraser, Abraham Chan, Frank Chong]


  1. Hervé Guérin said,

    May 31, 2021 @ 1:35 am

    The small strokes in the upper side are for the tones? And when doubled for lower tones (4, 5, 6) ?

  2. Chris Barts said,

    May 31, 2021 @ 6:11 am

    Have you seen Linear Mandarin yet?

  3. kltpzyxm said,

    May 31, 2021 @ 9:58 am

    dé 德 ("virtue") + hóng 紅 ("red") = dōng 東 ("east")

    should be

    dé 德 ("virtue") + hōng 轟 ("blast") = dōng 東 ("east")

    to get the tone right

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