Fresh bacteria soup

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From John Dankowski via Dave Thomas:

The label says:

xiān jūn lǎojī tāng


"fresh mushroom old chicken soup"

The error is easily explainable, since jūn 菌 has the following meanings:  bacteria; bacterium; fungus; mushoom; germ; mold; mould.

Google Translate, Baidu Fanyi, and Microsoft Bing all get it right.

Why "old chicken"?

Chenfeng Wang:

Old chicken is just the literal meaning. People like to use old chicken to make soup, because it is more delicious. It is said that it is also nutritious, but this does not have any scientific basis, I believe.

Yixue Yang:

Haha that’s a very interesting “cultural” difference. Chinese really love lǎojī 老鸡 ("old chicken"), whereas most chicken in US supermarkets are in competion to be more tender.

I would say lǎo 老 refers to the tough, lean meat of chicken, preferably at least 1 year old.

Diana Shuheng Zhang:

Well I think there are two reasons:

1. Lǎo mǔjī 老母鸡 (old hen) is considered to be the most nutritious among all kinds of chicken for soup and broth in traditional Chinese medicinal / food culture.

2. The tetrasyllabic tag wants to create a symmetrical effect by contrasting the lǎo 老 (old, well-boiled) chicken with xiān 鲜 (freshly [picked)] mushrooms. Chinese people love parallelism and symmetricity when it comes to words!


Rhetorically, "old" chicken is in parallel contrast with "fresh" mushrooms (independently mentioned by Diana Zhang).

Finally, there is another theory that old chicken can stand up to stewing, whereas young chicken soon disintegrates when subjected to prolonged stewing.


Selected readings


  1. Laura Morland said,

    March 3, 2022 @ 11:06 pm

    The bacteria are fresh, but the chicken is old? Sounds like a recipe for Covid!

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    March 4, 2022 @ 5:43 am

    The finest chicken soup I have ever experienced was made by a farmer's wife on an island somewhere on the outskirts of Shanghai — when asked how she achieved the incredible flavour, she explained that for chicken soup one needs a bird at least three years old.

  3. bks said,

    March 4, 2022 @ 7:57 am

    The bottle was dusty, but the liquor was clean.

  4. Frank L Chance said,

    March 4, 2022 @ 11:18 am

    In Japan, by contrast chicken is sold in supermarkets and the like as wakadori 若鶏 "young bird."

  5. Garrett Wollman said,

    March 4, 2022 @ 12:55 pm

    Older chickens *have* to be stewed (or cooked by a similar moist-heat method) because they would otherwise be tough and chewy. The US market grade is called "stewing hen" but they are rarely sold today because most chickens (of either sex) aren't allowed to live that long. Historically, of course, hens were kept for egg production and were nearly always old when slaughtered; only the cockerels were slaughtered young because they had little economic value (a farm only needed a few cocks to fertilize eggs for the next generation).

    In technical terms, a long, slow, moist cooking method like stewing hydrolyzes tough animal proteins like collagen, found in bones, cartilage, skin, and tendons, thickening the broth with the resulting gelatin.

  6. liuyao said,

    March 8, 2022 @ 2:26 am

    Better than a Fresh Fungi Chicken Soup.

  7. Chau said,

    March 8, 2022 @ 9:24 am

    The word 菌 jūn ‘mushroom’ touches on an interesting but not so often discussed phenomenon in traditional Chinese phonology (漢語聲韻學 Hànyŭ shēngyùnxué), that is, the drifting or wandering of tones. When I read the pinyin jūn (in the first tone, 平聲 péngshēng) for 菌 that Prof. Mair wrote in the O.P., I was surprised. The Mandarin I learned in school gives jùn, a fourth tone (去聲 qùshēng). So I checked my dictionaries from China and Taiwan. The pocket-sized Chinese dictionary I have (published by the Xinhuashe 新華社) gives jūn as the primary pronunciation (prn) and jùn as the secondary one. The bulky dictionary I brought from Taiwan gives only one prn, jùn, which confirms what I have learned in school. The Mandarin taught in school in Taiwan was brought by the Nationalist Chinese when they lost the mainland and took refuge in Taiwan in 1949. Presumably the 去聲 was the prevalent prn in China at that time and got frozen in Taiwan. Obviously, after 1949 a new tone for 菌, jūn (which is a 平聲), emerged in China and has become the dominant prn. That means PRC-Mandarin ≠ ROC-Mandarin. So far so good.

    I then checked Mathews’ Chinese-English Dictionary (Harvard University Press, 1966), which gives 菌 the third tone chün3 (= jŭn) in 上聲 (shăngshēng). Now the plot thickens. Actually this has been historically the traditional prn. The Kangxi dictionary, citing the Tang dynasty rime book 唐韻 (Tángyùn), gives 渠隕切, which means that, if read in Taiwanese, kû (渠) + ún (隕) = kún (菌) and it is in 上聲. And in the authoritative 廣韻 Guăngyùn (published in Song Dynasty), 菌 is listed in the 上聲 category. Taiwanese, as a more conservative topolect than Mandarin, whose prn of 菌 is (in POJ) khún, retains the traditional 上聲 feature.

    When did 菌 change from 上聲 to 去聲 in the Mandarin branch? According to the reconstructions of Middle Chinese (MC) by the late Prof. Pulleyblank, the change took place from Early MC to Late MC (Lexicon of Reconstructed Pronunciation, p. 169). Early MC is based on Qiēyùn (切韻) rhyming dictionary of 601 AD. Tw khún (菌) preserves the 上聲 of EMC, which, by the way, is consistent with the view that the Min topolect group left the main Sinitic stock very early. I also checked Coblin’s A Handbook of Eastern Han Sound Glosses for the prn of 菌 (p. 232), but it does not give tone indications. Although 菌 is mentioned in 淮南子 Huánánzĭ, Schuessler’s ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese does not have an entry for 菌 . The tract is lost in the mist of Old Chinese.

    In summary, as far as we can trace, 菌 was originally in 上聲. From Early MC to Late MC, it switched from 上聲 to 去聲. Throughout the time from Mongol Yuan (Early Mandarin) to 1949, it had remained in 去聲 in Mandarin. Finally, after 1949, there emerged in China a new prn in 平聲, which has become the primary prn for 菌 in China. In Taiwan, its Mandarin prn has remained in 去聲, whereas its Taiwanese prn is still in 上聲 —- a reflection of Taiwanese as a living fossil of ancient Sinitic.

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