Patty Cake, Patty Cake

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The story begins here — "Polished pan cake" (2/20/22) — which shows two dessert items on a menu.  In Chinese, one is described as a guō bing 锅饼 (lit., "pot / pan cake / pie") and the other is called a jiānbing 煎饼 (lit., "fried cake / pie"), two different kinds of bǐng 饼.

In the English translations on the menu, those two different varieties of bǐng 饼 are respectively rendered as simply "cake" and "pan cake".  I won't go into their fillings, since they have more or less been adequately covered in the earlier post.

We have the testimony of Charles Belov who ate one of the latter at the very same restaurant where the menu came from and declared that "pan cake" turned out to be a fried glutinous rice ball partially covered in granulated sugar.  A commenter to the post stated, "My understanding of 饼 was always just 'it means round food'".

I wonder where / how he got that "understanding".

Bǐng 饼 (simpl. 9 strokes) / 餅 (trad. 14 strokes) is a very interesting character / term, both in Chinese and in Japanese, but also in other East Asian and Southeast Asian languages.

Here are a couple of graphic variants:   䴵 (17 strokes) 餠 (16 strokes).

See if the number of strokes for all four forms I've given match the number you count.

Here's the Japanese kyūjitai ("old character") form:  (14, 15, 16, or 17 strokes — depending on who's writing it and what variant they use)

There are at least 34 characters with this phonophore in the same phonetic series () (Zhengzhang, 2003).

Glyph origin

Phono-semantic compound (形聲, OS *peŋʔ): semantic (food) + phonetic (OC *peŋ, *peŋs); traditional glyph form during Ming and Qing dynasty used to advocate (as in ) based on the influence of Shuowen. 幷 竮 並 併 竝

Surely operative must be bìng 并 (variants 幷, 並, 併, 井, 开, 竝, and 竮, and those are by no means all) ("and; also; together; simultaneously; side by side; be in a row; equally; combine; merge; incorporate; union"). 


Two of my favorite types of bǐng 饼:

shāobǐng 烧饼 ("griddle cake sprinkled with sesame seed"), cōngyóubǐng 葱油饼 ("scallion pancakes")

Here's an unusual specimen of bǐng 饼:

shìbǐng 柿饼 ("dried persimmon cake")

A discus is called tiěbǐng 铁饼 (lit., "iron biscuit / cake").

Derived compounds

There are more than a hundred polysyllabic terms containing bǐng 饼 / 餅 as a formative morpheme.


  • Khmer: បាញ់ (bañ, cake, pastry)
  • Lao: ແປ້ງ (pǣng, flour; starch; powder)
  • Thai: แป้ง (bpɛ̂ɛng, powder; flour; starch)
  • Vietnamese: bánh (pastry; cake; bread), bánh pía (Suzhou-style mooncake)

(sources:  Wiktionary, Zdic / Handian, Jisho), etc., plus my own mental fund of knowledge)

So much for the philology.  Now for the culture.  What do Chinese think of their dear, little bǐng 饼?

From Jinyi Cai, who is an expert pastry chef:

Actually I haven't paid much attention to this character before you pointed it out. I have always treated it as a normal character since it is very common and people use on a daily basis, such as bǐnggān 饼干 ("cookie") and 烧饼 ("Chinese pancake"), etc.  So I never thought it was anything special until you raised some complications concerning its shape, both that of the character and the object to which it refers.
The composition of this character is interesting: the left part means food while the right part (并) means "together". I assume this character means that people eat food together or share this food together as I can imagine how people can share a piece of 饼. Maybe back in the ancient times people ate this type of food together and it gradually became the character "饼".  
OR if you think of how 饼 is made, its composition also makes sense. When you make 饼,you put together water and flour (there must be more ingredients back in ancient times because I suppose they didn't have pure flour). So it's putting a lot of stuff together (并) and making it a piece of 饼. 
I am not sure which of my assumptions is true or maybe they are both wrong.

From Zihan Guo, a historian and esthetician of literature on food:

Though modern Chinese refer to a variety of stuffed pastries as bǐng 餅 and dried, crispy cookies as bǐnggàn 餅干, what always amazes me is the range of food it could signify in ancient times. The word bǐng 餅 appears in Mò Zǐ 墨子 (d. 391 BC) very briefly as an unclear type of food. Later in the Han dynasty it came to include almost any food made from wheat dough, sometimes compared to pasta by food historians. It was clearly very popular since there is a whole "Bǐng fù" 餅賦 ("Rhapsody on pasta / pastry") written in the Western Jin (266-316). The text records fastidious bǐng 餅 lore, listing a few types of bǐng 餅, each appropriate for different seasons. It praises that a bowl of steaming hot tāng bǐng 湯餅 ("boiled pasta", proto-noodles?) is the best thing to enjoy in the penetrating winter. What is also interesting is its mentioning of mántou 曼*頭, buns with meat fillings, recommended for early spring.

[VHM:  Note the absence of the "food / eat" radical [#184] in this early occurrence of the word.  This is a food item that we have often discussed on Language Log (see "Suggested readings" below).  In my travels through Central and Inner Asia, and in my explorations of ethnic food stores and restaurants in America, I have discovered that — from Russia to Korea and the Himalayan and Siberian regions — mántou is one of the most widespread Eurasian foodstuffs, that it started out as meat-filled and boiled, and in China has evolved into a steamed bread bun without filling.

The name is cognate with the names of similar types of meat-filled dumplings along the Silk Road in Central Asia, such as Uyghur manta (مانتا), Turkish mantı, Kazakh mänti (мәнті), Uzbek manti, Afghan mantoo and Armenian mantʿi (մանթի). Chinese mántou (馒头; 饅頭) is also considered a cognate, which used to mean meat-filled dumplings, but now refers to steamed buns without any filling.

[Korean m]andu [만두; 饅頭] can be divided into gyoja (교자; 餃子) type and poja (포자; 包子) type. In Chinese, the categories of dumplings are called jiǎozi (饺子; 餃子) and bāozi (包子) respectively, which are cognates with the Korean words. In Japanese, the former-type dumplings are called gyōza (餃子), which is also a cognate. In Mongolian, the latter-type dumplings are called buuz (бууз), which is also a cognate. (source)]

I have no idea how the character bǐng 餅 came to be what it is. Ancient lexicons suggest that it means bìng 並 ("put together"), as the food is made by mixing flour and water.
Irrelevant: there used to be a whimsical, cute Internet slang, "Nǐ yǒu māo bǐng ma 你有貓餅嗎?" ("Do you have a cat biscuit?") / "Nǐ yǒu máobìng ma 你有毛病嗎" ("Do you have a problem?").


The ancient lexicon I referred to was Shì míng 釋名 (Explanation of names; ca. 200 AD) by Liu Xi 劉熙, juan 4.13:

Bing means to combine: blend the flour with water to make it coalesce. Foreign bing are made into big 漫沍 (?), some also say that they put sesame on it.
The types of steamed bing, boiled bing, scorpion-shaped bing, marrow bing, metal-shaped bing (?), string-shaped bing, are all named after their shapes.
(methods of cooking them include steaming, boiling, baking, and frying)
*漫沍: no idea what it really means. A similar term 鏝胡 appears in Fāngyán 方言 (Regional speech; by Yang Xiong [53 BC – 18 AD]) glossed to mean a curved dagger, suggesting that 漫沍 might mean something big and broad: 鏝胡者, 寬大之貌. 胡餅 is considered a kind of bread, so maybe a very big kind.

The semantic range and gustatory delights of bǐng 饼 / 餅 far exceed "round food".


Selected readings


  1. unekdoud said,

    March 5, 2022 @ 11:14 am

    Japanese has 餅 = mochi and 煎饼 = senbei.

  2. wsa said,

    March 5, 2022 @ 1:25 pm

    Last summer, in a fit of COVID optimism, we went to Iceland to see the volcano. One morning in Reykjavik I stopped at a food stand making millet 煎餅 jiānbǐng. I can't say that I expected to run across those in Iceland.

  3. Mark Hansell said,

    March 5, 2022 @ 1:56 pm

    Interesting that the semantic range is so broad in Chinese, but so narrow in Japanese. Many years ago a Japanese friend of mine was in Chicago Chinatown hoping to buy some mochi. Nobody understood what he was asking for, so he wrote down the kanji 餅. The clerk's eyes lit up, and he brought him…a box of saltine crackers!

  4. Chas Belov said,

    March 5, 2022 @ 3:16 pm

    ¡Thank you! Great to learn so much out of just one menu oddity. And of course many types of bing, both sweet and savory, to try.

    I believe mandu also found its way into Korean.

    ¿Is there such a thing as a cat biscuit? I can't imagine a cat putting up with such a thing.

  5. Chas Belov said,

    March 5, 2022 @ 3:17 pm

    Oops, you did cover Korean, my bad.

  6. DDeden said,

    March 6, 2022 @ 12:18 am

    Bing is in my opinion etymologically much closer to pita/pizza and (perhaps) bagel, pan and bun than to gyoza or mantou or mochi. Sifted & combined flour flatbread dough set on round stone or oven. An Australian (Dharug?) term 'pita' is said to describe the sound of pounding the fern pods into flour for flatbread.
    I hope this is permissible: paleo-etymological keywords
    Xyuambuatl ~ comb.bound, com.bined, sieve.beat, .bread, compound.

  7. Jens Østergaard Petersen said,

    March 6, 2022 @ 5:46 am

    In a very informative article on 胡餅, quoting many early instances of this term, 高建新 holds that 漫沍 is a corruption of 麵糊, probably in the sense of ‘(flour) paste’.

  8. David Dettmann said,

    March 6, 2022 @ 3:33 pm

    I really like that variant with wheat 麥 as radical. Very logical (for wheat flour "bings" anyway)! My favorite go-to dictionary 中国烹饪辞典 had a an interesting citation for that word in the Jin Shu 《晋书·惠帝纪》implying 䴵 could counteract poisons (or medicine?): “后因食䴵中毒而崩”. Maybe it has some potential as a hangover cure?

    So far in my experience in Mongolia, "bings" (бин) have similar connotations to items in Chinese, usually pan fried or deep fried rounds. But, when that word is in a compound form, it has evolved to look and sound quite different. For example, 月饼 has become yeeven еэвэн, and my personal favorite, 炒饼 (about as far as you can go from a solid bread or cake-like food item to something much more like a fried noodle dish) has become tsuivan цуйван.

    Regarding the theme of mantou/mandu/mantuu etc, I found something interesting a few years ago in Mongolia. There, like in China, мантуу now tends to mean steamed and unstuffed bread (often in a flower shape). That said, that word is also now used as a modifier to imply "leavened" too. So while regular unleavened dough-wrapped dumplings are called buuz or бууз, the same with a leavened wrapper can be called mantuun buuz мантуун бууз.

  9. Jens Østergaard Petersen said,

    March 7, 2022 @ 4:32 am

    The utterly incompetent Emperor Hui (r. 290–307) is said in Jinshu to have died after eating a poisoned bing — there is nothing about any antidote here.

    Jinshu also has a story about the unbridled 王長文 who would sit in a squatting position in the marketplace in Chengdu munching bing (成都市中蹲踞齧胡餅), showing how far this custom had penetrated, geographically as well as socially, by Jin times.

  10. Michael Watts said,

    March 7, 2022 @ 8:11 am

    I got my understanding of 饼 meaning 'round food' from a Chinese person telling me that's what it meant. This would almost certainly have been a language teacher in Shanghai, but there is the off chance it was a tutor I had who came from Guangzhou.

    Neither this post nor the preceding one has done much to persuade me that "round food" was an inappropriate gloss; all of the examples seem to be food in a round shape (except the discus, an inedible iron version of a round food), and we also see the formal definition "any round and flat pancake-like object". The best counterexample is provided by Mark Hansell who describes the word applying to saltine crackers, which in my idiolect are invariably square. I would be interested to know whether the crackers were square or Mark Hansell was comfortable describing round crackers as "saltines".

    I should note that in modern Chinese the term 饼干 is not restricted to dry, crispy cookies; it is used equally of soft cookies.

  11. David Dettmann said,

    March 7, 2022 @ 10:16 am

    @ Jens Østergaard Petersen – Thanks for correcting my misreading of that Jinshu citation. I obviously need to work on my classical Chinese!

  12. Aardvark Cheeselog said,

    March 7, 2022 @ 3:12 pm

    铁饼 can also be a specific form of 茶饼, namely one that is highly-compressed with a hydraulic press into a thin cylinder shape. As opposed to the traditional lenticular shape, which also has a dimple on one side where the knot of a bag was pressed in.

  13. Johannes Pong said,

    March 14, 2022 @ 8:47 am

    Although modern bing has certainly evolved from round cake/ pancake form into all sorts of shapes & sizes in different Asian cultures, "round food" would be one of its primary meanings still in Cantonese.
    Interesting that bánh is in no way necessarily round in nearby Vietnam.
    Banh pho means pho-shaped cakes i.e.: "flat noodles" in Vietnamese & banh mi means "wheat cake" aka "bread" i.e.: baguette-shaped Vietnamese bread ultimately from France.

    The "roundness" of bing is quite evident in contemporary Cantonese.
    As a classifier, cassette & VHS tapes aren't round, but the "roundness" probably stems from the original rolled up film.

    打(晒)蛇餅 "wound up/ coiled up like a (round) cake of snakes" is also how Cantonese describe a long, winding queue of people; or tightly permed, curled, or locked or matted hair that hasn't been washed in days (the latter perhaps only my friend group uses…)

    And back to food, 肉餅 may automatically mean some sort of round wheat pastry stuffed with meat, but to a Cantonese speaker, [yuk6 beng2] brings to mind all sorts of delicious pork patties. This home-cooked comfort food is basically a Cantonese style burger patty, but usually a mix of lean & fatty pork. It's usually steamed as 蒸肉餅 more for a moist, fluffy texture than pure healthy reasons, although pan-fried versions are definitely prepared occasionally 煎肉餅.
    They can be flavoured with mui choy (fermented mustard greens), salted egg for salty savouriness, minced squid for a briny umami & my favourite — chopped water chestnuts for the sweetness & crunch.

    With pan-Chinese joints all over the place nowadays, sometimes I'm also confused when I see 肉餅 on a menu, & I usually have to ask the server to verify whether it's a round pork patty or a round wheat pastry stuffed w/ meat. LOL.

    And if you ask any Hongkonger, the immediate understanding of 餅 [beng2] would be 西餅 "Western cake" meaning any sort of Western pastry/ cake/ cookie, not Chinese ones. That, you have to be specific about… with a modifier in front like 月餅/煎餅/肉餅/老婆餅.

    I'm also rather chuffed that Vietnamese bánh in Hanoi accent sounds almost exactly like Cantonese [beng2] (but somehow Saigon accent the word sounds like English "bun."

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