Dumpling ingredients and character amnesia, part 2

« previous post | next post »

This post follows in the path of its classic predecessor, "Dumpling ingredients and character amnesia" (10/18/14), must see.  Here we begin with this provisions list:


The list was written by a peasant who knows something about writing Chinese but not much. So he uses homophones (if not pictures) almost throughout the entire list!  Here's a “translation” of these items into proper Chinese characters:

units of measure:

jīn 斤 ("catty" — roughly half a kilogram)

zhǐ 只 = 隻 = one ("bird")

píng 平 = píng 瓶 ("bottle")

条 m.w. for fish

(N.B.:  the "translations" of the homophonically expressed terms are not for actual meaning, but just illustrative of the types of characters that are borrowed for their sound, not meaning.)

zhūròu 猪肉 ("pork") (written as zhūròu 朱肉 ["red meat"])

yāròu 鸭肉 ("duck meat")  (written as yāròu 压肉 ["pressed meat"])

dàsuàn 大蒜 ("garlic") (written as dàsuàn 大算 ["great computation"])

luóbo 萝卜 ("radish") (written as luōbù 罗不 ["net not"])

liàojiǔ 料酒 ("cooking wine") (written as niàojiǔ 尿九 ["urine nine'])

jiàngyóu 酱油 ("soy sauce") (written as jiāngyǒu 将友 ["will friend"])

yú 鱼 ("fish") (drawn)

huángguā 黄瓜 ("cucumber") (written as wángguā 王刮 ["king scrapes"])

é 鹅 ("goose") (drawn)

jīdàn 鸡蛋 ("eggs") (written as jīlíng 机0 — half written half drawn ["machine zero"]) — compare to the writing of jīdàn 鸡蛋 ("eggs") on the list in the first post in this series

According to certain miswritten words, one can even tell something about the script’s dialectal features, such as pronouncing huáng 黄 as wáng 王 and liào 料 as niào 尿.  Sounds like people in the Jiānghuái guānhuà 江淮官话 ("Jianghuai Mandarin", also called "Lower Yangtze Mandarin") region.

Diana Shuheng Zhang, who called this list to my attention, observes:

What this sheet reflects reminds me of Zev Handel’s book* and his defensive argument for the ability of Sinographs to represent new, local sounds when borrowed by the users of regions newly incorporated into the Sinographic sphere. Who says that only phonetic scripts best represent sounds? Who says that Sinographs cannot be creative, fluid, and adaptive?

*Sinography: The Borrowing and Adaptation of the Chinese Script (Leiden: Brill, 2019).

Thus we see that this provisions list written by a peasant comes at the matter of miswritten characters from the opposite direction of that of the dumpling ingredients list, which was written by a PhD.  The former creatively expresses words he never knew how to write in characters, whereas the latter uses Pinyin to write the sounds of characters he / she once knew but has forgotten how to write.

Selected readings


  1. Lisze Siaw said,

    April 26, 2022 @ 3:00 am

    Interesting article. This is also a way to communicate if you don't master all the Chinese words. The people always understand what you need because they know the proper terms. These are some dumpling ingredients I have never tried before.

  2. Jonathan Smith said,

    April 26, 2022 @ 7:17 am

    Um, stuff somewhat like this certainly happens in real life… but this is just written by some young guy/gal for chuckles, copied, cropped, relabeled, reposted without attribution…. you know, the internet :D

  3. Wolfgang Behr said,

    April 26, 2022 @ 7:33 am

    Over time, such homophonic and/or graphic ad hoc character substitutions may also develop into very sophisticated notation systems. For a wonderful anthropological study by Winnie H. Y. Cheung and Wee Lian-hee describing the "Principles of the Hong Kong Kitchen Shorthand", have a look at this article: https://cup.cuhk.edu.hk/chinesepress/journal/HKS1.2/HKS1.2_120-142.pdf.

  4. KeithB said,

    April 26, 2022 @ 7:51 am

    I may be a bit politically correct here, but just what is a "peasant"?

  5. Lia said,

    April 26, 2022 @ 8:19 am

    Somehow I do not believe "the most lettered man of the village" produced a shopping list that includes creative homophones for every item, excluding the incredibly simple "fish" (鱼) and what appears to me to be a chicken (鸡) and its egg, which are of course amusingly illustrated. Perhaps less an indication of the death of hanzi and more the enduring legacy of puns and other fun with characters, as well as an ingrained prejudice of rural folks as uncultured.

  6. Fredric Ye Tian said,

    April 26, 2022 @ 9:01 am

    Um, how many dumplings does this person want to make? And I tested it with Sogou Translate. It still can't understand this list even if it has a powerful error tolerance feature.

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    April 26, 2022 @ 9:12 am

    Keith — « just what is a "peasant" ?». Well, Good King Wenceslas knew one when he saw one ("Yonder peasant, who is he ? Where and what his station ?"), so it would seem odd if over time we as a species have lost that ability. I would be inclined to merely adduce the first OED definition and suggest that little more need be said …

    A. n.
    a. A person who lives in the country and works on the land, esp. as a smallholder or a labourer; (chiefly Sociology) a member of an agricultural class dependent on subsistence farming.

  8. Jerry Packard said,

    April 26, 2022 @ 11:10 am

    'Peasant' is a common translation for 农民 nongmin, which can also be translated, non-pejoratively, as 'farmer.'

  9. Jerry Packard said,

    April 26, 2022 @ 11:24 am

    The provision list has nothing to do with dumplings, but rather is a list of items for a VERY LARGE eating event that would feed 200-300 people.

  10. Jonathan Smith said,

    April 26, 2022 @ 11:30 am

    Interesting; Philip Taylor's OED definition of 'peasant' doesn't capture the pejorative~feudal feel of the word as now used, but remains perfect for Mandarin nong2min2 農民. Indeed, 'peasant' remains a more apt translation than 'farmer' for nongmin if one seeks to give a sense of the realities of small village life in even contemporary rural China to the unfamiliar Westerner…

  11. Jonathan Smith said,

    April 26, 2022 @ 11:34 am

    Again, the original poster and presumably taker of this photo, from 08-2021 not 04-2022, said "领居家置办酒席让我帮忙写的菜单 大家帮我看看还有没有缺点什么? ​​​"the neighbors are holding a banquet and asked me to help them write this grocery list you guys take a look and let me know if anything seems to be missing?" its for funz

  12. Terpomo said,

    April 26, 2022 @ 3:54 pm

    It reminds me of the character form of Y. R. Chao's 'General Chinese' which would turn ~2000 characters into, effectively, a syllabary for a pan-Sinitic diaphonemic system.
    As well as of Michael Chen's Third-Round Simplified Chinese, which is a similar concept but just for Mandarin, with the addition of semantic elements and optional tone marks.
    As well as Nüshu (I've thought about learning it, but it wouldn't be much use to me since I don't speak the dialect it's a syllabary for.)
    Not to mention kana, gugyeol, idu… In short, the idea of turning Chinese characters into a syllabary seems to have arisen independently many times in history. One wonders whether it wouldn't be a fait accompli without the Confucian bureaucracy propping them up for much their history.

  13. VVOV said,

    April 26, 2022 @ 4:21 pm

    I was intrigued to see the second-to-last item in the list transcribed in the blog post as 'é 鹅 ("goose")'. Is there some contextual information that tells us the drawing is not a chicken or some other poultry?

  14. Victor Mair said,

    April 26, 2022 @ 4:55 pm

    A few points:

    1. Terpomo gives the beginning of an answer to William Boltz's $64,000 question why China never developed an alphabet or syllabary.

    See here, here, here (the last item), etc.

    2. What makes this kind of list "work"? Is there any point to it? Does it reveal something profound? Why did someone write it this way?

    3. Notice the misstart of the last item. How / why did it happen that way? Compare the original dumpling ingredients post. Think hard about this question. It's not a joke.

  15. Guy_H said,

    April 27, 2022 @ 4:03 am

    I'm intrigued what this list is for….200 half-kilos of pork, 50 chickens, 80 half-kilos of radishes? This is not your average peasant's shopping list…

  16. Chris Button said,

    April 27, 2022 @ 4:16 am

    @ Victor Mair

    Terpomo gives the beginning of an answer to William Boltz's $64,000 question why China never developed an alphabet or syllabary

    But surely China did, as I think you would concur (in theory, if not in detail):


    I think the question is not why it didn't happen, but rather rather what cultural and socio-political factors then played a role.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    April 27, 2022 @ 5:25 am

    @Chris Button:

    From our many exchanges on Language Log and elsewhere, you know that I know that better than anyone. Terpomo's contribution stands.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    April 27, 2022 @ 5:47 am

    Also, given the increasingly frequent phenomenon of character amnesia and the consequent emergence of digraphia, the Sinographic glass ceiling, if I may borrow a metaphor, is beginning to crack.

    Stay tuned for more posts on these subjects.

  19. Jerry Packard said,

    April 27, 2022 @ 12:43 pm

    Boltz (1994, pp. 168– 171) provides an answer to his question, explicitly arguing that Chinese did not become a syllabary because the characters strongly preserved their connection between graph and meaning, thereby suppressing phoneticization.

  20. Terpomo said,

    April 27, 2022 @ 1:01 pm

    1. what would you consider to be the rest of the answer, if that's the beginning of one?
    2. As to what makes it 'work', that seems to be simply that it encodes the sounds of speech, which a speaker of Mandarin would understand spoken out loud, but I get the feeling this may be a "trick question" of some sort.
    As for 3. I'm not sure, though.
    As far as the 'Sinographic glass ceiling' I wouldn't be so optimistic. The more realistic scenario seems to me to be that the people who have need to will continue writing in hanzi, and the people who don't will still retain passive knowledge because they're surrounded by them and type them using pinyin. The characters have pretty massive institutional and cultural inertia behind them.
    Jerry Packard- but didn't it become a syllabary many times over? I cited half a dozen instances above. And informal simplifications based on phonetic substitution, not to mention new characters based productively on the phonosemantic principle, are widespread in informal use. It's just that they didn't become any sort of standard because of the institutional inertia.

  21. Jerry Packard said,

    April 27, 2022 @ 1:23 pm

    "Jerry Packard- but didn't it become a syllabary many times over? I cited half a dozen instances above. And informal simplifications based on phonetic substitution, not to mention new characters based productively on the phonosemantic principle, are widespread in informal use. "

    The characters are often _used_ as a syllabary — see the complete syllabary DeFrancis (1984) provides at the front of his book — it just has never _become_ one.

    (the following is abstracted from Packard (1996) review of Boltz (1994) _The Origin and Early Development of the Chinese Writing System_. _Language 72.4_, (Dec. 1996) 801-804.)

    Boltz argues that one reason the Chinese script never made it to the phonetic stage was a philosophical 'world-view' that sought to preserve the connection between a graph and its meaning, thereby suppressing phoneticization. Boltz explains how in the philosophy of the time, the association between a word and its logograph was an inviolable, nonarbitrary reflection of the natural order. As Boltz explains, when scholars were faced with the dissociation of graph and word entailed in using a logograph for its sound value this violated their sense of the natural order, inhibiting the use of characters as semantically empty phonetic symbols.

  22. wanda said,

    April 27, 2022 @ 3:53 pm

    @Wolfgang Behr: That is a cool paper. Not being an ethnologist, though, I have a question. The paper says, "Data for this study is drawn from a two-prong ethnographic approach, firstly in taking up the role of waiting staff at two different establishments (role-immersion) and secondly in collecting examples at the eateries (casual collection)." Does this sentence imply that he became a waiter on purpose for his research? Or could it have been that he happened to be a waiter to earn money on the side, and then he realized that he could collect the wait slips when he worked and ate out?

  23. wanda said,

    April 27, 2022 @ 3:54 pm

    Ignore the last comment. It's answered further on in the paper.

  24. Peter Grubtal said,

    April 28, 2022 @ 12:34 am

    Jerry Packard : "one reason the Chinese script never made it to the phonetic stage was a philosophical 'world-view' that sought to preserve the connection between a graph and its meaning"

    Just a minute: isn't the dogma (sorry current opinion) round here that the graphs are pure logograms, and any connection with meaning is just urban mythology.

  25. Philip Taylor said,

    April 28, 2022 @ 3:40 am

    I am sure that there are some (? many ?) who hold that view, Peter, but it is most certainly not universally held. I am currently reading (online) Ming Dong Gu's SINOLOGISM IN LANGUAGE PHILOSOPHY: A CRITIQUE OF THE CONTROVERSY OVER CHINESE LANGUAGE (https://www.jstor.org/stable/43285906 ) and find his arguments quite persuasive and well reasoned.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    April 28, 2022 @ 8:18 am

    The facts remain that:

    1. China still has, and always has had, a morphosyllabic writing system

    2. the factors inhibiting incipient phoneticization are chiefly political and ideological

    3. digraphia is emerging apace (frequently documented on LL)

    4. the two shopping lists featured in this post and its predecessor are part of the vast documentation for #3

    5. VHM is an inveterate descriptivist, not a prescriptivist — always has been and always will be

RSS feed for comments on this post