Troublesome Chinese surname

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This is a story about the frustration of a mom in China over the fact that the character for her child's surname, cuàn 爨, has 30 strokes (some sources say 29).

Aside from its use as a surname, this monstrosity of a glyph can also mean "to cook" and "oven; cooker; cookstove".  Although cuàn 爨 certainly should have been a candidate for simplification, so far as I know, no simplified character for it exists, at least none that is official.

There are a dozen or so alternate forms, e.g., 熶, but most of them are very obscure and cannot be found in electronic fonts.  See here for a few.

Wikipedia has a page about the Cuànmán 爨蠻 ethnic group in northern Yunnan during the early medieval period.  (The second character was widely used as a general reference for "southern barbarian".)

Irksome though it may be to write as a surname, cuàn 爨 is not that exceedingly infrequent among Chinese characters on the whole.  In a list of 9,933 most frequent characters, it ranks at #6143, which puts it near the top limit of highly literate individuals.  Keep in mind that there are tens of thousands of other, less frequent characters below it.

In my long career as a Sinologist, I've encountered cuàn 爨 scores of times in texts that I have read, so I certainly recognize it and know that it means "cook(stove)", but I would be hard pressed to write it from memory.  I could fairly easily get the top part (the upper two thirds of 興) and the bottom part (火), but it would be very difficult for me to get the ⼍, 林, and 大 that are scrunched in between in their proper position and order.

Watch a video of the mom holding the hand of the little boy trying to teach him how to write his own surname here. A sample article on this story as reported in Taiwan media may be found here.  The instance of the character they produce that is pictured in the article is much too tall in relation to its width (should be square, not rectangular) because too many elements have to be stacked on top of each other.

So, again, I think that cuàn 爨 should have been a candidate for simplification, but so should have jiāng 疆 ("boundary; border"; 19 strokes; freq. #2036; numerous unofficial alternative forms exist, and I have often seen jiāng 江 ["river"] used as a substitute, both publicly and privately).  Likewise jiē 街 ("street"; 12 strokes [average number of strokes of Chinese characters], freq. #1101 [!!!]).  How could they not simplify this high frequency character?  In fact, in the scheduled second round of simplification, script reformers were planning to reduce 街 to the three stroke character 亍, which I heartily approve of, and some people actually use this in their private writing, but the authorities chickened out at the last minute and failed to make it official]).

The evolution of the Chinese script has a long way to go, baby!


Selected readings

[Thanks to Ross Darrell Feingold]


  1. Jim Breen said,

    October 1, 2022 @ 7:20 am

    爨 has been in the Japanese kanji character-set standards since their inception in the 1970s. It's listed in dictionaries as being used in the rare verb 炊ぐ/爨ぐ (kashigu) – to cook, but I can only find this verb being written as 炊ぐ. It's also used in the rather old term 御爨 (osan – kitchen maid), although this is more commonly just written in kana (おさん).

  2. Cervantes said,

    October 1, 2022 @ 7:49 am

    Well, at least his name isn't Kismyas.

  3. Chris Button said,

    October 1, 2022 @ 8:36 am

    I note 爨 is homophonous with our old friend 竄, which somehow developed a dictionary interpretation of hiding in a hole rather than scurrying off ( )

    I’m idly speculating, but I wonder if 爨‘s sense of pushing stuff into a furnace could have influenced that fanciful hole-based lexicographic interpretation of 竄

  4. Victor Mair said,

    October 1, 2022 @ 8:56 am

    Brilliant, Chris! I quite agree with your intuition. Note what I said above about stuffing things into the middle of the character / stove, including a grove of firewood (at least two trees' worth)!

  5. Jonathan Smith said,

    October 1, 2022 @ 4:34 pm

    Ah the cuan4 thread… I missed the end of it? Maybe for the best as user commenter Sanchuan concludes reasonably is it now stands along the lines suggested by commenter ~flow.

    I would point out that the notion that this word (or character? both?) "developed a dictionary interpretation of hiding in a hole rather than scurrying off" is Chris Button's framing from that thread… AFAIK the Shuowen simply points out that "竄" depicts 'rat + hole' as opposed to being a phonetic coinage based on either of the components “穴” or ”鼠"…

    These two cuan4's (~'cook' and ~'scurry') *could* I suppose be the same word… a plausible claim would require careful study of the words in question esp. in context… not sure if that is exactly the argument above however.

  6. Christian Horn said,

    October 1, 2022 @ 7:35 pm

    Putting fascination of Kanji away for a moment, parents get to choose the name of their children freely, also in China. So when westerners choose the name by criteria such as 'easy to spell', parents in China should consider stroke number of the Kanji just before selecting the name.

  7. Jonathan Smith said,

    October 1, 2022 @ 9:02 pm

    @Christian Horn true and this certainly is considered — although this case involves a surname so tough to dodge, aside from talking dad's family into using mom's surname which with lunk is say 王 :D

  8. M. said,

    October 2, 2022 @ 2:26 am

    Why is it that when you access Special Characters in any program, the characters do not appear in such a way as to make them easily findable (which would be all variants of the letter "a" together followed by all variants of "b" together, and so on)?

    Rather, many of them are scattered (say, ă separated from ą by twenty-five variants of b, c, d, e, and so forth)? Even upper and lower case may be separated, for example, Ñ and ñ at a distance from each other.

    It's been explained to me that they are shown in order of their creation. Why should that be a criterion?

    I have wasted countless hours over the last few decades hunting for diacriticized letters because they are not arranged on the screen logically.

  9. Christian Horn said,

    October 2, 2022 @ 4:56 am

    @Jonathan Smith, fair point, less influence on surname.
    At least in Germany, that one can be changed if it for example sounds offensive, or spelling or writing cause problems.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    October 2, 2022 @ 6:28 am

    I used to have a German colleague whose surname was Halbfass. Most English speakers who knew a smattering of German realized that "halb" meant "half" and somehow (ignoring the "f") thought that the remainder of the name must have been an embarrassment to the man.

    It turns out that the latter part of the name, "fass", simply means "barrel; drum; cask; keg; vat; tun", so the real meaning of his surname was "half barrel" — quite innocuous after all.

  11. Chris Button said,

    October 2, 2022 @ 7:28 am

    @ Jonathan Smith

    The relationship of 爨 is with 焌 via the schwa/a ablaut. I don't see how 爨/焌 would tie into the broader 允, 㕙, 駿, 迅 word family though. It seems more likely connected with 熏.

  12. Chris Button said,

    October 2, 2022 @ 7:33 am

    Incidentally, 爨 is included in the #4808 Taiwan "common use" character list.

  13. Chris Button said,

    October 5, 2022 @ 7:56 am

    The more I think about 爨 and 竄, the more I’m struggling with their reconstructions and broader word families. Their aspirated tsʰ- onsets in Middle Chinese make them difficult to reconcile with things like 熏 or 允 . The clear connection of 爨 with 焌 via ‘a’/schwa suggests an original ts- series (with tsʰ- resulting from the s- prefix) that doesn’t work with the 熏 and 允 families (where a s- reflex before schwa in certain syllable types is possible with an occasional ts- variant, but not tsʰ- before ‘a’ in other syllable types)

    I wonder if there is more to this possible “stuffing” association of 爨 and 竄 after all?

  14. Chris Button said,

    October 5, 2022 @ 9:36 am

    Todo Akiyasu’s association of 泉 with 竄 looks promising.

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