I was randomly browsing through my Facebook newsfeed the other day when I came across this article shared by Shanghaiist’s Facebook page.
“Biang, biang, biang, biang, biang, biang, biang, biang, biang…
One Sichuan professor’s method of making sure that no one is ever late to his class: Forcing tardy students to write this 58 stroke character 1,000 times.”
The word above is called “biáng”. Though I think the act of writing it 1000 times is a bit too extreme, this caught my attention because I remember seeing the word before somewhere. Either that or I vaguely remember it being the most complicated word in modern Chinese history. I did a quick search and turned out my guess was correct.
While there are various versions of the written word above, the one shown should be a 56-stroke character, based on my humble experience.
Extracted from wikipedia, with slight edits to the stroke counts:
The character is made up of 言 (speak; 7 strokes) in the middle flanked by 幺 (tiny; 2×3 strokes) on both sides. Below it, 馬(horse; 9 strokes) is similarly flanked by 長 (grow; 2×8 strokes). This central block itself is surrounded by 月 (moon; 4 strokes) to the left, 心 (heart; 4 strokes) below, 刂 (knife; 2 strokes) on the right, and 八 (eight; 2 strokes) above. These in turn are surrounded by a second layer of characters, namely 宀 (roof; 3 strokes) on the top and 辶 (walk; 3 strokes) curving around the left and bottom.
Interestingly, the word, with mnemonics consisting of traditional Chinese characters has been around for centuries.
As of present, there is no clear origin of the word and there are various stories surrounding the internet. According to this website China Simplified:
There was once a young Chinese student wandering past a Shaanxi noodle shop around lunchtime. He heard people inside saying “biang! biang!” and feeling hungry entered to see for himself.
The student watched the cook pull long strings of noodles and serve fresh bowls to satisfied customers. Excited, he asked for one. After scarfing down the bowl, he realized he had no money to pay the bill. Sensing trouble with the cook, the student thought fast.
“What do you call your noodles?” asked the student.
“Biang biang mian,” replied the cook.
“Do you know how to write the character biang?”
The cook scratched his head, having never thought about it.
“Then I’ll teach you how and my noodles are free!”
Before the cook could protest, the student grabbed some paper and wrote a character so complicated that everyone in the restaurant burst into applause. Grinning at being taken, the cook tore up the student’s bill.
The cook’s noodles soon became legendary and the word biang came to mean the sound of someone falling down and feeling surprised, just like the first time Homer Simpson bumped his head and exclaimed, “Doh!”
In other common versions of the story, biang comes from the sound of a cook slapping noodles against a table, or the chorus of people munching the noodles. Less important than the origin of the story is what it says about the language and culture.
Culture wise, I couldn’t help but associate to our Singlish (Singaporean colloquial) context. You see, if you are in Singapore long enough, you may have heard people using these in their daily conversations. “Biáng” is usually used after “Wah” – as in Wah biáng! (It expresses astonishment and is usually applied in situations similar to “Oh my! Why like that?” You get the drift.)
When I introduced this word to a student the other day, he couldn’t resist writing it numerous times. Whatever the word may mean, one thing is for certain. I think it looks beautiful, don’t you think? With that, you may want to try writing it and show it to your friends that you have mastered possibly the most complex contemporary Chinese word!
Here’s my humble attempt. 🙂
Anson is a full-time bilingual tutor in Singapore who coaches students in both English and Chinese. For tuition enquiries, please call 97887232.