Chinese Corner

Strokes of Genius2 min read

When Chinese characters get complicated

There’s a new noodle joint on my street, and this is the sign on the window:

That’s biángbiáng miàn, for those getting eye-ache from looking at it. It’s a type of flat noodle from Shaanxi province, supposedly named after the slapping biáng! sound that the uncooked noodle makes when hit against the kitchen table-top to stretch it out (or the lip-smacking sound of eating them, depending on who you ask). It’s one of my favorite street dishes in China, and I’ve had a few chance encounters in this particular Beijing eatery. But the noodle is more famous for how it is written than how it tastes.

Chinese characters are comprised of a number of different “strokes,” after how many strokes of the calligraphy brush – each stroke made without removing the tip of the brush from the paper – are required to write them (although the earliest characters were carved on bamboo scrolls or tortoise shell). Most characters have a dozen strokes at most, and some of the most common characters have just three or four, meaning they can be written in a second or less. The character for the number one (yī 一) has a single stroke, for example, while the character for “me” ( 我) has seven strokes. Some dictionaries and character-input systems are organized according to how many strokes various characters have, in ascending order generally.

There are a whopping 58 strokes in the character for biáng, making it one of the most complicated Chinese characters of all time. It is composed of ten “radicals” or component parts, some of them repeated: yán 言 (speech), yāo 幺 (tiny) x2, mǎ 馬 (horse), zhǎng 長 (grow) x2, yuè 月 (moon), dāo刂 (knife), xīn 心 (heart), 八 (eight), mián 宀 (roof) and chuò 辶 (walk). There’s a mnemonic poem to help you remember them all. Or just imagine a tiny talking horse growing in the moonlight with eight knives in its heart as it walks on the rooftop. Simple.

The character was allegedly invented by Qin Dynasty chancellor and calligrapher Li Si, and is so intricate that most computers and printing presses in China can’t even support it. That means that when trying to type the character out using the pinyin-input method, you won’t find it, as the strokes would be too small to fit into a regular font. Instead, noodle-shop owners have to print out the character as an image, or type it in English pinyin, as “biangbiang面.”

Biang biang. Bon appetit. ∎

A version of this post first appeared on the Anthill.

Alec Ash

Alec Ash is a writer and editor in Beijing. He is the author of Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China (Picador, 2016), literary nonfiction about China's young generation, and Managing Editor of the China Channel.