The character biáng requires 62 total strokes to write and contains a 馬 horse, 月 moon,刂 knife and 心 heart plus other radicals. Biáng doesn’t exist in Modern Standard Mandarin which only serves to increase the mystery and intrigue surrounding the character.
Among competitors for hardest character, the traditional zhé character meaning “verbose” or “scary” contains four dragon radicals and wins for cool factor, though its 64 strokes comprise four 16-stroke copies. The nàng character which means “having a stuffy nose” or “speaking with a nasal twang” earns points for complexity and for somehow hanging onto its place in the modern dictionary.
One version of the biang story shows how even native Chinese speakers can struggle writing the tougher characters:
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.
Professor Victor Mair of the University of Pennsylvania in his Language Log post explains it well:
“For me, biang symbolizes the difficulty of accommodating the full fecundity of folk, popular, and local/regional cultures and languages within the bounds of the standard writing system, which enshrines the elite, high culture, and now also the bourgeois, urban, national culture. In other words, biang is well-nigh bursting at the sides of the scriptal and phonetic boxes within which it is constrained.”
Not bad for a character that likely sprung from the tangled imagination of a noodle cook centuries ago in Shaanxi China. Biang is hands down the hardest Chinese character. And fortunately for us, every character we encounter in the future will seem easy by comparison.
Give it a try!
- Try writing the biang character.
- Take a picture of you and your masterpiece.
- Tweet it to us @ChinaSimplified or upload it and tag us on Facebook or Google+