Article by Tim King
There are a lot of potential adjectives one could use to describe Xi’an or Shaanxi: special, strange, different, astonishing, bizarre—the list goes on. Whichever one you’d choose, there’s no denying that this place is, if nothing else, very unique. The people of Shaanxi (specifically the Guanzhong Plain, a historical area that comprises much of modern day Shaanxi) would even agree with you if you called their homeland “bizarre,” because they are well aware of their reputation. There is no clearer indication of this than the Eight Oddities of Guanzhong, a list of eight features of this region’s culture that set them apart from any other people or cultures across China.
1. Giant Noodles
This won’t come as much of a shock to anyone who’s found a street full of restaurants to find that they’re only serving noodles, but the local obsession with large noodles is very well-known. There is some conjecture that the biang biang noodle, the most famous of all the Shaanxi noodle varieties, comes from an abundance of wheat in the Guanzhong area and a lack of some other things. Without meat and vegetables, one would need to eat a hell of a lot of noodle to get the proper energy to make it through the day, and our local noodles that more closely resemble belts really do the trick.
2. Giant Pancakes
Speaking of oversized wheat-based foods, the third oddity of Guanzhong is the guokui (锅盔), a pancake the size of a manhole cover. It is said that guokui was the chosen ration of Tang Dynasty soldiers for its size, flavor and portability. You can still find this kind of pancake today in the Muslim District or in restaurants that serve Shaanxi cuisine.
3. Hot Peppers
Our glutinous local specialties are great and all, but man cannot live on bread or noodle alone. The wise locals know this to be true, and have a solution: just put hot peppers on it. While Sichuan is usually pegged as the “spicy” province, even they don’t have the audacity to just make a meal out of peppers and bread and nothing else. That’s because they merely adopted the spicy; the Guanzhongers were born in it, molded by it, and are presumably immune to sting ring by now.
While the “Chinese squat” is now world-famous, there are no better or more dedicated practitioners of it than the people of Guanzhong. They claim it’s more comfortable than standing or sitting, and will often squat even if there is a nice comfy stool or bench nearby—sometimes squatting on said seat. Reasons for this behavior are conflicting, sometimes citing the behaviors or edicts of emperors of ancient dynasties, or claiming that it’s a reinterpretation of kneeling.
Not a reference to the shawls common to the area’s female Muslim population, decorated cloths or handkerchiefs are the traditional tool for local women to limit their exposure to the sun or dust, to keep their hair in place or simply to sop up sweat on hot days. These printed handkerchiefs were a common alternative to hats, which could be expensive in olden times.
6. Half Houses
Another example of the historical practicality of the Guanzhong people are something known as “half houses.” These are houses that, rather than having a ridge that slopes down on either side, there is just one slope, as if you cut a normal house in half. No one is a hundred percent sure why the Guanzhong people built them this way, but consensus points to it being more economical to build a house that way, though some theorize its shape was better suited to catching rainwater for various uses around the home.
7. Qin Opera
Qin Opera, one of the oldest forms of Chinese opera, is also one of its most distinctive. That distinction comes from the perception that Qin Opera performances are much more about yelling loudly than actually singing. It’s often charitably said that this fierce form of performance is reflective of the soul of the local people.
8. Insular People
It’s often said that Guanzhong women are loath to marry outside of their geographic area and that the Guanzhong people in general have little desire to venture out. Historically, this is because Xi’an was the center of the universe, and less historically some modern locals will say that “the places around Shaanxi just aren’t as good.” Fair enough. Why would you go through all the trouble of crossing the mountains just to get to somewhere worse than where you are?
Tim King is the editor-in-chief of Xianease. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org