Biang is the most complicated written Chinese character, at 58 strokes in traditional Chinese, and 43 in simplified. (I mean, the average is 9 strokes.)
It’s also the name of a delicious noodle dish, coming in pairs as biang biang noodles or biang biang mian.
Biang biang noodles are a signature of the Shaanxi province of China, a northern part of China famous for its wheat noodles. The dish’s name is onomatopoeia for the sound made when they’re being made and slapped on the table.
The dish’s name is onomatopoeia for the sound made when they’re being made and slapped on the table.
The cooking process is just as complicated as the character itself. Noodles are stretched out from soft clumps of dough into thin ribbons and then slapped on the table, which sends a ripple effect through the noodle and lengthens it even more, until it’s about a foot long. It’s boiled, almost immediately, in a vessel of rolling water and comes out silky, chewy, and a wonderful conduit for sauces and spice.
In Chinese culture, long noodles are a symbol of longevity and the biang biang varieties fall finely into this category. It’s a dish of extremes, both technically and conceptually. (Fun fact: It’s so complicated that it’s not even encoded on computers.)
The character itself, also thick and long, is interlaced with the symbols for moon, heart, silk, length, horse, among others. It’s unknown how this all comes together to relate to the actual noodle, but its symmetry and complexity has been a source of inspiration for many.
That’s why you’ll find biang biang noodle restaurants framing and hanging the character up on their walls, as if it’s a source of pride to be able to cook the most complex Chinese character in existence. It’s also a source of punishment for deviants Chinese schoolchildren; teachers have been known to mandate it as a writing exercise for their pupils, instructing them to write it out at least 1000 times.
Teachers have been known to make student write it at least 1000 times.
These days, the complexity of the biang biang is most definitely embraced as a marketing tactic. Almost every biang biang noodle restaurant—from New York to Shaanxi—will wax poetic about the complex strokes. Yet few will have any consensus as to how it got that way.
Some will say an emperor declared it so after tasting the best noodles he’s ever had in his life. And others will cite a folk story of a noodle shop that created the word from scratch.
But despite biang’s contentious origins, it’s actually quite endearing that the most complicated Chinese character in existence refers to a noodle dish.