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The Noodle Army: A Story of Moderate Prosperity

By Liu Mingmei and Qiao Xue Source: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2021-01-14

For most people in Hualong, Qinghai Province, the day starts with a bowl of hand-pulled noodles with beef. There are four cardinal rules: the soup must be clear, the noodles must be white, the chili must be red, and the vegetables must be green. With a few slices of tender and savory meat on top, the result is a comforting meal that delights the tongue and warms the soul. 

Where were noodles invented? About 80 km away from the main town of Hualong County at an archeological site called Lajia, researchers have discovered the earliest known evidence of noodles made by humans. Now, 4,000 years later, the "noodle army" of Hualong has stretched its noodles across the country and out into the world. 

Hualong Hui Autonomous County is located on the eastern part of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, cradled in a bend of the Yellow River. Throughout history, the mountainous terrain and unforgiving climate have kept local farmers poor despite their labor. For generations, the people of Hualong have clung to the modest dream of having enough clothes to wear and food to eat. Driven by the will to escape poverty, in the late 1980s a few farmers from Hualong scraped together 7,000 yuan, which they took to Xiamen to open a noodle shop. It was this bold and risky move that began the story of Hualong's journey to noodle fame.


A bowl of Hualong beef noodles complete with the characteristic color, fragrance, and flavor. PUBLICITY DEPARTMENT OF THE CPC HUALONG COUNTY COMMITTEE / PHOTO BY LI YUFENG 


A master noodle maker shows off his skills during a contest. PHOTO BY XINHUA REPORTER ZHANG HONGXIANG 

Through various channels, including relatives helping relatives, neighbors helping neighbors, and government support, Hualong developed a "noodle economy" based on the exportation of labor to other places. More and more people from the county began leaving its mountains and gullies behind, and today one third of its population, representing about 110,000 people, goes elsewhere for work each year. This group of people is nicknamed the "noodle army." With 17,000 restaurants in more than 270 cities across the country, they operate a quarter of all hand-pulled noodle shops in China and rake in more than 10 billion yuan each year. The "noodle army" also runs dozens of restaurants in over ten foreign countries, and has truly made a name for itself with its humble product. 

With noodle bowls turning into gold mines, the noodle business became Hualong's biggest industry. Now, the question was how to continue unleashing the unique potential of this industry in order to shake off the yoke of poverty as soon as possible. Under the guidance of the CPC and the government, more and more noodle makers that had left for work in other places began returning home, with the goal of bringing everyone closer to prosperity. Han Jinlu was among the first group of locals who went out to work, but he returned home to start a business for the second time. Since 2013, his company has passed on noodle-making techniques to more than 30 impoverished local residents through paid on-the-job training. With income from wages and subsidies and the opportunity to master a skill, these people are finally able to make a living. 

One person pulling noodles can also pull their whole family out of poverty. In the past, Gao Wenqiang's family was very poor. His parents had been sick for many years, and the family was barely able to support themselves with their quarter hectare of farmland. They were thus registered as a poor household. In 2017, Mr. Gao was working elsewhere when he heard about the noodle-focused poverty alleviation policy offering paid on-the-job training. He quickly returned home where he eagerly took part in training. Now that he was earning wages of 5,000 to 6,000 yuan a month in addition to poverty subsidies, his life and the lives of his family members started getting better. After completing a year of training, he opened his own noodle shop with the support of the "noodle shop poverty alleviation plan," and with business booming, he was able to shake off poverty completely. In 2020, he bought a new car, built a new house, and even partnered with friends to open a small restaurant. Under the general pattern of turning from trainee to manager to boss over a period of three years, poor residents of Hualong have now opened more than a hundred noodle shops, pioneering a path out of poverty and toward prosperity through hard work and entrepreneurship.


Noodles pulled so thin that they can be threaded through the eye of a needle. PUBLICITY DEPARTMENT OF THE CPC HUALONG COUNTY COMMITTEE / PHOTO BY LI YUFENG 

Noodle-focused poverty alleviation has become Hualong's trademark secret to success in the fight against poverty, and has proven both fast and effective in this regard. Whereas the poverty rate was 26.4% before the 18th CPC National Congress held in 2012, by the end of 2019 the entire county had exited poverty. Income related to noodle-making accounts for approximately 54% of the net income of the county's residents, with 90,000 of the 130,000 people who have exited poverty owing their success to making noodles. Noodles have enabled the people of Hualong to transform their way of life, realize the modest dream of having enough to eat, and live in comfort and contentment, and they are therefore truly the county's secret to escaping poverty and reaching moderate prosperity. 

But how far can noodles take Hualong? This is a question that the people there have begun to ponder and explore. Initially, many shops selling the noodles of Qinghai Province, of which Hualong's beef noodles are the most representative example, called themselves Lanzhou noodle shops, hoping to seek success by riding the reputation of this famous dish from the city of Lanzhou in the neighboring province. In reality, Hualong beef noodles and Lanzhou beef noodles have much in common; it is through the skill and ingenuity of those that make them that hand-pulled noodles have become an indispensible part of the food and culture of the Chinese nation. As people's tastes are becoming more discerning and competition between brands and chains in the market is intensifying, Hualong beef noodles are constantly transforming and getting better. On the one hand, the people that make them are working to set the dish apart by emphasizing that the noodles are kneaded and pulled by hand, adjusting flavors to suit local tastes, and creating new variations. On the other hand, significant focus is being devoted to practicing modern business management, upgrading physical shops, setting up big-data platforms for e-commerce, and establishing central commissaries to optimize the supply of ingredients. Meanwhile, members of the "noodle army" are being encouraged to return home and start businesses, driving the development of related industries like cattle and sheep breeding and vegetable farming as well as cultural tourism activities such as noodle tours. The residents of Hualong aspire to give people a taste of a 4,000-year-long history with their noodles, to continue kneading out a place for themselves in the modern memory, and to savor the flavor of wellbeing as long as possible. 

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 18, 2020)