Bicycles are everywhere. While walking to my favorite bakery for a piece of cheesecake, I was nearly run over by an old man trying to clip a corner with his rusty Phoenix brand 2-wheeler. I didn’t get angry because that doesn’t do any good and it clouds my thinking while attempting to better understand this culture. In China, one does not control one’s environment. One adapts to one’s environment, and in this environment there are a lot of bikes. As my father would say: “You have to work with what you got,” so applying those words of wisdom to a 5000 year old culture, I’ve realized that you can learn a lot about the Chinese from their bicycles. It is a culture of bicycles for the following reasons:
Bicycles have 2 wheels, which represents China’s love and admiration for pairs in all things. There are pairs of animals in Chinese art, the dragon and phoenix in the palaces, 2 sides to a coin (a common expression here), and perhaps the most important example: 2 people to start and maintain a family. 1 is not a popular number here; 2 is.
The bicycle wheels spin endlessly, like the Yin and Yang of Lao Tzu. Lao Tzu is generally considered one of the “Big 3” great influences of Chinese culture, an honored shared with Buddha and Confucius.
Bicycles are narrow—an important and vital factor when considering cohabitation of a population of 1.4 billion. For less pragmatic reasons, the bicycle allows people to stay close to others and never get too far away from other people. A dear Chinese friend of mine once told me that it is hard to feel lonely when you are always bumping into someone. Closeness and relation are important ideals here, as the family is the center of all things and they are closely bonded. The family is always near, whether in physical or emotional distance. The closeness is always, and that is not a misprint. I mean to say: the closeness is always.
Bikes are quiet. Unlike Chinese traffic, conversation, schools, businesses, and everything in general, bikes are quiet. China is a noisy place, but it would be hard to have this many people and this great amount of change (i.e.: building construction) without lots of noise. The Chinese people, however, are a modest people, and I see the quiet of a bicycle as a symbol of that modesty. The bike takes you where you need to go and does so quietly. The Chinese people are moving and they are doing so with modesty.
Bicycles are strong and long lasting, like the people themselves. I might compare my family in Kansas to the Chinese people in this way: rugged, enduring and strong-willed. Over millennia of political and economic turmoil and change, it is the Chinese people—the Chinese family—that have remained intact and undaunted.
Bicycles are powerful in numbers. Sorry to all of you motorists with the big SUVs, but when a group of 80 bikes are crossing the street on a green light, even you must stop to let them cross. Bikes, in large numbers, are powerful in this way, and I have often traveled with other groups of bikes across streets or during normal riding to and from places simply because I consider it safer to be in a group rather than alone. That China has strength in numbers is no secret or surprise to anyone anymore.
Bicycles are cheap. Everything is inexpensive in China. (Except a condo in Shanghai’s Lujiazui SEZ.)
Bikes are versatile. Your bike will pull, push, haul, carry, cart, tow, wheel, transport, and deliver just about anything, which is important in a developing economy. Examples of this can be found everywhere daily as people pull, push, haul, carry, cart, tow, wheel, transport, and deliver just about anything on their bicycles.
Bicycles are common and common is not a bad thing in China. (Different can sometimes have a negative connotation.) Everyone has a bike. If you’re chairman of the communist party, a big movie star, a real estate tycoon, migrant worker or a street sweeper, you have a bike. I see this mode of transportation as a symbol of the equity of resource distribution that is favored (in theory) by Communism.
Bicycles are maintained. Like the family—the center of Chinese culture. It is the family that takes care of you. Everyone has a family so everyone is taken care of. You maintain the family and you are in turn taken care of for life. Moving from the embryonic social group of family, this circle of accommodation can be seen on a larger scale, throughout larger social groups. Look on any particular street corner and you’ll see a bike repairman. You have a problem? No problem; someone’s there for you.
Bicycles are like water flowing in a river, and natural things—as an awareness of your environment—are important in China. Watch the morning rush hour in any major Chinese city and you will see the similarity between thousands of bicycles moving down the street and flowing water moving down a mountain. The bicycles move in, through, over and around obstacles large and small as they make their way to their destination. Like water, the bicycles always take the path of least resistance. The velocity of the bicycles is fluid. Natural elements and the environment play a favored role in Chinese art and literature and the many famous Chinese proverbs. Even the 2008 Beijing Summer Games have mascots that represent the elements of sea, forest, fire, earth and sky.
Bicycles are simple and not aggressive; my previously mentioned experience with the old man nearly running into me withstanding. Like the majority of people in the world and unlike the Chinese language, the Chinese people are largely uncomplicated. My experience has shown that the Chinese people value 3 things most: 1) family, 2) food, and 3) the environment that supports 1 and 2. The Chinese are also not aggressive by nature. The Chinese may have the largest army in the world, but look at the ancient martial arts of this country to understand how the Chinese may view combat: what may look like a hostile defensive blow is actually your opponent’s initial force returned to him. The object is not necessarily to control your environment by overpowering your opponent but to stay harmonious with your environment and allow your opponent’s offensive behavior to weaken him—a punishment for wanting to disrupt harmonious relations. The old man on the bike didn’t nearly clip me to make some complicated expression of anti-foreign sentiment. He wasn’t being any more careless or aggressive than I because my environment is not exclusively mine. Simple. Not aggressive. Powerfullly effective. Like a bike.