In Other Words

A Tale of Two Chinese Cities

Why people from Shanghai are so crazy, by one of China's great environmental historians.

Feng Li/Getty Images
Feng Li/Getty Images

From Urban Currents (Chengshi jifeng). Translated from the Mandarin by Andrea Lingenfelter.

Shanghainese set a very high bar for "Reason," requiring that things be undertaken on a solid basis, with a strong rationale, and carried out properly. Every street-side quarrel in Shanghai is a long and drawn out process of argumentation. For instance, suppose A says that B's bicycle hit his (putting A in the right); but B says that he has already apologized to A, and that it was A who picked a fight (putting B in the right). Each party will recount their version of the events as they unfolded, and each will call on bystanders for corroboration. Many onlookers will derive great pleasure from watching this process play out, with some even contributing to the final judgment.

In the course of this process of argumentation and discussion, Shanghainese reveal their attachment to "little principles." Not every dispute can be resolved by calling upon grand principles, or perhaps because big abstract theories are not always equal to the task of arbitrating real-life complexities, little principles are how the Shanghainese soften their pragmatism. In other words, they will seize on a tiny principle, even if it's a bit skewed, and sometimes even if it's downright bogus.

From Urban Currents (Chengshi jifeng). Translated from the Mandarin by Andrea Lingenfelter.

Shanghainese set a very high bar for "Reason," requiring that things be undertaken on a solid basis, with a strong rationale, and carried out properly. Every street-side quarrel in Shanghai is a long and drawn out process of argumentation. For instance, suppose A says that B’s bicycle hit his (putting A in the right); but B says that he has already apologized to A, and that it was A who picked a fight (putting B in the right). Each party will recount their version of the events as they unfolded, and each will call on bystanders for corroboration. Many onlookers will derive great pleasure from watching this process play out, with some even contributing to the final judgment.

In the course of this process of argumentation and discussion, Shanghainese reveal their attachment to "little principles." Not every dispute can be resolved by calling upon grand principles, or perhaps because big abstract theories are not always equal to the task of arbitrating real-life complexities, little principles are how the Shanghainese soften their pragmatism. In other words, they will seize on a tiny principle, even if it’s a bit skewed, and sometimes even if it’s downright bogus.

Shanghai fiction writer Cheng Naishan tells the following tale. A crowd of people is lined up to buy French bread, when someone cuts to the head of the line, goes directly into the store and is served. One of the people waiting in line goes to the manager and takes him to task for "opening the back door." The manager pats the complainant on the shoulder and says, "I know that guy, so he doesn’t have to wait in line; if I knew you, you wouldn’t have to wait in line, either. Too bad I don’t know you!" The nub of this story is that the manager’s rationale doesn’t anger the crowd at all, but rather enjoys the endorsement of the onlookers, and business is resumed as usual.

It’s not surprising that the operations of the city of Shanghai are in many ways relatively rational, practical and systematized. Take for example bicycle parking. In Beijing, almost any place where one can possibly park a bicycle is marked off, and riders are charged a fee to park their bikes; yet they receive no receipt for the service. On the other hand, in Shanghai, apart from venues like theaters, stadiums and train stations, where people tend to leave their bicycles for a long time and there are attendants whose job it is to collect fees and keep an eye on things, on most streets and in most shopping districts, the authorities have designated bicycle parking areas, without fee-collectors or attendants. Where there are bicycle pay lots, those parking their bikes are also given printed receipts, which serve as proof of payment and can be reimbursed. Some receipts even have detailed descriptions of how to park and the procedures for seeking redress for damages. Just as the users of Shanghai’s public telephones receive chits that allow them to be reimbursed, these little slips of paper may be receipts for the tiniest monetary transactions anywhere in China.

One of the unique characteristics of the way behavior is regulated in Shanghai is the local enthusiasm for establishing regulations, systems, and procedures. Whenever they encounter some new situation or new problem, Shanghainese tend immediately to set up a protocol. In the cultural marketplace, even amateur singers are subject to regulation. When it comes to implementing systems and regulations handed down by the powers that be, Shanghainese are stricter and more effective than anyone.

Particularly representative of the cultural values of different Chinese cities is the handling of regulations concerning carrying passengers on bicycles.

In cities throughout China, there are regulations forbidding cyclists from carrying passengers on their bicycles; but in real life, bicycles are the primary mode of transportation used by adults to take children to and from school. This places Law and Reason in conflict. Authorities in Shanghai came up with rational traffic regulations to deal with this: on streets that aren’t bus routes, people may carry children on bicycles; but if they come to an intersection, they must dismount and walk their bike across. In 1991, I was in Chengdu, where I saw a very peculiar situation: children riding on the backs of bicycles were not seated Instead they were standing on the book-racks and were tied to the person pedaling the bike with a piece of rope. It was a puzzling sight, indeed. I asked around and learned that in Chengdu cyclists were not allowed to carry (dai) other people on their bikes; but riders were allowed to bear children on their backs (bei) while they rode. The children who were roped to their parents’ backs were symbolically being "borne on their backs" (bei), and hence they were "legal" (while sitting on the back of a bicycle was illegal). However, this practice raised a bike’s center of gravity dangerously high, so that in reality everyone was much less safe. Strictly speaking it was neither legal nor reasonable.

The city of Beijing has never bent the rules for carrying passengers on bicycles, and the police have no clear policy. Instead, they simply look the other way.  If we compare the three cities we will see that Shanghai has revised its regulations and adapted to actual circumstances; Chengdu has seen a change of circumstances but no change in the language on the books, which has made bicycling less safe; and Beijing has met with changed circumstances and done nothing, thus perpetuating a state of confusion. In fact, those in charge of running Beijing very rarely modify regulations they’ve established in response to the needs of the public. These three approaches to governance may indeed reflect the different cultural psychologies and modes of thought that define these cities.


For the next translation, click here.

Yang Dongping was born in 1949 and grew up in Shanghai. He currently teaches in the Institute of Humanities at the Beijing University of Science and Industry. 

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