[The following article was written in October, 2018 by Charles J. Chamberlain. All rights reserved.]
Rounding a busy corner one unusually clear morning, I guided my bicycle carefully into heavy two-wheeled traffic. Suddenly in front of me was a pig-tailed young school-girl sitting side-saddle. Her mother pedaled furiously, and the young girl sat casually behind her, reading a homework assignment while simultaneously eating a breakfast roll and occasionally grabbing mom’s jacket for balance. I marveled, not so much at the sight in front of me but at the apparent ordinariness of it all, at least in the eyes of the Chinese people around me. No one batted an eye.
Key to Chinese Culture
That morning, the girl and her mom were only two people in a sea of millions of “rush hour” commuters on bikes, scooters, taxis, vans, private cars, and vehicles that defied categorization. What these millions of travelers taught me that morning and hundreds of other mornings was a key to understanding important aspects of Chinese culture, and ultimately human nature.
The ancient Chinese Capitol city of 23 million boasts wide streets flanked on either side by bicycle lanes, which are also bordered by brick sidewalks. It sounds like a city planner’s dream until you see how these channels of humanity are used. At times, the roadway becomes a pedestrian walkway, the sidewalk transforms into a thoroughfare for scooters, and the bike lanes turn into bus routes. In addition, notions of “drive on the right” or “drive on the left” are often tossed out the window like day-old rice.
Most Americans would call it chaos. The western world, with its emphasis on “rule of law,” cringes at the thought of such “disarray” and disregard for safety. However, any westerner who spends more than a month or two amidst the pandemonium must come to a stunning realization: Dang it. It works.
Bicycling safely around the streets of Beijing leaves you with the disorienting suspicion that you’re missing something, like entering a room illuminated with ultra-violet light, when your eyes strain to see things that are just beyond their capability. When you navigate the streets of Beijing on a bicycle, you participate in an intricate dance with an unknown set of rules, using an unknown method of communication. It seems just beyond your human capacity to understand why you arrived safely at your destination.
The bedrock of American society is its system of laws. Americans assume that road safety is a function of obeying a rigid set of traffic laws. Even though the Chinese have traffic laws, they don’t look at them or follow them in the same way. No, there is something far more compelling than laws to keep the roadways safe. This intangible “thing” is difficult to describe but has a wider impact on China and its people in all areas of life. This “thing” represents a fundamental difference between two cultures. What is it? It’s harmony based on trust. The Chinese people have a profound trust in each other and the harmony of their society, not in sterile text written in dusty law books.
American vs Chinese Peace and Safety
When riding a bicycle through Beijing, your trip will be punctuated by numerous incursions into “your space” by people in various vehicles who don’t pause or even look in your direction before entering the road from a driveway, or who don’t slow down to make right turns. You will encounter people who stop suddenly in the middle of a road, leaving their vehicles unattended. You will play “chicken” with vehicles coming head-on in “your” lane. These are conditions every bicyclist will see within just a few minutes on the road.
If, while cycling in Beijing, you hold fast to the American dogma that you have been granted rights to a specific space on the road, going a specific speed, in a specific direction, and that each vehicle sits in a legally protected bubble of these rights, you will have a miserable experience. You will develop road rage as you insist on your rights, and you will “stop and go” instead of “go with the flow.”
Forming a Bridge to the Chinese Culture
If, on the other hand, you relax your guard and realize that everyone on the road is part of a harmonious, moving, flowing organism, you will participate in a relaxing cultural experience like no other. When the Chinese people put their trust in their fellow travelers, it is based on a tradition of congruency. In other words, as a fellow traveler, you are expected to make your actions congruent with your intent. If you intend to travel on the right at a certain speed, then do it. Don’t hesitate. Don’t slam on your brakes because someone has crossed your path ahead. If you intend to travel on the left, be consistent and congruent with that intent.
You soon achieve an almost Zen-like state while bicycling the busy streets. Somehow, you are relaxed yet hyper-vigilant. You can predict in advance when a fellow traveler is about to enter your lane. As you engage with others on the road in this way, you become absorbed in a trusting fellowship with the Chinese people. Your bicycle soon becomes the means of building a bridge to a strikingly cohesive, collective culture. Harmony, balance, movement, and flow are rooted in Chinese culture. One point of access to this culture can be found on two wheels.