Indignation takes the wheel (driving in Shanghai)

Shanghai The drive in from the Shanghai airport yesterday was telling.  Unlike Beijing, where everyone seems to drive in a state of grace, hands careful poised at "10" and "2," Shanghai is more pell-mell, more pet-met (petal to the metal).

In fact, people in Shanghai drive with verve and panache.  They honk much more than in Beijing.  And they do not just honk informationally. No, they honk with indignation and sometimes outrage.

Driving while indignant, this is easy for an American to understand. Indignation is, for many of us, our secret motive for driving.  We take to the interstate with the conviction that the world is filled with idiots who have somehow escaped notice that they are idiots.  That’s what our horn is for.  A patriot duty is satisfied, and the spleen well vented.

But the Beijing case tells us that indignation need not take the wheel, that honking with outrage is an abitrary, cultural convention.  Which raises the question, where does indignation come from? 

In the American case, it comes from property rights.  When in a car on the road, Americans file a claim.  They say that the road ahead of them belongs, for the moment, to them.  We call this our  "right of way."  If you cut me off, you violate my right of way and my property claim.  I seek redress with my horn.  I try to make you pay, at least sonically.  That this never works, that you can be relied upon to honk back or flip me the bird, this bothers me not at all.  Behind the wheel, each of us in Judge Judy, trying fellow drivers, finding them quilty, and meting out punishment.   Body by Fisher, radio by Sirius, wisdom by Solomon. 

Is that happening here in Shanghai?  I have no idea.  But Shanghai drivers do honk with embrage and this could be a key to a series of differences that appear, if only notionally, between Beijing and Shanghai.  For the diferences between the cities goes much deeper than driving practices.  People who live in Shanghai are said to be more entrepreneurial, more expressive, more vivid.  In their time, they were more international, more fashionable, more au courant. 

For parochial purposes, we may look for a Western correlate:

Shanghai is to Beijing


Montreal is to Toronto
New York is to Chicago
(i.e., First cities are to Second cities)
Rome is to Milan
Milan is to Paris
Paris is to London

There is a famous phrase in North America used to describe the difference between Canadian and American attitude towards over-the-counter drugs.  In Canada, everything is prohibited, unless it is allowed.  In the US, everything is allowed, unless it is prohibited.  It feels something like this difference might hold here.  Which would give us:

Shanghai is to Beijing


the US is to Canada

Westerners tend to think of China as something monolithic, as the Chinese do too, sometimes.  When you ask someone here how Communist party officials played midwive to capitalism, you are told, as if this were not just the best explanation but the obvious one, that they, the officials, managed the transition "for China."  This says that over and above the ideas called "communism" and "capitalism" this is a still larger, more encompassing one called "China."  And this is a very monolithic idea indeed.

But in other moments, the Chinese think of China as a country of countries.  At the very least, one is obliged to distinquish between Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Guangzhou, to which one would have to add the far North, the deep South and the wild West. 

From an anthropological point of view, the idea called "China" is sensationally rich and supple.  It allows for commonality big enough to bridge warring ideologies, and a particularity deft enough to parse out a lots of smaller differences.  Clearly, the Chinese have not heard of the post moderism that insists that all categories of knowledge are unstable, those of nationality and place, most of all. 

But then as any right thinking person understands, this conceit was really a Trojan horse introduced to Western thought by willy intellectuals.  Post Modernism was designed to persuade us to dismantle Anglo American theory and the ideas of incumbent culture, and clear a path for the French intellectual’s "right of way." 

4 thoughts on “Indignation takes the wheel (driving in Shanghai)

  1. Duncan

    Wonderful post, Grant.

    Having spent a looooong time cultivating silk mills in Shanghai, I relish your perspective. It is one of my favorite cities — I’ve always felt as though it was a odd combination of Atlanta (with its rough and tumble gentility) and the undeniably romantic sweep of Paris. I miss the Bund!

  2. Nicoletta

    I appreciate our blog,
    I live in Milan and will soon move to Shangai.

    It seems to me that the right dualism is rather shangai is to beijing like milan is to rome
    Am I wrong ?

    I’m little bit confused about china

  3. Reynold

    Hi Grant,

    I live (and drive) in Mumbai, where honking is an essential part of every driver’s skill set. Someone once likened driving here to “a chess game where vehicles compete to occupy any vacant square, worrying later about how to move on from there”.

    I think your point about the differences between the regions of China is probably true of any large and diverse country, including India, Brazil and Russia.


  4. Glen McGregor

    Interesting post, Grant. Culturally, I found Beijing to Shanghai more like Ottawa-to- Toronto.

    Just for fun, you should ask some of the people you meet in each city what they think of the other. When we stayed in Beijing, we were told that Shanghai men were lazy slobs who didn’t work and spent the money their wives earned. Conversely, Shanghai ren told us that Beijing was a dusty backwater populated by narrow-minded bureaucrats and peasants. Those were just the least slanderous slurs that they exchanged.

    Either way, the food is better in Beijing.

    On driving, I was amazed by both the naked aggression and the skill of Chinese drivers, in contrast to our experiences with Asian drivers in Canada. I’ve come to realize that our stereotype about Chinese drivers if drawn from the fact that most Chinese immigrants we see on the roads here have had little experience driving and — more importantly — have not absorbed the rules of the road by sitting as passengers for the first 16 years of their lives (the way most of us Westerners do). That’s changing, of course, as more Chinese can afford cars.

    I’d love to read an explanation of how the automobile came to take precedence over bicycles and pedestrians on China’s roads. On foot, you never have right-of-way, no matter the colour of the light. Westerners are not used to this and I expect serious injuries or death when they arrive en masse in Beijing for the 2008 Games.

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