• imperial I
  • December 3, 2010

(Imperial Tours is grateful to Amir for permission to publish this excerpt from his Phd research. )

China -today the nation with the largest fleet of bicycles in the world- is surprisingly underrepresented in cycle history: we know nearly nothing about Chinese cycle history, cycle production, cycling habits or other aspects of the bicycle in China.

This contribution presents first results from historical Chinese sources, which were collected for my doctoral thesis, on China's cycle history around the turn of the century (1880s to 1920s). The article intends to give a chronological overview of the introduction and spread of the bicycle in China, from the first written account, to the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. It takes up the question of how Chinese contemporaries of the late 19th and early 20th century perceived the bicycle, as a technically new and culturally foreign means of transportation. The paper illustrates the process of cultural appropriation in the changing terminology for the bicycle.

A chronology of Chinese cycle history

1860s. The earliest Chinese reports and official perception of the bicycle

Shortly after Michaux' construction of the pedal-driven prototype of a bicycle, and even some months before the invention became known to the European public, a selected Chinese readership learned of a new "cycling device" from the travel notes of a Chinese official. The author, Binchun, had just returned from his journey to Western Europe. As member of the first group of high-ranking Chinese officials, he had visited France, Great Britain, Germany and other nations between March and July 1866. After his return, he reported to the court on various curiosities he had discovered during his mission in the West. Among these he had seen in Paris two types of a strange device:

"On the avenues", Binchun writes, "people ride on a vehicle with only two wheels, which is held together by a pipe. They sit above this pipe and push forward with movements of their feet, thus keeping the vehicle moving. There's yet another kind of construction which is propelled by foot pedaling. They dash along like galloping horses." (Binchun, Chengcha Biji, 1866/68)

Binchun's delegation was formally sent on a diplomatic mission, but the participants had been instructed by the Chinese imperial court to investigate the latest trends in industrial development, administrative structure, and military technology. They were therefore very aware of all kinds of technical constructions. But while other technological discoveries of their visits -especially the steam engine and its mobile sister, the railway- are reported on in depth, and critically considered by the court officials with a view to their practical application towards the modernization of China's economy, the velocipede is not commented on in any known official source.

To assess the degree to which the introduction of modern technological products challenged Chinese society at the end of the 19th century and later, one has to take into account the need for industrialization and modernization in China. Military defeats and treaties after the 1840s triggered this, the Chinese saw them as humiliations, and they were closely connected to a sinking self-esteem. If in the West, technical and social change accompanying industrialization was scaring or bewildering to contemporaries, it was an intra-cultural process, growing out of its own traditions. In China, as in Japan, industrialization meant to doubt your own culture and to overcome fundamental cultural assumptions by adopting foreign ones. Attached to imported technical innovations, like the railway, gas streetlights, electricity or telephone, were, in every case, imported ideas. As such, they were seen as the materialization of modernity, foreign to China. On the other hand, parts of the Chinese elite realized the need for modernization and promoted the Western style industrialization of the country.

In this line of thinking, Chinese officials became aware of the bicycle as a practical means of transportation, only in the late 1890s, after the safety bicycle had demonstrated its potential value for military operations. With keen interest, Chinese newspapers reported on competitions between horse and bicycle in western armies, and also in Japan. For instance, the 1900-mile ride, of the 25th US-infantry battalion, from Montana to St. Louis, Missouri in 1897, was discussed in the journal Shixuebao, in regard to the possible introduction of bicycles in the Imperial army, only a few weeks after its successful completion. Whether this discussion ever came to fruition is questionable, at least there is no documentation of trial runs, or bicycle squads in China, before the early 1930s.

1870s-1880s. Cycling in the foreign settlements

Between the 1870s and the early 1890s, European and American expatriates, living in the so-called treaty ports; Shanghai and Tianjin, or in the Chinese capital Beijing, were practially the only cyclists in China. Members of these fast-growing multinational communities effectively transferred their materialistic western culture and life styles to the Far East. Like other western commodities, first introduced in the coastal cities, the bicycle came to China in the trunks of missionaries, businessmen or colonial officers, and spread from there, rather slowly as we will see, to the hinterland.

As early as November 1868, Shanghai newspapers reported on these cyclists, unfortunately only mentioning them with a few words, maybe only from hearsay. A more detailed account is given in Hu you zaji, a forerunner of modern guidebooks to Shanghai, first published in 1876. The author twice mentions foreigners cycling through the streets of Shanghai, as a spectacular sight for the Chinese visitor to the foreign settlement. Shanghai became, not only the trade hub of the region, but also a modern model city, a window to the west, which was in regard to technological development, even ahead of many European cities. It had gas streetlights lighting the main avenues (1863), public telephone booths (1882), public gardens, swimming pools and other trademarks of 19th century industrial modernization. A part of the city was established and administered from 1854 onwards as an extraterritorial foreign settlement, where the European (Victorian) life style, and the colonial social and economic institutions of its foreign inhabitants, left their imprint. Hippodromes and sports events, publishing houses, journals and newspapers, then later dance halls and department stores, are just a few examples of the numerous manifestations of modern Shanghai, which became labeled China's laboratory of modernity.

Bicycle Cartoon

In the 1880s, the sight of ordinaries must have been familiar to Chinese, at least to the inhabitants of the foreign settlements and the capital. Cyclists were a regular theme in the Shanghai newspapers, and the pictorials of that time. The athletic capabilities and stamina of the Westerners on their ordinaries, were portrayed with admiration. On the other hand, with ironic distance, the authors expressed their amusement over the fallen cyclist. Strikingly, Chinese were completely absent from the scenes depicted. A rare exception is a cartoon from 1880, maybe the first illustration of a bicycle ever published in a Chinese journal, showing a Chinese cyclist unsuccessfully trying to ride an ordinary. The cartoon was printed in the journal Huatu Xinbao (The Chinese Illustrated News), a missionary periodical which circulated mainly in the small Chinese Christian communities of eastern China. In the explanatory text to the illustration, readers learn that "Westerners ride a small vehicle with great enthusiasm. It is not pushed or pulled forward, but managed by foot-pedalling and is called bicycle (jiaotache); it can buzz along like the wind, faster than a horse-drawn cart . but only when you have enough practice in using it." The young Chinese cyclist, though trying to partake of the Westerners' passion, not only runs his machine into a pond, worse than that, he is losing face in front of two Chinese onlookers.

Even if the journal generally intended to give its readership "religious intelligence and secular news . on such objects as history, biography, travels, the manners and customs of different nations, the various sciences, rail-roads, education, telephones, telegraphs, etc.", in the case of cycling it discouraged Chinese from this unfamiliar exercise. By hinting at the disgrace of the unfortunate cyclist, the text is probably pointing to the biggest cultural obstacle to the spread of the bicycle in 19th century China. Compared to Europe in the 19th century, for the tiny segment of Chinese society which could afford to purchase a bicycle, it was considered absolutely disgraceful to be seen pedalling through the streets, mounted on a machine, always in a delicate situation leading to a state of exhaustion. The wealthier Chinese was hardly ever seen walking in public. He was carried in a sedan chair or -if he made allowances to modern times- was pulled in a rickshaw, first introduced to China in 1874.

Individual mobility, or more to the point, adequate ways of commuting in public, was defined according to social lines, somewhat comparable to early 19th century Europe. The bourgeois or petty bourgeois of the cities went by rickshaw, due to cheap labor commonly available for low fees. Those who could not afford to rent or even own a rickshaw would mostly sit in specially constructed wheelbarrows with seven other passengers, quite common throughout the 19th century, and in use as late as the 1950s. As late as 1926, a university professor in Beijing confessed in a letter to a journal's editor, that to save transportation costs, but also to comply with social expectations, he usually called a rickshaw to pick him up, walked most of the distance, then took another rickshaw to reach his destination gracefully.

The beginnings of Chinese cycling and the first commercial ads in Chinese newspapers at the turn of the nineteenth century

The first Chinese cyclists appeared on the scene in the early 1890s. They were Chinese students; journalists or businessmen who had returned from abroad and brought their bicycles back with them. Another group were the sons of wealthy families with ties to the US and Europe. Even though they represented only a tiny portion of Chinese society, they caused a qualitative turn in Chinese cycle history. In contrast to the old elites, more and more western-educated Chinese, breaking with traditional values, were not reluctant to display their progressive cultural orientation in public. That the Chinese elite showed itself generally receptive to modern western commodities, is documented in the detailed import statistics of the Imperial Maritime Customs. As a British Customs officer comments in 1901:

"Among the officials and wealthier classes of Chinese there has, perhaps, been of late a tendency to appreciate such foreign luxuries as arm-chairs, sofas, spring-beds, etc., but it is doubtful whether there is any real or extended taste for these articles. Purchased as novelties very often, they doubtless in many cases come to be regarded as "curios", and are kept for show rather than use."

Soon after their availability, gramophones, photographic equipment and other technical devices were bought by the upper class, and used to exhibit the progressiveness of their owners. To cope with this complex cultural dilemma, a rough simplification was coined in the commonly used 19th century formula: "Chinese knowledge as a basis, western technology for practical use" (Zhongxue wei ti, xixue wei yong). After all, modernity of lifestyle, or consumption and use of modern foreign goods, was for Chinese at the turn of the 19th century, not a purely private statement, but an expression of alienation. This concept is of special relevance to the use of the bicycle, more so since cycling is a public statement, in contrast to many other technological commodities. The first commercial bicycle ads published in 1897/98, in the newspapers of Shanghai and Tianjin, addressed this thin layer of Chinese consumers. The bicycles offered are imported high quality bicycles, often racing bikes.

Also in 1897, the official import statistics (Imperial Maritime Customs) list, bicycles and bicycle parts, as a separate entry for the first time. The value recorded, approx. £10,000, would be the equivalent of 500 to 800 bicycles. In the city of Suzhou, only a few hundred kilometers from Shanghai, and commercially well connected, traffic rules of 1899 prohibited cycling in the narrow lanes, which I would interpret as a precautionary step by the municipal council, not as an indication of the mass use of bicycles. The first step in commercialization of the bicycle trade coincides with the wide newspaper coverage given to the arrival in China of the British cyclists, Lunn, Lowe and Fraser. The Chinese readership of various newspapers followed their journey from its start, in summer 1896. When they arrived in Shanghai, just before Christmas, several hundred local cyclists accompanied them on their tour through the city.

Traditional Painting WIth BicyclesAfter the turn of the century, newspaper ads appeared more regularly, and the products offered are more diverse. British, American and German racers, standard bikes for men, women, and children, and transport bicycles, are now obtainable at lower price. In May 1902, an exhibition of British bicycle producers was held in Shanghai, to open the market in the place, which had already become the bicycle city. The market for bikes, which were about 40% more expensive in China than in their country of origin, was limited to the nouveau riche of a few harbour cities. Another group of potential buyers was the numerous prostitutes in the treaty ports: these "sing-song girls" not only had a relatively high income at their disposal, but also enjoyed a life free from most social constraints.

From Shanghai, Tianjin in Northern China, Macao and Guangzhou (Canton) in Southern China, the bike only slowly reached the hinterland: Chengdu, the commercial center of Western China, with 1.5 million inhabitants, counted for exactly seven bikes in 1904, three of which were owned by foreigners, three by different governmental institutions, and only one which was privately owned by a Chinese. In the 1910s, the trade network of Shanghai and Tianjin importers slowly expanded further inland. Due to high import prices and an unequal distribution of income, the bike was still a commodity affordable only to the upper 10,000 in the commercial cities. Many other Chinese cities first saw bicycles only in the 1930s and 1940s.

Risque CultureHigh prices restricted the availability of the imported bicycle to a thin layer of the higher social strata. Cycling was a phenomenon of the western-oriented upper class. Democratisation of cycling thus did not set in until the 1920s. Cultural and social changes in the preceding decade, after the overthrow of the dynastic government in 1911, had markedly altered the urban setting and produced new public spheres. The adoption of the western calendar and a regular six-day working week, formally in 1907 but first practiced by all urban enterprises and governmental institutions in the 1920s, was felt especially on Sundays. Parks were constructed or opened to the public, and American movies were shown in the theatres of all major cities. At first, the growing urban middle class discovered the bicycle as a toy for their leisure time activities. In Shanghai, with 2 million inhabitants, 9,800 bikes were counted in 1925. Their number rose to over 20,000 in 1930.

The bicycle entered into many aspects of life, not only privately but also due to its use by public institutions. Many Chinese may first have been equipped with bicycles as postmen, soldiers, or as members of modern police squadrons. But also, on the other side of Chinese society, the usefulness of the bicycle, for the fast and flexible transport of goods, was highly appreciated when rice was rationed in 1941/42. During the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, smugglers brought in quantities of rice on their bicycle racks.

In the 1930s, the Chinese cycle industry came into being. Nearly synchronously, the three largest importers of bicycles Tongchang Chehang (Shanghai), Changcheng (Tianjin), and Daxing (Shenyang) established their production lines. Starting around 1929/1930, with the assembly of manufactured and imported cycle parts, the enterprises grew rapidly. The combined output of the Chinese bicycle industry reached 10,000 units annually between 1937 and 1945. By the mid-1930s, Chinese cycle history reached a stage comparable to that of Western Europe around the turn of the last century. A rapid increase in numbers of cyclists in the larger cities can be observed shortly after mass production was taken up. Prices now finally reached a level, which brought the bicycle within the reach of a wider population. The number of bike owners in Shanghai (3.5 million inhabitants) constantly increased to 230,000 in the late 1940s. China-wide, there may have been half a million bicycles in 1949.

The year 1949 marks a pivotal year, not only for Chinese national history, but also for cycle history. After 1949, when the People's Republic of China was founded, the bicycle soon found a strong advocate in the communist government. Whether problems in the building of a public transport system, adequate to the needs of a "socialist" society, were the practical arguments for the endorsement of bicycle traffic, or whether there were ideological reasons, may be left to further research. As a matter of fact, the bicycle received strong support by the Chinese government in different ways: the cycle industry, which was established by merging smaller manufacturers into larger national firms, was given preferential allowances of rationed materials. The nascent bicycle industry thus was able to accomplish growth rates of 58.7% annually -ambitiously charted out in the first Chinese Five-Year-Plan. The level of one million bicycles was reached in 1958. Bicycle lanes became part of urban street planning and commuting workers received financial subsidies when purchasing a bicycle.

To conclude the development, up to the founding of the Peoples' Republic of China in 1949, we can define three stages: 
1) There are four decades (from 1870 to 1910), when the bicycle as a technological object was known and reported on by the press in China, at least in the larger cites, but hardly any Chinese were using it. 
2) For the following three decades, bicycle traffic increased, but stayed on a comparatively low level. Cycling was limited to the coastal commercial centres with a strong foreign influence. 
3) Only with the establishment of a domestic bicycle industry in 1930 and succeeding price cuts, the use of bicycles slowly increased and became widely disseminated geographically. 
The spread of the bicycle as a common means of transportation was further fostered, after the foundation of the People's Republic of China, by subsidies to the cycle industry and to cycle users.

New ChinaToday's ubiquity of the bicycle in China has led to the widespread assumption of a cultural inclination of Chinese to bicycling. A deeper investigation into pre-1949 cycle history unveils quite a different image: it seems that economic and modern infrastructural reasons, rather than cultural preconditions, can explain China's development into the bicycle nation of the 20th century.

The changing terminology

Together with the automobile, the bicycle holds an exceptional place in the modern Chinese vocabulary for foreign technical objects: while in most cases Chinese terms for new technologies, e. g. railway, steam engine, telephone, or the electric light-bulb, were coined shortly after their discovery and haven't changed until today, the different terms used for the bicycle, permanently switched from one semantic field to the next. No less peculiar, but more revealing in regard to the low relevance the early Chinese authors gave to the bicycle, is the fact that it took one decade to linguistically incorporate the bicycle. In Binchun's (1866) account of Parisian cyclists, the velocipede figures as an anonymous technical artifact, which is described rather in a cursory way. Although later authors refer to his text, and some even witnessed cyclists themselves when visiting Europe, none of them explicitly named the object. A transliteration of velocipede into Chinese weilouxibeida (1868) is the first step in overcoming the attitude of speechlessness towards the bicycle. But the pure phonological transcription, by reflexively combining Chinese syllables (here: virility; building; hope; north; achievement) is a rudimentary construction, which may have only added to the estrangement of the Chinese speaker, and doesn't give any sense to the alien object.

The linguistic acculturation of the bicycle happened years later, in the early 1870s, when the expression jiaotache was found. It is drawing on the older and familiar verb jiaota, which up to then was exclusively used for the specific motion of stepping on the pedals of a foot-driven water pump or mill. Appended to it was the generic term che, standing for all kinds of vehicles. Interestingly, the same word jiaotache came into use for another new machine, introduced to Shanghai in the 1870s from Britain, the pedal-driven spinning machine. On the one hand, the activity of cycling/pedaling is appropriately circumscribed, but on the other hand, it stresses the connotation of physical exhaustion at the expense of the other aspect of the bicycle: spatial mobility. Jiaotache evidently proved to be a fitting expression and was widely used next to other neologisms throughout the late 19th/early 20th century (in Taiwan, it continues to be the colloquial word for the bicycle).

It took more than two decades, before the modern term zixingche was coined. The earliest source known to me is a newspaper article of 1896). From then on, zixingche was not only synchronously used with jiaotache, but became the most common expression for bikes, which it still is today in the People's Republic of China. With zi (self), xing (vertical, linear movement) and che (vehicle), it is completely figured around movement and motion. To the ears of a Chinese living around the turn of the century, it must have been a word with a pronouncedly modern complexion. Sporadically, in the early period of their appearance in China, zixingche was also used for motorbikes or automobiles.

In the 1890s, when the modernization programs of the Meiji-era in Japan fully unfolded and made Japan the most fascinating model, and at the same time the most feared threat to China, Japanese loanwords became popular in China. Zizhuanche (Japanese jitensha) probably was introduced by the numerous Chinese students returning from Japanese universities. Linguistically, the zizhuanche is a close relative to zixingche (only the middle syllable exchanged for rotation). The word rapidly disappeared from the Chinese vocabulary, after Japan turned to more aggressive politics against China. With parts of Chinese territory invaded or threatened by Japan, and Japanese products proving to be successfully competing for Chinas market share, anti-Japanese attitudes grew. 
A curious and short-lived alternative term was the modernistic baixike or baike, which came into fashion after the turn of the century. By creating new phonetic transcriptions of (American) English expressions, it was mostly the young people of Shanghai who stressed their Americanised life style, i.e., Chinese modeng for modern. On all levels of speech, the word baixike demonstratively and deliberately reveals the anti-traditionalism of the speaker. But in contrast to the older weilouxibeida, the speaker shows rather his receptiveness for, and familiarity with, the object.

Also rooted in the colloquialisms of urban youth is danche (single; vehicle). Originally, it was a synonym for the common single-wheelbarrow. In the 1940s, it appeared in modern youth literature with the meaning bike. Today it is an argot expression for the unhappy bachelor -used for instance in the original title to the Chinese movie Beijing bicycle: Shiqi sui de danche (A Single Man Aged Seventeen).

The affinity with the bicycle finally is expressed in the allegory of the iron horse – tiema (iron; horse). With reference to the animal, it expresses the possibility of an affectionate relationship -which today's half billion Chinese cyclists undoubtedly have.

© January 2004 Amir Moghaddass Esfehani 
This article appeared in: Andrew Ritchie and Rob van der Plas (Eds.), Cycle History 13. Proceedings, 13th International Cycling History Conference. San Francisco: Van der Plas Publications 2003, S. 94-102.