The Chinese art form of pushing and shoving

Sanne van Oosten

Anyone who has visited China for more than five minutes can attest to this: Chinese people don’t mind much pushing and shoving. Whenever in a crowded public place, especially in public transportation, you’ll notice this. When the doors of a crowded subway open, most people think it is within the realm of logic to first let the people out and then let people in. But not in China. Whenever the doors open, people will barge into the subway, even when people are still trying to get out. This doesn’t only go against the culture I was brought up in, it also goes against the most basic laws of physics.

There are so many more instances of extreme line cutting and pushing and shoving that we’ve come across in only a few weeks of travel. The strangest case of cutting in line we’ve come across was while checking in for a domestic flight in China. We were checking in our luggage and, as you do, we stepped aside from the counter to put our bags on the belt. We weren’t done with checking in or anything but as we did so another person went to the front of the desk and shoved his ID into the face of the check-in clerk. Me, me, me! Wanna, wanna, wanna!

The list of anecdotes could go on and on. But what could the explanation for this ever be? Why do the Chinese push and shove so much? Is it because they are just so unfriendly? We don’t think so. We’ve met very kind Chinese people who take the time for people and are generally very considerate towards others, but who start to push and shove whenever they are in a situation of lines and transportation. Me, me, me! Wanna, wanna, wanna!

Is it because they are mostly only children? Me, me, me! Wanna, wanna, wanna! It sounds like it could only come out of the mouth of an only child. Only children are known to see themselves as the centre of the world, as they were, most likely, the centre of the world for their parents. Has the one-child-policy made Chinese people into pushers and shovers?

Yet again, we say no. Even people of the older generation, who grew up with an abundance of brothers and sisters, are master-pushers and shovers. Also young Chinese people whose parents were wealthy enough to afford more than one child, turned into pushers and shovers. It’s a compelling thought, but not the answer.

Maybe it is because there are just so damn many Chinese people that they need to push and shove just to get to their goal in time. It is true that pushing and shoving in China cannot only mean saving a few minutes on your trip, but can also mean the difference between sitting in the subway or standing. It can also mean the difference between getting a train ticket and not getting that ticket. It can even mean the difference between seeing your beloved family once a year during Chinese new year and… not.

With so many people in China and the price of cars soaring high, setting up any kind of public transportation is a very thankful thing to do. We have yet to come across a public transportation line of any kind that is not completely packed. Is it this sense of crowdedness that is making the people of China push and shove? Maybe partially, but there is an even more important answer.

The most important reason is the lack of public social control. When reading the above one might start to think that Chinese people all are horrible at making lines. But think again. Most Chinese people are better at it than in any culture I’ve ever come across. For instance, where else will you see perfect lines behind the entrance of a train that has yet to arrive at the platform? Most don’t linger around and rush to the door of the train when it arrives, no, they make perfect lines and wait their turn.

Same for subway stations. Markings on the floor will indicate where to stand when you want to board the subway, and most people will stand perfectly behind each other in line to board the subway, even when it hasn’t arrived yet.

All very perfect, until that one person cuts in line. You’d think that the people who have been waiting their turn for so long will get angry at this one person, but no. I keep on feeling the urge to yell out something like, hey bozo, how about waiting your turn like the rest of us? But my lack of Mandarin skills inhibit me to do so. However, the people who do speak the right language don’t say anything either. They will rather give up their seat in the subway than ever do anything like that. And so, pushers and shovers are enabled to going on with it, again and again and again. They reach their scarce seat in the subway before the people who waited their turn even get on board.

The government is trying the counter the pushing and shoving on the subway by hanging up informative posters on how to board the subway, but nothing will really change if the few people who push and shove are not called on it. If pushing and shoving goes unpunished, why not do it? Especially if you are really tired and really want to sit on the subway, get that specific train ticket or even… see your family that one time a year.

The reason that this can happen is all about the importance Chinese people adhere to saving face. China has a pervasive shame culture in which the worst thing that can happen to you is to be publicly humiliated.  And what is even worse than losing face yourself? Making someone else lose face. Humiliating someone else is pretty much the most shameful thing you can do, so pretty much everyone, therefore, refrains from doing so. Letting the pushers and shovers go on with what they are doing.

This blog might make it sound like I’m completely frustrated with the art form of pushing and shoving that the Chinese have mastered like nobody else. But I’m not, I’m actually quite enjoying it. Where else can I shamelessly cut in line? Where else can be rude without consequences? Usually I don’t have to audacity to do so, but now I do. Ha, China, here I come!

6 responses to “The Chinese art form of pushing and shoving”

  1. Isam says :

    Hi Sane and Dave.!
    I used to have the same problem when I was in Indonesia. whenever people stand on my way out, I will standing on the door blocking their way in.When they started to complaint I just told them I can not get out of the train because of people blocking my way. If nobody complaint, I will start to look down to their feet, pretending in search a place to step on. Usually people will step back and gave me way. But once my two feet stepped out from the train, the way is blocked again.It is funny yet irritating. But I was happy to see their faces when they realized that they blocked their own way.

    • Sanne says :

      Haha, great idea! I’m going to try that one. Although, there’s not much stopping the Chinese when it comes to this… especially the elderly, they are the worst!

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