In Beijing, 20 millions people pretend to liveTotal words: 1237 ;
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In Beijing , 20 Million People Pretend to Live
Editor’s note (on beijingcream.com): On July 23, the writer Zhang Wumao published an essay called “In Beijing, 20 Million People Pretend to Live” to his public WeChat account. As of the following morning, it had accumulated more than 5 million views and nearly 20,000 comments.
What follows is Megan Pan’s translation of that now-censored essay.
Beijing has no human warmth.
I am often criticized by nonlocal friends: Beijingers have a lot of money and act unfriendly. We’ve all made it to the same city, why don’t we get together? A few decades of friendship, and you won’t even send me to the airport? In reality, it is hard for Beijingers to be as friendly as outsiders – picking up and dropping off, accompanying all the way, these things truly are hard for Beijingers to do.
Beijingers are very busy, busy all the way until 11 o’clock at night, and even then they are still stuck in traffic on the Third Ring Road; the time cost of socializing in Beijing is too high, so high that it is faster to go to Tianjin than it is to go from Shijingshan to Tongzhou to eat; Beijing is really too big, so big that it isn’t like a city at all.
How big is Beijing? It is equivalent to 2.5 Shanghais, 8.4 Shenzhens, 15 Hong Kongs, 21 New Yorks, and 27 Seouls. In 2006, when Mr. Zhang [referring to himself] came to Beijing, the subway only had Lines 1, 2, and 13; if I didn’t use Baidu, I really wouldn’t be able to remember just how many lines the Beijing subway has now. Ten years ago, I took the bus to look for work and refused to go beyond the Fourth Ring for job interviews. Now, big companies like JD, Tencent, and Baidu are all outside of the Fifth Ring.
When nonlocal friends came to Beijing, they thought we were closer, but we weren’t actually in the same city, we may have been in a number of cities: they are Haidian, China; Guomao, China; Tongzhou, China; Shijingshan, China… If we use time as a measure, then someone from Tongzhou dating someone from Shijingshan would count as long-distance, and going from North Fifth Ring to Yizhuang can be called a business trip.
For the last ten years, Beijing has been controlling housing, controlling cars, and controlling population, but this large flatbread continues to sprawl and grow larger, to the point where my Xi’an classmate called me and said he was also in Beijing, and when I asked where in Beijing he was, he said: I’m in Beijing’s Thirteenth Ring.
Beijing is a tumor, whose speed of development no one can control; Beijing is a river, whose boundaries no one can draw. Beijing is a disciple, and only Xiongan can release it from purgatory. [Editor's note: Xiongan is a recently established state-level development hub in nearby Hebei province.]
Beijing’s coldness is directed not only at nonlocal friends, it is also similarly applied to Beijing friends who live in the same city. Every time a nonlocal classmate comes to Beijing, when we all get together the classmate will say, you guys in Beijing often meet up, right? And I will say, however many times you guys come to Beijing is about how many times we meet up.
In Beijing, exchanging business cards counts as recognition; calling a couple times a year counts as best friends; if someone is willing to go from the east to the west side to have a meal with you without talking business, then you could be called friends for life; as for the people you see every day, eat lunch with every day, they are only coworkers.
Beijing is actually the outsider’s Beijing.
If you let Chinese choose their must-go cities in this lifetime, I believe that most people would pick Beijing. Because here is the capital, here is Tiananmen, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the hundreds of theaters, big and small. Drama, opera, traditional drama, crosstalk, two-person skits, whether you like highbrow or popular art, you can always find what your spirit needs in Beijing. But these things actually do not have much to do with Beijingers.
Walking into Beijing’s various big theaters, I see that among ten people, six are outsiders with differing accents, three are young literary types that have just arrived in Beijing and haven’t gotten enough of the novelty, and the last remaining one is the local guide sitting in the corner, playing with his phone to kill time.
In the 11 years since arriving in Beijing, I have gone to the Great Wall 11 times, the Forbidden City 12 times, the Summer Palace nine times, and the Bird’s Nest 20 times. I feel complete indifference for this city’s awesome structures and long history. Climbing the Great Wall, I only think of Lady Meng Jiang, finding it difficult to stir up that lofty pride for the wonders of the world once more; walking into the Forbidden Palace, I see only one empty building after another, which is even less lively and interesting than my hometown’s pigpen.
[Lady Meng Jiang, according to folklore, wept bitterly at the Great Wall for her dead husband, who helped build it.]
When bringing up Beijing, so many people think first of the Forbidden City, Houhai, and 798 [Art Zone], of how Beijing has history and culture and high-rises. Are these things good? They are good! Am I proud? I am proud! But these things cannot be what we live off. What Beijingers experience more deeply is the congestion, the smog, the high housing prices; it is how, when leaving the house, you cannot move, and when at home, you cannot breathe.
Beijing, in the end, is the Beijingers’ Beijing.
If Beijing is said to have that hint of the smell of smoke, then that smell of smoke belongs to the old Beijingers who have been living in this city for generations. This smell of smoke curls out of old Beijingers’ birdcages, fans out from the leisurely palm-leaf fan after dinner, is pulled out from the taxi driver’s haughty tone of voice…
Old Beijingers are currently trying to preserve a bit of breath of life for this city, in order to make this city look like a place where humans live.