Four Ounces of Pressure: Thoughts on Driving in China

Binhe Boulevard at night, Futian District, Shenzhen

In the Chinese martial art of Taijiquan, or Tai Chi, there is a two-person exercise called tui shou, which means “pushing hands.” Two opponents or “players” as taiji enthusiasts often call themselves, face off with only the backs of their wrists touching each other. The object of the exercise is to maintain the same amount of pressure on the wrist at all times. When your opponent pushes, you move back. When he pulls back, you move forward, all the while maintaining four ounces of pressure on each other’s wrist.

When you first learn tui shou, you start out very slow. But as you get the hang of it, you can progress to faster motions, pushing forward and moving back rapidly, attempting to push your opponent off balance while maintaining your own stance and maintaining the connection between each other. Over time, tui shou develops extraordinary levels of sensitivity and movement. Masters of the art are able to “stick” to any opponent, and/or be untouchable.

Many newcomers to China from the West are shocked by the difference in the Chinese style of driving. I remember when I first landed in Asia and took a “limousine” (aka a mini-van) from Hong Kong to Shenzhen. I tensed up and gripped the seat more than once as the driver careened in and out of traffic, speeding and braking suddenly, using the car horn as casually as Western drivers use a turn signal.

Later, as I settled in Shenzhen and took taxi cabs to and fro in the city, I learned that this is simply how people drive here. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen one driver cut off another by swerving into the lane ahead of them, and the offended party simply slams on the breaks, avoiding impact by only an inch or two, and then resumes driving as though nothing had happened. Even the bus drivers do this.

My first thought was that if this is how people drive in this part of the world, they must have an epidemic of accidents. But I quickly realized that this is not the case. Whereas in the West, stopping within an inch of a collision is a freak occurrence – something to feel lucky about – in China it’s the norm. Often it’s the combined skill of both drivers that brings their cars within inches of each other without actually touching, as they they were engaged in some kind of vehicular dance. Or a match of tui shou.

In the history of Chinese thought, the concept of flow is of central importance. Bruce Lee famously advised his martial arts students to “be like water,” and in this he simply echoed the wisdom of the Dao De Jing over two thousand years earlier. If you take a snapshot of a river, it can appear quite chaotic, with individual waves going this way and that. Likewise, a snapshot of Chinese traffic looks like a giant clusterfuck. And by some standards, it is.

Traffic in the Luohu district of Shenzhen. Lanes, anyone?

But if you step back in space and time and see the bigger picture, you will perceive a certain harmony, a subtle order in the seeming chaos, a method to the madness.

One of the remarkable things about Chinese driving is the absence of road rage. Although I as a Westerner witness daily breaches of driving etiquette that would cause my blood to boil back home, the Chinese mostly take it all in stride. I hear the occasional “Ta ma de” (“Fuck your mother,” which seems to be a cross-cultural universal insult) in response to some especially dastardly driving, but otherwise there is no show of upset. (Unless there is an actual collision, in which case the Chinese knack for yelling and gesturing, feigning the threat of violence without any intention of actually doing something, comes into play.)

This absence of rage is rather nice once you get used to the place. I’ve long since become rather Zen about Chinese driving, sitting back and trusting in the cabby’s ability to use The Force or whatever it is that he’s doing to make his way through this mess. The truth of the matter is that in general the Chinese are excellent drivers whose ability to control their vehicles tops that of most Western drivers. (Although, for reasons unknown to me, none of them know how to park. The same driver who expertly navigates a traffic jam, weaving in and out of lanes like Barry Sanders weaving through linebackers, somehow becomes a confused, muddled idiot when trying to navigate a parking space, like ED209 trying to walk down stairs in Robocop. I’ve seen people pull in and out of the same space five times for no apparent reason, like a kid with OCD who has to wash his hands AGAIN because the last time just wasn’t right somehow. By the way, that’s three 1980s references in two sentences.)

I try to emulate the Chinese lack of rage, but one thing I can’t seem to get used to no matter how long I live here is their use of the car horn. In America, honking the horn is reserved for emergency situations only. It means one of two things: 1) “Danger! Look out!”, or 2) “Fuck you, asshole!” You can usually tell the difference by how long the honker lays on it. A polite warning is a simple little “beep-beep,” whereas an insult is a long and loud “BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP!!!” If you’re going to honk at someone like that, be ready for a serious confrontation that potentially turns to fisticuffs.

But not in China. Here, honking the horn loudly and repeatedly is apparently on the same level as speaking in public. Everyone does it and it’s nothing to get upset about. So although I know in my brain that the guy behind me laying on the horn to tell me that he’s approaching on his moto-scooter is not intending to piss me off, in my guts I just can’t shake my Western conditioning to that sound, and I wanna turn around and yell at him, “You got a fuckin’ problem or what?!”

But I don’t. I try to be chill and go with the flow, cuz that’s, like, the way of the Dao and stuff. When in Rome, act like the Romans, and when in China, just accept the place, cuz changing 1.5 billion people you most certainly ain’t. (I’ve actually never understood that “When in Rome” saying. What, feed a Christian to the lions? Give the Nazi salute and say Hail Caesar?)

A fundamental difference between the Western mindset and the Chinese mindset is that Westerners attempt to impose order onto chaos, whereas the Chinese simply adapt to chaos and leave it alone. In America we have rules about how a person should drive, and we get pissed off when people break them. In China, everyone is driving like a dick, but then everyone seems to just accept this, and so consequently no one is really bothered by it. I can’t say that the Chinese way is better per se, but they do seem to be less stressed out.

Because everyone is under constant pressure from this universal dickheadishness, but no one gets too uptight about it, Chinese roads and Chinese society are basically a big game of tui shou. There’s always four ounces of pressure on you, from the drivers on the road, the people on the street, your co-workers and your family. But if you just go with the flow and accept it, things are more or less ok. It’s only if you go against the flow somehow that all the little pressures become cumulative. And when you multiply them by 1.5 billion, you can bet that four ounces of pressure will crush you into nothing very, very quickly.

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