China Bicycle

Last updated by david at 2014/3/21

“430 million owners of cycles in China represent the biggest increase of individual mobility of the human history. Although the fast multiplication of cars in China and the traffic jams which they generate in urban zones focus the attention, the bicycle remains the biggest means of individual mobility for hundreds of millions Chinese.” Publication of the Earth Policy Institute, Extract of book, July 6th, 2010

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Although China is actually known as the world capital of bicycles, this western invention didn’t took its place easily in the country. At the end of the 19th century, when the bicycle tendency reaches China, this one, then under western influence, was unwilling integrating a new western invention.

A bit further than Michaux built the first prototype with pedal, outline of the bicycle, and even a few months before the discovery is introduced to the European public, Chinese readers acquainted with a new " cycle machine " from the notes taken by a Chinese official. The author, Binchun, had just returned from a journey in Western Europe. As member of a delegation of Chinese officials, he had visited France, Great Britain, Germany and other countries between March and July, 1866. Back in China, he presented to the court diverse curiosities which he had discovered during his mission. Among these, he had seen in Paris two types of a strange machine:

“On the avenues” wrote Binchun “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).)

The delegation of which Binchun was a member had a diplomatic purpose, but the imperial court had given besides instruction to the participants to inquire on the latest innovations in the domains such as the industrial development, the administrative structures and the military technology. They were thus well informed about various kinds of technical constructions. But while especially the steam engine and its mobile application or the railroad, are abundantly mentioned and analyzed by the officials with in mind the practical role those could have in the modernization of the Chinese economy, the velocipede is not commented in any official document known.

The Chinese officials realized that the bicycle could be a practical means of transportation towards the end of 1890s, after that the potential of the bicycle in the military operations was brought to light. The Chinese newspapers wrote with big interest about a competition between horses and bicycle in the western armies and also in Japan. For example, the bicycle course of the American battalion of infantry between the Montana and St Louis in the Missouri in 1897, 1900 miles long, was reported in the newspaper Shixuebao a few weeks after this event took place, with the possible perspective to use the bicycle in the imperial army. Has this idea been followed? There is no document giving evidence of tries or battalions with bicycle in China before the beginning of 1930s.

Between 1870s and the beginning of 1890s, the European and American expatriates who lived in the ports,  in Shanghai and Tianjjn, or in the Chinese capital Beijing, were practically the only cyclists in China under the amazed eyes of the Chinese.

Bicycles of China

In the 1880s, the view of bicycles must have become familiar to the Chinese, at least those who lived in the foreign concessions and in the capital. The cyclists were a subject which returned regularly in newspapers and comics of Shanghai during this period; the users being described with a mixture of admiration and irony. Nevertheless, in conformity with the communal expectations any Chinese which respects himself did not intend to move on one's own. The Chinese rather took a rickshaw, a chair with carrier or a wheelbarrow according to his social condition.

The first Chinese cyclists appeared at the beginning of 1890s. It was Chinese students, journalists or businessmen who had returned of foreign countries and had brought back their bicycles with them. Another group was the rich young men who had links with the United States or Europe. Even if they represented only a tiny portion of the Chinese society, they provoked a qualitative change in the Chinese history of the bicycle. Contrasting with the old elites, more and more educated Chinese according to western criteria, breaking with the traditional values, did not have complex anymore to show their progressive cultural orientation in public.
The first advertisements for the bicycle appeared in the Chinese press of Shanghai and Tianjin in 1897/98 targeting a limited client panel. The presented bicycles were of high quality, often running bicycles.

The first striking step in the selling of the bicycle coincides with the enormous media coverage granted in the Chinese press upon the arrival of three British cyclists Lunn, Lowe and Fraser in China. The Chinese readers of numerous newspapers followed their tour from its beginning in summer, 1896. When they arrived to Shanghai, just before Christmas, several hundreds of local cyclists accompanied them in their route through the city.

It is during the 20th century that imported bicycles, thus expensive, became to be sold in China. Only the Chinese having studied abroad and having got acquainted with this means of transport, were seduced. The prostitutes ("sing-song» girls) who worked in harbors, contact points with the international trade, were also regular users. They had a decent income, lived in narrow relation with this new upper class and were also free of social constraints.

During the 20s (1920), as soon as the workweek passed to 6 days, the people had more free time and the interest for the bicycle developed. The phenomenon was observed initially in the coastal areas and cities; the bicycle made its appearance in the other parts of the country only between the 30s and 40s.

The Chinese industry of the cycle was born in the 30s when assembly factories emerged in the country. The complete Chinese production appeared in the 40s. The establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 gave the cycle industry another direction since the party decided that the bike will be the main vehicle of the population and undertook consequently a massive production.

Bikes are included into the urban development and those who used it to go to their workplace saw each other awarded. The problem of the deficiency of public transports was solved! The first Chinese plan has foreseen an increase of 60 percent of the industry of the cycle. In 1958, China produced annually more than one million bicycles.

Conveniently, bicycle is named zi xing che (自行车) in Chinese, which, literally, means, individual means of transportation.

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