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Ten things China wouldn’t be China without

Ten things that make China the crazy place it is

There are so many things about China that seem bizarre when compared to life back home that I could be sitting here listing them all night. China wouldn’t be China without the interesting public toilet situation. China wouldn’t be China without instant noodles and Abibas sportswear. But in the few years I’ve spent travelling between the mainland and Hong Kong, there are a few things in particular that have struck me as so typically Chinese that I couldn’t imagine China being the same without them. These are the things that if someone asked me to tell them what China is like, I’d begin at number one and work my way down.

The list is by no means exhaustive. These are just the musings from my latest trip and no doubt the first of many. If you think I’ve missed any or have any suggestions for next time, let me know in the comments below. Enjoy!

1. Mass Public Dancing

On any square, in any park, by any river, or wherever else there happens to be space for between 50 and 100 people to flail about wildly to some awful kind of Chinese techno, the public dancing phenomenon is typically Chinese. Usually beginning around dusk, a seemingly impromptu gathering will begin to form, before the hardware of speakers and CD player arrives and the nocturnal flouncing can begin. As the Casio keyboard drum beats begin, the milling around will magically coalesce into formation, and the social phenomenon of the mass public dance will set itself swinging. There will always be at least one middle-aged gent in too-tight trousers showing off his moves. Get ready to get mesmerized. Only suitable for ages 40 – 85 yrs.

2. Random karaoke

The screeching sibling of the mass public dance and equally random, you’ll find old folk belting out Chinese ballads, plastic microphone in hand, in city parks across China. With echo turned up to 11 and feedback whistling a high-pitched accompaniment, the only competition will be between the clashing howls of maybe three different sets of performers and their backing tracks, as they compete to be heard above the din. As with the dancing, this is no X-Factor audition or Stars in Their Eyes finale, it’s just another excuse to get social, make friends and have fun butchering some well-known classics.

3. Easy-access split-seat kids pants

Access never came easier. Why take the time to take your child’s pants down when they need to go? Why risk accidents when they’re pulled up? Just take a pair of scissors, slice the seat, et voila, easy access/easy exit pantaloons that make toileting your toddler so much simpler than before. Said toddler will obviously be left having to walk around with his arse hanging out all day, but at least it gives us gawping Westerners the chance to see that famous Chinese innovation in practice. In fact, that gives me an idea. If I could only find my scissors.

Easy access split-seat kids pants - photo from The Living Experiment

Easy access split-seat kids pants – photo from The Living Experiment

4. Random exercise

Ever wonder why the Chinese live so long? Maybe (and here’s a thought) it’s got something to do with their lifestyle. We’ve already mentioned the public dancing. Part social, part excuse to get active, you can see it everywhere across China. But there’s also the more individual bouts of exercise you see. I remember the first night I arrived in China. Walking through a Beijing park at dusk I started to notice an increasing number of middle-aged and elderly people doing rather strange things with their limbs. Some were swinging their arms up and down, some were walking backwards, some were swinging their arms up and down whilst walking backwards. There were so many variations on the theme that I began to give them names. There was the Lateral Side Slap, the Reverse Campanologist, the Gimme a Hug and the Chestburster. In the UK, such behavior would have people ringing the authorities and asking if you were okay. In China, you’re weird if you’re not getting freaky.

5. The night bus

Honking their way through the night on their rattling ride from city to city, the night bus is a perennial when-all-else-fails delight of travelling in China. Always convenient but often combustible, think of the night bus as a road-bound rollercoaster with the majority of the latter’s rigorous safety standards ignored. It’s cheap, often faster than the train, and certainly easier to get a ticket for, the only drawback, considering China’s appalling road safety record, is that there is a disconcerting chance you might not make it to your destination in one piece. If you do, however, decide the night bus is for you, it’s certainly an experience, despite the down-the-hill-on-a-sledge night’s sleep you’ll end up getting. Just don’t forget to take your shoes off at the door.

6. Strange “food” in vacuum packs

The Chinese are renowned for eating things that, by Western standards, would strike one as maybe being even less delicious than it looks edible. But with a population of over a billion people and rising, how to feed all of those people is still as big a problem as it has been for centuries. The immediate solution is to follow the rule that nothing is wasted. You kill a pig? You get your bacon, get your ham, then if you think the ears, nose and internal organs are ready for chucking, you’re going to have a shock when you find out what went into making your soup. Such economy I have no problem with. But taking these strange things, vacuum packing them, then selling them as tasty treats? I’ve seen meat of all kinds sliding out of plastic packaging. I’ve seen anemic chicken feet being unwrapped and gnawed upon. Even the humble boiled egg, while nothing strange in itself, suddenly becomes something horrific when preserved and vacuum packed. Try and find something fresh in a Chinese convenience store and you’ll most likely find yourself leaving empty handed. The first rule of travelling in China? Stock up before you set off.

Strange “food” in vacuum packs – photo at Reflections from Lee & Kitty

7. Chinese curiosity

Picture the scene: You are sitting on a bench in a Chinese park enjoying some alone time, when all of a sudden, you notice an inquisitive couple staring a little too intently from the bench next to you for no apparent reason. Another time you may be studying your guidebook, when from over your shoulder a head appears, looking at your page trying to work out what it is you are reading. I even had one experience, on the top of Huangshan, when I turned round to see a woman taking a photograph of my arms, and she didn’t seem particularly perturbed when I caught her. Usually I put all of this down to good natured curiosity. I tend to err on the side of acceptance rather than annoyance. You are, after all, a guest in someone else’s country. And don’t forget, even though foreigners are heading to China in ever greater numbers, many Chinese still do not encounter foreigners very often, let alone have the opportunity to converse with them. Nor will they be aware that their hilarious yelling of “Hello!” is the fortieth time you’ve heard it that morning. So smile, be polite, and you’ll feel better for it.

8. The domestic tour group

I said it in my previous post regarding my experience at the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum in Nanjing, but the Chinese are on a mission, a mission to rediscover their country and to enjoy the relative freedom that their newly acquired material comfort affords them. It is already apparent that the Chinese love to travel. But why travel alone when you can join a tour group instead? The desire to spend your holiday in the company of thirty other people wearing DayGlo baseball caps, being led like cattle from one tourist site to another, seems like the perfect anti-holiday to many Westerners. But being the gregarious bunch that they are, the Chinese just can’t get enough. Not only is it a welcome opportunity to make new friends, but joining a tour group is still, for many, the only practical way of travelling across the country and seeing the sights. China is already the world’s largest domestic tourism market and that growth shows no signs of slowing.

9. The themed street

This increase in tourists obviously means an increase in the amount of tourist revenue up for grabs, and naturally, every town and city that can conceivably attract these spend-happy hordes is doing its upmost to prise every last yuan they can from them. The proliferation of so-called themed streets across the country has been the result. It has seen some worthwhile restoration projects for sure, and when done well, as on Hefang Street in Hangzhou, commercial interests and character can still be made to coexist. But there are others like Qianmen Avenue in Beijing where it feels like restoration has not actually restored anything at all, rather, it seems to have ripped the soul out of the place entirely and replaced it with sports stores and a Uni Qlo. Either way, with China’s tourism boom still only in its infancy, it seems the themed street, with its new-old style and its shops full of tat is here to stay. Let’s just hope not too much is trampled in order to make way.


10. Chinglish

And finally, here comes everybody’s favourite. China wouldn’t be China without a good old bit of Chinglish. “Your dog piss makes my lawn unhappy.” “Cripple parking.” “Vobka and cock.” It’s lazy blogging but no less hilarious.

I spotted this little beauty on top of Diecai Shan during a recent trip to Guilin. How it’s possible to get the message so garbled, I don’t know. It’s as if all the letters were there, just the process of picking them out randomly and sticking them on in hope led to the accuracy, if not the intended meaning, getting somewhat lost along the way. “This clace dangerou snes strictly Trohibit stan”. Yes, it is. And no, I won’t.

Related Post: See my post Another Ten things China wouldn’t be China without for the latest batch of ten things that make China the crazy place it is.

Get Involved: If you think I’ve missed anything or have suggestions of your own to add, feel free to share them in the comments below.


  1. I have never seen China summed up so perfectly!

    • Why thank you very much!

      The blog is back and another trip to China is ready to go at the end
      of this month.

      What to possibly include in Part 2? Strange food on
      sticks? Overdressed domestic tourists? The cross-body manbag? Any more,
      any more, any more?

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