CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 25, March 2011


Driving in Circles | China Heritage Quarterly

Driving in Circles

An oral history interview by Sang Ye 桑晔
Translated and annotated by Geremie R. Barmé

It is appropriate that in an issue of China Heritage Quarterly dedicated to spirits/wine/酒jiu and the memory of Yang Xianyi, that we include a translation of an oral history work by the writer Sang Ye.

I first met Sang Ye at the Yang's apartment in Baiwan Zhuang 百万庄, Beijing, in 1985 at a time when he and his collaborator Zhang Xinxin 张辛欣 were being celebrated nationwide for the publishing phenomenon that was their ground-breaking series of oral history interviews published first in literary journals throughout China and then in a volume under the simple title Peking Man (Beijing ren—yi bai ge Zhongguorende zishu 北京人——一百个中国人的自述). Xianyi and Gladys' door was always open to aspiring writers, translators and artists, as well as to people who were, to use a line from the poet Ai Qing, 'living fossils' (huo huashi 活化石), that is men and women who had miraculously survived the depredations of High Maoism. They were also welcome hosts to many writers whose works they translated, as well as many more who they befriended. That is how I first met Sang Ye, during an evening of drinking and talking about his travels, his adventures and his future plans. The conversation stretched late into the night and he ended up wrapping himself in a dusty rug on the Yang's living room floor and sleeping over. In those years I was always invited to stay with the Yangs in Beijing, so I joined Sang Ye for breakfast as he shook off the dust of the rug (this was a Beijing without vacuum cleaners or glazed windows so the fine sands of the Gobi and the dust of the old city soon covered every surface) the next morning: tepid tea and toasted steamed bread (mantou 馒头). I ended up translating a few of the Peking Man interviews for the Panda Books edition of the book, and Sang Ye and I launched into a collaboration that has lasted for more than a quarter of a century. As for so many things in my life, both professional and personal, I am profoundly grateful to Xianyi and Gladys for introducing me to this unique writer and astonishing friend.

Thus, it is only fitting that Sang Ye and I commemorate Xianyi and Gladys here by presenting a work that is part of our latest project, The Rings of Beijing, Inside Beijing's Global Aura. The taxi driver who navigates his way around Beijing speaks in the raffish patois of that city, offering his insights into the changing urban landscape of China's capital with the mixture of contempt and humour that is so typical of the residents of 'Old Peking', a city re-designed, dismembered and then re-designed again by a procession of non-Beijing-born rulers over the past decades. In his account he offers too a penetrating view of on-the-ground realities through the haze of China's much-vaunted hyper-development.

As we travel around the concentric ring roads of Beijing with this taxi driver we establish something of the tone and approach of the book as a whole. While taxi drivers have been an informal source of journalistic information and Beijing-related gossip for decades, 'our driver' tells a more poignant story about a city recast and a population disjointed from its homeland.—The Editor

A 56-year-old Beijing taxi driver, interviewed 'on the road'.

I've got no connections, no academic qualifications, no option but to become a driver. So, why not? At first I drove for a state-owned company. What a bullshit place that was. It was an electronic component factory in Beijing's Western District. It went under just as [Premier] Li Peng got into power [in 1988]. At that time if an enterprise went under, that was it. How you'd survive after that was your problem. It wasn't like it's been since Zhu Rongji [was Premier in 1998]—now workers are given at least something when an enterprise goes broke. It's the way of the world: 'if you have a dad with connections, you're on your way; otherwise, stock up on Maotai, be ready to pay.'[1] I have a dad, but he's useless—like not having one at all. So, anywhere I end up, I'm just the driver.

Fig.1 Roundabout Beijing. (Photograph: GRB)

Anyway, Maotai doesn't get you anywhere these days; people aren't necessarily interested. They want cash. So the fact that the state-owned company I worked for went bankrupt early worked out OK for me. Back then the bureaucrats weren't so greedy. It only took a few modest gifts for me to convert to a taxi license, and then some mates helped me find a taxi to drive. These days it's like the saying: 'the pig's head cooks when the fire's hot; business gets done when the official is bought.'[2] If you don't hand over the money, they won't refuse to act, but they'll process your application 'by the book'. And if they do that, you're screwed. Take the annual test to renew your license—a very mundane matter. The company tells you when and where to go. But when you get there, you discover that the line is huge. Do it by the rules and you're in that line for half a day, and if it takes half a day, you'll lose over one hundred yuan in fares. So you keep the hundred, they just want the 'over'. Hand it 'over' without a fuss and you've got your license. Stuff an extra fifty yuan in the bastard's hand and you jump to the head of the queue.

You wanna talk about our city of Beijing? What can I say? Thinking about it stresses you out. Spare yourself—don't think about it.

Say you want to get out of the city. Don't assume you can just get on a highway and go. They close the highways at the drop of a hat. You can understand when they do it because of thick fog or heavy snow, but they do it even when there's a downpour. They barely deserve to be called roads. Then there's frequent closures on political grounds: they close the roads for officials and foreign bigwigs, and it gets even more out of hand when those people who represent the People come to Beijing for their annual meetings.[3] We go through this mess every spring, when they come in their thousands. One minute this road's closed, the next minute that one is; everywhere's blocked.

Getting into the city is just as bad. You might think you can just go charging onto the Third Ring Road. Not necessarily. Fuck me, but when you get to the Third Ring Road it's just like what we see today. The Emperor Qin Shihuang boasted in that movie that he had so many soldiers in his army that he could look out in all directions and see no end to the serried ranks. Well, I'm certainly not boasting when I say you can look out in all directions and see no end to this sea of cars. You can have the best, fastest car there is, but there's nowhere to run inside the Third Ring Road: from the major thoroughfares to the hutong alleyways, it's a fucking parking lot.

Let's say you break through the siege: you still might not make it out of town. If you're such hot shit, then go to the airport and get on a Boeing; you don't have to get mixed up with the mess here on the ground. But after you get to the airport you'll find that the planes might fly and they might not. Maybe the weather at your destination is a problem; maybe they've imposed some temporary restriction on Beijing's airspace. So, no Boeing—you have to go back the way you came, in a Hyundai![4] And that's how, after all that trouble, you end up wasting a whole day on the road, going nowhere. I'm not kidding, it happens all the time. More than once, I've dropped someone at the airport and then, after sitting two or three hours in the queue until it's my turn to collect my next ride—and, guess what, the same guy gets back into the car. Hilarious. So, if anyone wants my opinion, if you're traveling within a radius of 1000km of Beijing best to forget about those Boeings. Too much trouble. The Boeing isn't going to get you anywhere faster than a train will, especially if you take into account the traffic on the way to the airport.

As for traveling around the city itself, I suggest you take the underground. Tickets are cheap. For two yuan you can go right around the city and time-wise, you can rely more on the trains. So long as there are no fires, there are no delays. You just better not be averse to being jostled. It's common for people to be squashed thin as a photograph. You also have to prepare yourself to change trains. It's okay at the smaller stations, but at major junctions like Xizhimen, you can't help thinking that the people who designed the connecting walkways and signage were morons. Just try following the arrows those clowns have painted: up you go and down again, first left then right… I'm not kidding when I tell you that you're ahead of the game if you only end up walking a few li. Oh, so you thought that taxi drivers never take the underground? I work double shifts, twenty-four hours at a go. If anything comes up on my day off, I take the subway.

Another drawback of using the subway is that you have to listen to the damn broadcasts. Someone like me drives around all day with the radio on. The second some crap comes on the air whether it's an ad for medicine or a speech by a Politburo leader—I can reach out and turn it off. Say what you like—I don't have to listen. But down there on the subway you've got no choice. You can't turn off the fuckers as they bang on and on: don't bring dangerous goods onto the train, don't speak to strangers, watch out for your valuables, and actively combat begging. Fuck me, but it's hard enough that some person's so goddamned poor they're reduced to begging on the subway—they have to be 'actively combatted'. It's as if the people who can afford to ride on the train are America and the poor suckers crouched begging at the door are Iran. It's shitty enough that they don't encourage you to be charitable; but the bastards expect you to combat the poor. It's a fucked up world. It's more than depressing, it's chilling.

Fig.2 'Development is an inescapable necessity'—Deng Xiaoping

It often makes you despair, the way things are. Take asking directions, for instance. If you're out in the world, sooner or later you're going to find yourself lost and in need of directions. But often, people won't even give you the time of day. You ask, do you know the way to such-and-such and it's like they haven't heard you; they look through you as though you're invisible. What kind of assholes are these? They're probably the elite who travel around on the subway every day and have been educated by the broadcasts not to speak to strangers. You're a stranger, so it serves you right if you've lost your way. Not my problem. That's why I don't bother asking directions. Anyway, I've been at it so long, I know my way around, plus I've got a GPS. But my GPS isn't that good. The map's a pirated version; the real version is protected by IP and too damned expensive for me to afford. The pirated version's cheap, but you can't download updates, so there are places in newly built districts and the like that don't show up. If I really have to ask directions I don't do it on the road. I've got too much experience for that; I don't like running into brick walls. I call up one of my driver buddies on the mobile and ask for help. Things are so screwed up that it doesn't pay to be too polite yourself. If someone asks me directions on my time off, I always help them out. What's the big deal? But if I'm on duty, don't fuck with me. The only people who ask taxi drivers directions are out-of-town taxi drivers. I tell them to follow me and when I get them where they're going; I get them to pay me what's on my meter, no more no less.

Out-of-towners get completely lost the moment they get to Beijing. Fuck me, Beijing is so huge it's hard to work out where north is.[5] The First Ring Road, well it's not really a road, it's where the old Imperial City wall was. The Second Ring is Chairman Mao's Ring Road: inside are still a few things left over from Mao's day. The Third Ring Road is Deng Xiaoping's, the Fourth is Jiang Zemin's and the Fifth and Sixth belong to Hu Jintao. Everything up to the fucking mountains are the fucking rings of Hu! They're even crapping on about constructing a Seventh Ring Road. They'll be ringing right in to Hebei province soon. The good thing about the ring roads is that they confuse out-of-towners. Even Beijing locals get lost. Once you're on one you can't get off, doesn't matter who you are. When you're out on business you can never find the place you're going to. So, these days, unless you know exactly where you're going, you've no choice but to take a taxi. It's the most reliable way to get anywhere. Of course, you could take public transport but by the time you've changed lines, or transferred from subway to bus, and then found the address you're looking for, everyone's probably knocked off for the day. Things are constantly changing. When we were kids, we thought how great it was that things were different every day under socialism. But now that things really are in constant flux with the Hu Ring around the Jiang Ring and new buildings inside and outside each ring, everyone wanders around as lost as stray dogs.

'Development is an inescapable necessity'.[6] Fuck me if that isn't the truth. But if development's necessary, it's also true that the masses haven't got anything out of it. Fuckers sit in their offices and draw a circle, and a whole lot of people just disappear without a trace. I don't mean they die off, but their homes are fucking bulldozed and they're forced to relocate. Poor bastards have to be grateful for the munificence of the authorities even if they can only find a place outside the Jiang Ring. People like me don't even count, we're shunted off beyond the Hu Rings—don't we have a right to live as well? Once you move, forget about seeing your old neighbors again. My mother's nearly eighty and for her it's been a catastrophe. I tell her, that's hardly the worst of it—can't you see that people like us have been swept out the door? Forget the neighbors—nothing in the New Beijing has anything to do with us at all.

So, what are they doing with all the real estate freed up by these forced relocations? People like Lee Ka-shing, Pan Shiyi and their ilk are turning it into malls or 'squares'.[7] They're obviously high-rise developments, but the bastards insist on calling them 'squares': Eastern Square, Times Square, Wanda Square, Splendor Square. Whatever they're called, they've got nothing to do with the original inhabitants of the place. Since you low-income bastards can't afford a high-finance apartment, don't even bother looking. Piss off and keep your distance. And that's how the masses have been tossed out by New Beijing. The only square that we clowns still have any connection to is Tiananmen Square. If you're patriotically inclined you can come and watch the flag-raising ceremony; if you're less so you can still fly your kite there. But if you're living outside the Hu Rings, it's not easy getting into the city centre. To get to Tiananmen from where I live costs about one hundred yuan by taxi. If my mother wanted to come in and have a look at the kites, say just twice a month, it'd bankrupt us. So you tell me, what's this development about? If you ask me it's about the God of Wealth: he helps out the bureaucrats and makes the rich even richer. 'Good water doesn't flow into other people's fields'.[8] Bastards don't even give the masses a sip.

My old home was just west of Heng Ertiao Street. It was knocked down when they built Xidan Mall. We couldn't buy anything inside the Fourth Ring Road with the paltry compensation they gave us; we could only afford a basic apartment in Tiantong Yuan, a suburb that's actually part of Changping County, where 500,000 people live in hundreds of high-rises—in reality just a warehouse into which New Beijing can chuck all the people it's thrown out. But there's no peace in the fucking warehouse. The property managers are quarreling among themselves and we property owners suffer the consequences. We're still in the season when apartments should have central heating and they've cut it off. But we homeowners are about as organized and cohesive as a handful of loose sand.[9] Forget about missing a few days of heating—any issue more complex than that and there's total confusion. For instance, do our maintenance fees cover replacing the elevators when they wear out after twenty years or so of use? Who pays for that? And then there's our seventy-year leases. What happens to us if the state decides to reclaim our apartments after seventy years? No one's thinking about the larger issues. The people don't know what they're talking about and the so-called property owners' representatives work for the enemy. The government doesn't look after matters they should be looking after. When you're out driving your taxi you feel the government is never fucking far off, with the police and every other official just watching and waiting for a chance to fine you for some transgression. But when there's something substantial that has a real impact on ordinary people, fuck me if the government isn't so far away you can't see it or find it anywhere.

Speaking of the government, shouldn't they really be doing something about the air quality? Forget the dust storms, I'm talking about the quality of air on your average day. The air in Beijing wasn't like this before all the development. Now it's developed to the point where the forecast is almost always for 'haze'.[10] What the hell is 'haze'? What an interesting new word. It stands for that dirty grey air, the filth that lies over Beijing like a pall, so that it's like living under an upturned and blackened wok. Even I have trouble breathing. On the radio they try and educate us about the science of it all: 'haze is predominantly a result of a lack of air circulation, excessive car exhaust and loose particles of earth and dust. Because people can't immediately adapt to it, this is a new challenge for public health.' Don't you reckon that whoever's behind this crap is just asking for it? The masses haven't 'developed' so why should they adapt to the air? Why should they take up this challenge? Fuck me, but people's health is being put at risk and you still go on about development. This government's mentally retarded.

Fig.3 Cover image from The Beijing News. (Source: Courtesy of

When I get sick I don't go to the hospital. If I have difficulty breathing, I treat it like a bronchial infection and buy some medicine. Can't afford to see a doctor. Anyway, where are there any real doctors? Hospitals are slaughterhouses. The doctors have sharpened their scalpels, so even if you just have a headache and fever or other slight illness, the fuckers make you have a blood test, a urine test, an X-ray, and a CT scan; if they don't manage to extract every last cent out of your wallet, the bastards get so stressed they fall ill themselves. I feel sorry for the poor folk I take to hospital in my cab. They've never taken a taxi in their lives and they're splurging this once because they're sick. As soon as they get in, their eyes fix on the meter; each time it goes up they feel the pain. It's really sad. But I say to myself, you think this is expensive, wait until you get inside the hospital. All the doctor has to do is write out a little slip of paper sending you off for a CT scan and you'll be coughing up five times as much as my fare.

This is no job for a human being. Every month, whatever you do, you have to hand over the set amount of 3,200 yuan to the taxi company. The moment I open my eyes in the morning, I'm in debt to the taxi company to the tune of one hundred yuan, and that's not counting gas. You have to drag yourself out of bed even if you can barely breathe. I've been at this for eighteen years now, what you'd call an Elder Statesman of drivers, but I still don't have any savings. I started with a Changhe minicab and now I have this Hyundai. I've driven over two million clicks and have gone through four cars. And still no savings. It's a damn unfair world, don't you think? I married late, as did my son, but he was bound to do it eventually. Marriage the minute he started talking marriage, it was even harder for me to draw breath.

Everything's getting more expensive: meat, vegetables, grains. Electrical appliances have got a bit cheaper, but you don't buy them every day. Can you eat a refrigerator? The worst is the price of gas, it's constantly going up. Sometimes the stock market flat-lines, but not gas. If the price drops on international markets, it doesn't here; if it rises overseas, our prices shoot up immediately. It's doubles every few years. Now it's over six yuan a litre, but our meters are set on a tariff fixed when it was four yuan a litre. The taxi companies don't dare increase the fares—the government won't allow it because they're scared the customers will rebel. So while the companies don't dare increase the fares, they exploit us to the limit. It's like carving meat from the leg of a stork: if there's no meat you just shave the bone. You'd think the government would worry about us taxi drivers rebelling, but the bastards don't really give it a thought.

And that brings us back to those bastards from out-of-town. It's mostly them on the roads these days. I can't begin to tell you how second-rate they are, but the real issue is that they've got no sense of self-preservation at all. Forget rebelling—they don't even dare voice an opinion. They're born for punishment. If the price of gas goes up or their company exploits them, they just suck it up, continually lowering their own standard of living, eating more poorly, squeezing into ever smaller places to live, and sleeping less so they can work more. These guys live on the shittiest lunchboxes around and sleep twelve to a room built for six, renting shifts on the same bed. It's no way for a human being to live, but they put up with it.

It's not like we've never rebelled. There was one year we got together and agreed not to drive on 1 July—the Communist Party was enjoying its birthday and we'd take a day off to celebrate. What could the bastards say about that—we were just celebrating. They'd have no comeback, right? But on the day our plan was foiled by the out-of-towners. They didn't raise any objections during the discussions, but the moment we downed tools, they took off and picked up as many passengers as they could. They wrecked the whole protest. The union? The union's fake. The bosses are a pack of scabs on the company's pay. We're like loose sand; we cocked up our own protest. So nothing to do now but shut up and put up.

No point in blaming anyone. The dickhead masses are just as bad. Take the increase in the cost of water, for instance. I'm basically all for it. You just have to see people waste water washing their cars—it really upsets me. Beijing suffers from serious water shortages, so there's nothing wrong with the government increasing prices to try and limit the waste. Well, here come the out-of-towners again. They've no sense of right and wrong. They get people to go out to Wangshou Temple and You'an Men in the middle of the night, where they use river water to wash the cars. The next day the sidewalks there are so muddy you can't fucking walk on them. That's not the worst. Even more outrageous are the ones washing cars in the residential districts by cracking open the fire hydrants and stealing the water that's supposed to go to fight fires.

Let's say don't want wash your car. Well that won't do either—if your car doesn't confirm to the approved standard of hygiene, and the inspectors see it, they'll fine you. See what I mean about this world we live in? It's really bad. Some people say with things this bad, how come there hasn't been a fucking earthquake? I don't completely agree. People die horribly in earthquakes. I'm not hoping for any earthquake. But I'd like to see Beijing suffer a major drought for three years in a row. Give the bastards a serious hit. Let's see then how they manage their meetings and the rest. See if they still want to 'develop'.

Fig.4 Development is still an inescapable necessity

This Beijing of ours was once Nezha— three-headed, six-armed Nezha with his feet on wind-fire wheels, golden halberds in his hand, and a sword and cudgel for defeating demons tucked in his belt.[11] He was known by everyone—be they in heaven or on earth. From this you can see we've got traitors in our midst: they don't like Beijing, they think it's too backward, not friendly enough towards the foreign devils. We can't have that these days, can we? But all the good things have fallen into the hands of the devils. Which is why the bastards with all their plans have turned Beijing into a 'bird'.[12]

The bird's legs are stabbed onto the East Third Ring Road—the off-kilter 'big underpants building' that serves as China Central TV's headquarters. Its head is over on the West Ring Road, beak agape—the damn thing they call the Millennium Monument. Of course, a big bird like that needs a nest, doesn't it? Well, the nest has been plonked down on the North Fourth Ring Road. On the radio they even boast that it's the biggest nest in the world. Fuck me, but what the hell is so impressive about heaping scrap metal into a pile?

Of course, a bird needs more than a nest. It needs to eat. So they built it the Water Cube, a Perspex birdfeeder. Big birds lay big eggs, and this bastard's laid its egg right on Chang'an Avenue—'China's Great Whorehouse'.[13] What crap, built by a pack of thorough-going traitors at least as bad as Qin Kuai [of the Song dynasty].[14] If they weren't at Qin Kuai's standard they'd never have managed such a thing. When the Bird's Egg was formally opened, I heard them saying on the radio how high-class and advanced the building was. They quoted the French foreign devil who designed it saying, 'I want to cut you off from your tradition, for only then can you create something new.' The dimwit who was taking my taxi at the time was furious. He said, 'Fucking foreigner. Is he trying to destroy us or what?' I said he was being unfair. If I were that foreigner I'd have to take the knife to us as well. We're just from different rootstock. If I didn't cut you off from your roots there's no way this egg could get laid. So, you can't blame the Frenchman: after all, we invited him here. We kowtowed to him to get that design. If you want to take it out on anyone, blame the traitors who asked him here in the first place. The real problem is the traitors in our midst.

I wouldn't be complaining if these bastards really could turn Beijing into a bird, one that could take off and fly, one that traveled the world grabbing whatever meat it wanted, like the Americans or Germans, who've got eagles on their crests. But these bastards here don't have the guts or the ability. The bird they've created might be huge, and its nest sits all the way outside the Fourth Ring Road. But up on that building our crest is still the five red stars, the bushel of wheat and Tiananmen and next to its chest is Zhongnanhai. These assholes can't copy the democracy and freedoms that the devils have, nor do they get socialism like Old Mao did. All they can do well is behave like traitors. It's like the Great Qing Dynasty, with Li Hongzhang in the starring role, just like on TV.[15]

Fig.5 Driving in circles. (Photograph: Jonah M. Kessel /

So the Beijing we have is a city that's lost its countryside and villages but has yet to reap the benefits of being a city. Fuck me, I put that pretty well, didn't I? But I didn't make it up, I heard it on the radio. They didn't say why we haven't reaped the benefits. The reason is that Beijing doesn't belong to the Beijing people. Beijing belongs to the government, or to be more precise, not the government so much as Party Central. Even then it's not entirely Party Central either—it's traitors imitating foreign devils. The devils are in control.

We've got a few hutong alleyways left inside the Second Ring as well as the buildings from Chairman Mao's day. But nothing beyond the Third Ring seems Chinese at all. There's no sense of fengshui. There's just buildings like big boxes for packing up people. One ring encircling the next, new district after new district until you have this huge flat griddlecake. You can't even tell where its edges are.

I don't know what I'm bitching about. I like to complain. No one can speak on my behalf. So I just let off steam. The union doesn't represent the working people. The property managers don't represent the property owners. If I didn't let off some steam I'd explode with frustration. Have you been to Israel? On the radio they say that Israel is built on sand. That's like our Beijing—our city's built on all this loose sand. Every one of us common people is a grain of sand. Twenty million grains, that's twenty million people who are strangers to each other; not even knowing our neighbor's name.

Related material from China Heritage Quarterly:


The translator would like to acknowledge numerous useful, and felicitous, suggestions made by Linda Jaivin.

[1] Maotai, a much-celebrated social lubricant with a potent alcohol content. While celebrated by its users, critics deride it as 'white lightning'.

[2] 'The pig's head cooks when the fire's hot; business gets done when the official is bought', huo dao zhutou lan, qian dao gongshi ban 火到猪头烂,钱到公事办.

[3] People's representatives.

[4] Korean-designed Hyundai taxis are common in Beijing.

[5] 'Fuck me, Beijing is so huge it's hard to work out where north is', wo cao, Beijing zheme da, lian bei dou zhaobuzhao 我操,北京这么大,连北都找不着北. When Beijing was a city designed to accord with the 'five directions' (centre, north, south, east and west), not to be able to 'find north' meant to be completely lost. Today, few still give directions according to the points of the compass.

[6] 'Development is an inescapable necessity', fazhan shi ying daoli 发展才是硬道理. A quote from comments made by the de facto party leader Deng Xiaoping on 1 January 1992 during his famous 'Tour of the South' (nanxun 南巡), which marked a new and rapid expansion of China's economic reform policies, which had stalled following 4 June Beijing massacre and its aftermath.

[7] 'People like Lee Ka-shing 李嘉诚, Pan Shiyi 潘石屹 and their ilk are turning it into malls or "squares".' From Hong Kong, Lee is famous for his collaboration in the mall-ifiction of Wangfu Jing Avenue and the old Dong'an Market (known as the Dongfeng, or East Wind, Market during the Maoist heyday). Pan Shiyi is a homegrown developer from Tianshui in Gansu province, who is renowned in recent years for the obliteration of the old Qian Men shopping district and its replacement with a glorified consumer's Hollywood set.

[8] 'Good water doesn't flow into other people's fields', feishui bu liu wairen tian 肥水不流外人田.

[9] 'A handful of loose sand', yi pan sansha 一盘散沙, a quotation from the Qing-era writer Liang Qichao, referring to the supposed inability of Chinese people to work together for a common goal. 梁启超《十种德性相反相成论》:然终不免一盘散沙之诮者,则以无合群之德故也.

[10] 'Haze' or 'smog haze', mai 霾 (also referred to in weather forecasts as yinmai) is a word with a long poetic history, recently revived in colloquial Chinese as a term used in weather reports. It is more sonorous than the drear, if accurate, expression wuran 污染 'pollution'. For a recent account of Beijing's hazardous air, see Jeremy Goldkorn, 'The Air in Beijing: 2010 and 2006', Danwei, 20 November 2010, at:

[11] 'This Beijing of ours was once Nezha— three-headed, six-armed Nezha with his feet on wind-fire wheels, golden halberds in his hand, and a sword and cudgel for defeating demons tucked in his belt' zan Beijing yuanlai shi ge Nezha. Santou liubi jiao ta fenghuolun, shou shi jinqiang, yaoli hai cangzhe zhan yao xiangyaowu, tianshang renjian shei gan bu ren a?' 咱北京原来是个哪吒。三头六臂脚踏风火轮,手使金枪,腰里还藏着斩妖剑跟降妖杵,天上人间谁敢不认啊?) The old city of Beijing was supposedly an earthly design based on the celestial body and attributes of the boy-god Nezha 哪吒. See Hok-lam Chan, Legends of the Building of Old Peking, Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2008, pp.33-169

[12] 'Bird' niao 鸟, a Beijing dialect word that also means something akin to 'crap'.

[13] That is, the Grand National Theatre 中国国家大剧院. Or, as the taxi driver puts it: 大鸟儿下大蛋:中国大妓院. The other buildings mentioned here, and their formal equivalents are: 大裤衩子楼: 中央电视台; 鸟儿嘴:世纪坛; 鸟巢:国家体育场; and, 鸟食罐:水立方.

[14] Qin Kuai, or Qin Gui 秦桧. A more recent vulgate reading prefers the ridiculous and ahistorical 'Qin Hui'. A prime minister during a particularly fragile period of the Southern Song dynasty, Qin advocated the appeasement of northern aggressors, going so far as to conspire in the execution of his rival, Yue Fei 岳飞, who favoured a rigorous armed response to the invaders. Just as Yue Fei symbolizes loyalty and steadfastness, so Qin Kuai lives on as one of China's iconic traitors.

[15] 'It's like the Great Qing Dynasty, with Li Hongzhang in the starring role…' (Li Hongzhang na hui'rde da Qing wangchao 李鸿章那会儿的大清王朝). Li Hongzhang, foreign minister during the Qing dynasty in the latter years of the nineteenth century, is generally depicted in Communist Party-ordained histories and the pulp media as having been a traitor who sold China out to the Japanese and the Western powers.