Monday, March 12, 2012

A short history of bicycles in China

The first mention of bicycles in China was in 1860, when a European official named Binchun wrote of seeing a fantastic sight --- a velocipede, an early version of the bicycle, newly-arrived from Paris.

At the end of the 19th century, the only people who used bicycles in China were foreigners who lived in Shanghai. During those times, no self-respecting Chinese who had even the tiniest of wealth would consider moving around on his own. He would instead take the sedan chair, or if he were inclined to use the latest mode of transport, use a rickshaw which was invented in 1870.

It was only during the 20th century that imported, and therefore expensive, bicycles were sold to the Chinese. But sweating and exercise did not fit into the Chinese way of life, so in the beginning only the nouveau riche, especially those who have gone abroad to study and have lived among bicycle-riding people. The prostitutes ("sing-song girls") who worked in the ports open to foreign trade were also avid users of the bicycle. They had relatively good income and were already living on the margins of polite society anyway.

During the 1920s, when the 6-day work week became common in the cities and people had free time for themselves that enthusiasm for the bicycle rose.

The bicycle industry in China began in the 1930's, when assembly plants for foreign-made bicycles were first established. China-made bicycles came in the 1940s. The founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 was a turning point for the bicycle industry. The Party decided to promote the bicycle as the people's vehicle and started a massive production drive. Bicycles were taken into account in city planning and those who used bicycles to travel to and from work were given benefits. China's first Five-Year Plan included the growth of the bicycle industry by 60 percent, and by 1958, China was producing more than a million bicycles annually.

By the way, the bicycle is called zi xing che (自行车) in Chinese, meaning, self-driven transport.

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