The life of other people

Majiapu Zhonglu

This is the 1510 Digest, a weekly roundup of recent essays and articles published in Chinese on, with links to translations on the Marco Polo Project.

This week’s digest proposes three personal reflections on urban life in contemporary China. All three posts are well-crafted pieces of creative non-fiction that explore relationships, interpersonal feelings and a sense of place, from a male and a female perspective. All three were published over the last month on 1510.

Majiapu Middle road
By Wang Haiyang, 05 July 2012
When Wang Haiyang moves to Beijing from a small Southern city, convenience and price decide him to settle in Majiapu. Located just South of the third ring road, Majiapu is a dirty, poor and chaotic suburb, far from Wang Haiyang’s original dreams of Beijing grandeur. However, as he discovers, it is not without a certain homely charm. This post offers a series of vignettes on this unfamiliar part of the Chinese capital: rickshaw drivers waiting for customers with avid eyes, migrant children rushing into their parents’ arms at the end of school, or an old couple who’ve run the same bicycle repair booth for years. The wind, the sun, the dust, and the changing weather also feature in this description of suburban life in the big city, full of sensual notes, personal encounters, and nostalgic observation of a quiet urban poverty.
Marco Polo translation: Majiapu middle road
Original link: 马家堡中路

The life of other people
By Liu Shisan, 12 July 2012
‘The slow journey of discovering others and the lives of others is the start of an actual formation process of self-consciousness.’ This is how Liu Shisan introduces this long essay in five parts about the life of other people.

First, he starts by retracing his journey from a desire to conform to a sense of alienation. As a child, he thought about other people’s home a lot, curious what they were like, and eager to have the same things they had. After graduating, he found himself isolated in hospital, with chicken pox, and there experienced a painful sense of separation from the world. This feeling of alienation still happens at times, when a group shares a common memory that he doesn’t have.

The second part is about understanding the views of different people around – waiters, salespeople, bus drivers – and their experience of life is. In contrast, he notices how ‘successful’ people among his friends have no similar interest, but only focus on their own views, and believe that they hold the truth – as their success warrants. This attitude he rejects, preferring to see the world more clearly, whether it has an impact or not.

Urban indifference is the topic of the third part. Sitting on the metro one evening, he saw a begging singer come in, who received indifference from everyone except a little girl travelling from overseas. The social pyramid is organised in such a way that everyone looks at the level below and says “I couldn’t live this life even for one day” – yet people do, and say the same about those below them. Unless they really can’t, like that poor man who found himself paralysed after an accident, and let himself starve to death.

Section four returns to the desire for connection. Though Liu Shisan criticises affected care, and questions that are really just a way to push your own values forward, he observes that people do rely on implicit agreements and relationships. When something goes wrong at a restaurant, the blame is taken collectively , whether the fault is with the cook or the waiter; at hospital, patients develop a sense of care for each other, even if only for the time of their stay.

The final section opens with a story that trended on weibo, of a man who spent his days at Beijing airport watching planes leave. Everyone is slightly dissatisfied with their lives, and aspires to be someone else, something else, somewhere else. Thinking about other people’s life is a distraction from ours, which also makes us understand the world better. And that is the value of literature – we can share our pain with others – better understand the world around us – build a sense of connection – and in the end, understand ourselves better.
Marco Polo translation: The life of other people
Original link: 别人的生活

Singles talk about materialism
By Smilings, 16 July 2012
Two young single women on a trip to Hong Kong, avidly looking at the pretty bags and clothes have the following discussion: is it better to find a rich husband who can buy you things, or follow your heart and marry someone you love? This imaginary dialogue between the ‘realist’ and the ‘romantic’ gives us a direct insight into the concerns of some contemporary Chinese young women – buying or renting a house, anticipating the cost of a child’s education, avoiding the burden or rural in-laws. But for the writer, this dialogue also provides an occasion to reflect on consumerist temptation, material anxieties, and the sources of happiness.
Marco Polo translation: Singles talk about materialism
Original link: 对话单身

All articles in this digest and a large range of other Chinese readings are accessible at Some are available in English, French and Spanish translation. (You can join the project if you’d like to help with translations.)

Danwei is an affiliate of the Australian Centre on China in the World at The Australian National University. This posting is a result of one project that is part of that on-going collaboration.

China Heritage Quarterly and East Asian History are two other publications supported by the Australian Centre on China in the World.

This entry was posted in 1510 Digest, Consumer Culture, Urban Culture and Cities and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.