Le déluge

Crammed into a subway car so packed that it makes New York’s 6 train seem like a private limousine, I began to grasp just how many people live in Beijing. With a population of around 8 million people, my hometown of New York is more than twice as large as any other American city. Beijing, with 20 million permanent residents, isn’t even China’s largest city.

We say “sea” or “flood” to describe almost any crowd. Here, flood actually means flood, one of thousands of individuals, each coming from different places, thinking different thoughts, going home to different families.

A man struggles in the subway.

A man struggles in the subway.

Beijing’s immaculate subway system, where the trains seem to come every two minutes and where just two RMB (less than 50 cents) will rocket you to your destination no matter the congestion above ground, takes its millions of daily patrons and molds them into a continuously evolving but totally collective mass. The price of the ticket is negligible — the real cost of entry is measured in your temporary forfeiture of individual agency. I didn’t lift a foot to get on the train this afternoon at Guomao station — instead, I was propelled into it by the swell of people at my back. Getting off is just the same; instead of pushing your way off as you might in New York City, you try to immerse yourself in a general push towards the exit. You hope not to get lost in the opposite push of people getting onto the train.

The total democracy of the subway continues once you get off the train, as the tide of people pushes you through hallways and up stairwells, out into that eerily open square where China’s last push for political democracy was fully and brutally extinguished.

Once up in the open air of Tiananmen, where even the largest groups of people can’t make the space seem crowded, democracy recedes and military police stand guard. Individuality returns — from the middle-aged man who sneaks into our group picture and puts bunny ears behind our heads, to the adolescent girl who kindly takes our picture over and over again until we are satisfied with the angle. Unfortunately, the Forbidden City is already closed. We walk around the square and then return to the subway.

Harry Larson


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