The Mian Di: A Retrospective

If you get any group of long-term China people (by which I mean people who have lived here more than five years) together, and allow them to hang out and chat for a few hours (inadvisable unless you like to listen and not participate; people sharing war-stories don’t generally stop to think how they can include others), a few topics will always crop up. Vomit, and bodily functions generally, figure heavily, since living in China inevitably leads one to frequent such wonderfully story-rich places as train station bathrooms, lightly-populated villages, and overnight sleeper buses, all of which somehow seem to attract horrific bodily function experiences via some kind of magnetic force. Food also comes up pretty often, particularly the “old days” when no one could find anything western, even something as simple as good bread, in the stores. A particularly popular tangent to this one is the hyper-inflation of yang-rou chuan’r (lamb kebabs). Many of us can remember, the way others would the Kennedy assassination or the Columbia explosion, where we were when we heard yang-rou chuan’r had doubled in price from 5 mao to 1 RMB. I, unfortunately, found out alongside four other friends after we’d already eaten a pile of kebabs and were told the price was something like 60 RMB, which hit us like a tsunami. In addition to these things, at some point everyone will sigh and recall the rise and fall of the mian di’s, the cheapest, most convenient, and most shockingly, impossibly dangerous form of motorized transportation this side of a rocket-propelled lawn mower. As taxis, they simply couldn’t be topped. You could cram (and I do mean “cram”; circus clowns would think twice before piling into one) six or more people into a mian di for about 5 RMB, which comes out to roughly 75 cents. To put that in perspective, few cabs in town today will carry more than four people if those people aren’t fleeing from an angry mob, and the price has now risen to 8 RMB. Shocking! Plus, it wasn’t just the multiple-people angle; you could haul groceries, boxes, luggage, or in the case of one memorable story from my friend Kim Smith, a giant potted Christmas tree. Kim, her husband Patrick, and myself were sharing our memories of the mian di days with Dan Chung, a relative newcomer to Tianjin, and Kim recommended I write about them, so I have decided to take her up on it.

First of all, you need a mental picture. I always preferred the name we used in Shandong province—mian bao che—which literally means “bread car,” a description that refers to its size and shape more than its cargo. Sadly, few of us took pictures of mian di’s when they were still prowling the streets, in the same way you wouldn’t think to take a picture of, say, your rain gutter. Something so plebeian doesn’t really seem like it should belong in the annals. How boring an old person would you have to be to make people look at photographs of rain gutters? Fortunately, a word sketch is quite easy when it comes to the mian di: imagine a giant metal lunchbox on wheels. That’s it. Actually, it doesn’t even have to be a “giant” metal lunchbox. Most mian di’s were only marginally bigger than a Voltron lunchbox anyway, and had just as much leg-room. Not that it mattered, because the seats were generally just fold-out metal-and-canvas benches that might have been ripped from a World War II troop carrier. Many of these weren’t even anchored securely to the floor of the vehicle, and there were many times when I and the other people squashed onto my bench had to brace ourselves against the sides to keep from sliding backward across the floor. This was made all the more interesting by the fact that the mian di manufacturers, apparently in a bid to make the cheapest vehicle on the planet, neglected to include shock absorbers. Now on a decent suburban road in the U.S. that wouldn’t matter too much, but a nice trip across a Chinese city, whose roads five or six years ago were more like what you’d expect to traverse the day after the Dresden bombing, in a vehicle without shocks feels like amateur hour at a Wyoming rodeo. Or it would if the bull-riders had a metal ceiling two inches above their heads.

Other wonderful features included poor ventilation (I quite often spent the entire ride breathing in light to heavy carbon monoxide fumes), drivers whose approach to urban transportation made a demolition derby seem like a round of Mario Kart, dubious brakes, and gears which had been stripped bald. Don’t ask about seat belts. I think the manufacturers didn’t even install them. What would be the point? If you were going to ride down the south face of Mt. Everest in a Radio Flyer wagon, would you install seat-belts? (The answer is no, by the way.) Mian di’s made police work after accidents far easier, because I don’t think there’s any way a person could have survived a full-on accident in a mian di. In keeping with our lunch-box metaphor, which believe me is more apt than you can know, anyone riding inside a mian di during an accident would have emerged looking like the mashed remains of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich after a kid’s lunchbox has been run over by a bus. The police didn’t even need to phone the morgue because although you can identify, say, a squashed peanut butter and jelly sandwich by its constituent ingredients, you can’t identify whose sandwich it was, and that’s doubly true of bodies which look like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Because of the multiple seats in a mian di, drivers used to pick multiple passengers up while en route to a destination, and charge them whatever they could get away with. Nobody seemed to mind too much. Most of the Chinese people I’ve met are willing to endure nearly any physical privation to save money on transportation. (If you think I’m kidding, check your newspapers or news websites during the Chinese New Year. There will probably be at least one article on the insanity of New Year travel.) If a company set up a giant catapult and charged people 10 RMB to be flung hundreds of miles to their hometowns, there would be a line a mile long the day before Chinese New Year. I think technically it was illegal for mian di drivers to pick up extra passengers, but the law hasn’t stopped many people in China for very long. Police officers do, but the law as a concept doesn’t. There really isn’t a law without someone to enforce it, so a mian di driver who wanted to make some extra money would quite obviously have been willing to chance getting caught. That particular legacy still lives on in the cheap inter-city buses, which will only carry a regulation number of people out of the station, but will pick up anyone with a few RMB on the way to the final destination. And thus you can still, if you’re not so elite that you’ll only take comfortable express buses, ride a few hours next to a guy with a live chicken in his lap.

During my last year in Taian, in Shandong province, they started getting rid of the mian di’s. We all mourned their passing, even while knowing it was probably for the best, the way you’d mourn the phasing-out of a cheap, delicious chicken wrap whose key ingredient was anti-freeze. We all knew the authorities were right, but it was sad all the same. No more late-night runs for cases of beer with five other people. No more trips to the plant market to pick up giant potted plants. No more forced camaraderie. Personally, I grieve over how soft I’ve become since the death of the mian di. A few years ago I returned to Taian after an absence of three or four years. I had to take a bus there from Jinan, and was absolutely appalled by how cramped and dangerous it was. And yet I used to take far worse things on a regular basis without batting an eye. The mian di wasn’t just cheap and dangerous. . .it was also cheap and dangerous. And the thing is, if you’ve never ridden in something that rickety and poorly-constructed, you really don’t know how most of China works. That used to be the norm. Now the norm is a brand-new Toyota sedan or an air-conditioned bus. Nice, yes, but not representative. The mian di used to be the great link between the big city and the countryside; when you were smashed up against the rusty frame with a withered old farmer somehow managing to sleep on your shoulder, you were REALLY getting a taste of China. Taking a comfortable taxi to a nice bakery is about as representative of most of China as buying an Armani tux is representative of most of the U.S.

We’ll miss you, mian di. We won’t miss nearly dying every time we went somewhere, but we’ll miss you. No, I don’t know how that works. We old-timers just miss the dangerous stuff.

Just for the fun of it, if you’ve got a good mian di story, send it to me so I can include it.

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2 Responses to The Mian Di: A Retrospective

  1. Cindy says:

    Yes, I too, have a fair bit of nostalgia for mian di days when I was never certain I was going to make it to my destination in one piece. However, we were able to move our family across town with two mian di trips, and it’s not every day you can move house for less than two bucks.

  2. James says:

    I’d been in Tianjin for about 6 months, back in 2000, and I knew about the time it would take to get from Nankai to the main train station, and I was cutting it close. I was at the east gate of the school at 6:30 a.m. or so.

    I mentioned the time my train would leave to the staid, polite, grey-haired taxi driver, and he had that miandi squealing its tires on the corners, and drove in the bike lanes like he was Michael Shumacher qualifying in time trials.

    We got there in under 15 minutes.

    About 20 minutes later my heart rate returned to normal.
    _________________________

    Contrast that with a few times I’ve gotten a lady taxi driver that drove so carefully – using turnsignals to change lanes, and staying under the speed limit – that I was sure I’d miss the train.

    _________________________

    My parents came to visit me twice in my 10 years in Tianjin, and I took them out to Chengde to see Qianlong’s summer retreat. I prepared, I asked the bus driver about the route, as train tickets were unavailable, and he said, “Sure, we go only part way, but you can get another bus from there to Chengde.”

    I should have asked more questions.

    My 77 and 75 year-old parents and I ended up crammed in a miandi on low wooden benches (not attached to the floor) but that was OK, as we were too tightly packed to move.

    Then we got out in the next town, as that miandi was going back, and got into the next miandi – same sardines-in-a-can condition – and then in the next town we got into a bus! A real seats-60-people bus! With no wooden benches!

    We finally made it to our hotel, and my parents never complained a bit – they’re great people.

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