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Project Blog: China


10 September 2016

China is an incredibly exciting place to research, and the field of mobility is no exception. Did you know that 350 million train journeys took place during the Spring Festival in China this year alone? As one of our interviewees explained to us, the Spring Festival is the largest human migration of people in human history. This is only one example of the significant role trains play in China. It is a gateway which connects to family, to economic past and future (education and job opportunities, social development), to culture (by regular mass migration to ancestral homes and traditions), and many more. The importance of this type of mobility and the many different dimensions of society it binds together is a fundamental part of the imaginary of the train users we have interviewed so far.

We have been collaborating closely with our colleagues from the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, and in August we completed our pilot relating to train users for imagineTrains China. Over the past year we have completed several training sessions, which included workshops on interviewing skills and qualitative data analysis.

By June this year, we had collected more than 10 interviews from train users in Beijing, and in August we conducted a preliminary analysis of the data. Here an interesting quote from one of our interviews:

“Interviewee: Many years ago, I was a student in college. I took the train from Dalian in Liaoning province to Tianjin city, next to Beijing. There was a girl, she was very sick and needed blood urgently. She got sick. I guess she had some blood disease; she was bleeding over 30mins, just crying and shouting. Her blood type was rare, maybe AB RH-. The train conductor used the broadcasting system to ask if anyone’s blood type fit. Unfortunately no one’s matched. The conductor of this train had a very wonderful idea; he asked the passengers if the train could stop for a short time to send this girl to a hospital. All the passengers said yes. Finally, we stopped for about 3 minutes, and the emergency system launched, and she was taken from the train. After this trip, I don’t know what happened to her but I felt good because I could say: “Yes! We’ll stop the train!” and everybody could say: “Yes!” Many years later, I can still remember this event vividly.
Interviewer: Why is this event so important?
Interviewee: First of all, the train in my mind cannot stop, not for anything, not for anybody. When the accident happened, the train was just like a man! It had its own thoughts! Yes, the train “considered” if I can do this for my… maybe this girl. In that moment, it was just like the train had a liver, lung, or even a heart. So we could do something, anything, for her. And everybody can have the right to say: “Yes, we have to save her first.” Just these 3 minutes – I love these 3 minutes. That means lots of things. Maybe it will bring problems in traffic planning and the network. But it is about a human, about life. In the past, in China, there was a lot of pressure on things such as trains. They are public goods, which cannot serve the private. I am not sure if you understand. But this kind of situation is happening more and more. I don’t use this word “popular” but you can observe from the media that there are similar situations more and more frequently now. You can feel more the human things in our machine! From our first memory at primary school, it is our country’s character, the group is always bigger than the individual. Individuals must serve the group. It is kind of our Nature, and not vice versa.”


We are currently in the process of collecting more interviews from train users, and, with our Chinese colleagues, we have plans for two peer-reviewed journal articles. We will keep you posted as the project develops. For now, have a look at our Flicker page to see some of our impressions of what trains in China look like, or click here if you want to see impressions of mobility in Beijing.


Research Dairy: May 2020

The imaginary of the train in Beijing, China

The findings from our study in China was published in the journal Mobilities on 20 April 2020. Here is a brief description:

Technological change and sociocultural models in China: A case study of train commuters in Beijing

Zinette Bergman, Manfred Max Bergman, Christoph Haenggi, Zhao Lei,
and Andrew Thatcher

China’s mobility turn has created the world’s largest public rail system,
contributing extensively to citizens’ economic, social, and spatial
mobility. Concurrently, this technological transformation has introduced
many opportunities for individuation, which could potentially
challenge the social, collectivistic, and Confucian foundations of
China’s sociocultural and political ideology. While the notion that
‘mobility produces culture’ is readily accepted, research on train mobility
in China is rare. In this study, we use Albert Bandura’s Model of
Triadic Reciprocal Causation to conceptualize mobility as agency. We
employ Hermeneutic Content Analysis, a mixed methods framework,
to study how this rapidly evolving mobility environment connects to
the lives of 31 regular train users living in Beijing. Studying agency in
China enables us to systematize the sociocultural models within which
mobility practices are embedded and how they manifest. We find that
our interviewees embed agentive practices in a cultural model that is
intertwined with collectivistic aspirations of the country. Technological
developments are thus integrated into existing sociocultural models
and political expectations, contradicting existing debates on the fracturing
impact of disruptive technologies.

Here a link to the publication.

Below some another small pictorial of mobility in Beijing. To see more of these visit our Flickr pages for trains in China and mobility in China.

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