A bicycle of one’s own

Taken on a chilly winter’s day

I’d never given the term ‘bicycle’, either in Chinese or English, much thought. It was one of those things seen and encountered all around me, in conversation, on the streets. People on them, dodging them, mentioning them, parking them, stealing them and getting them stolen, fixing them up and taking care of them. I only thought about the significance of the Chinese word for ‘bicycle’, its linguistic onion-layers, as I was snapping these pictures; when I was concentrating on —rather than being dimly, diffusely aware of— the fact that these millions of pedi-powered wheels rotating around Beijing everyday still constitute its most basic pulse.

Zixingche (自行车/車) literally means ‘self-running-vehicle.’ It’s really a beautiful name in its own mundane way; the beauty of which is easily lost not just in translation but also in everyday life. Xing (行) is a generous, bold sort of character, one that houses all kinds of related connotations and meanings: not just the ‘run’ in ‘self-run’, but also to walk ahead, to travel, to conduct oneself, to go forth, to ‘make it work’, to take one’s own (less-travelled?) path in life, to give someone or something the green light.

While the English ‘bi-cycle’ focuses on the vehicle’s structural characteristics, zixingche emphasises the effect of that structure: the unique kind of independence inherent to it. The special kind of self-sufficiency and autonomy afforded by a vehicle that is highly portable, needs no motor nor electricity nor gas, and lets its user get around efficiently solely via the user’s own power. (Though, as the pictures show, electric-powered bikes are hugely popular now as well.)

If we translate both very liberally and very literally from zixingche, thennot as contradictory as that sounds : ) — a bicycle might be all these things: a self-run-vehicle. an independent-transport-vehicle. a solo-travel-vehicle. a make-it-work-vehicle. a take-one’s-own-path-vehicle. a self-affirming vehicle. a live-one’s-own-life-vehicle…

So on a chilly winter’s day I watched for a while schoolchildren going home from school, grown-ups heading home from work, vendors pulling their mobile wares, lovers caring, delivery-boys delivering, friends chatting alongside one another. Hundreds of people on zixingche, proceeding along their own trajectories.

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