Folk sociology to the rescue: Chinese driving

I love folk etymology -- the fanciful derivations or histories of words based on explanations that "should" make sense even though they're not true. For instance, someone I know and love has taken to spelling respite as "rest bit," on the theory that it sounds the same and makes the meaning clearer.

Folk sociology is fun too: People do X because their ancestors did Y. This is practically a stand-alone industry in Japan, as wave after wave of defeated Western trade negotiators can attest. Why can't we buy your French skis? Because Japanese snow is different. Why can't we buy your American or Australian or Argentinian beef? Because Japanese intestines are different.

Indeed, it's practically a science! Nihonjinron, or the "study of Japaneseness." (Literally, "study of the Japanese people.")

But I digress. I was recently offered a folk sociology explanation for an aspect of Chinese public life I have accepted but still don't like. This is the plain fact that every vehicle will exert its right of way over any pedestrian, even if the pedestrian has a green light and the vehicle has a red.

Everyone who has crossed a street in a big Chinese city knows the drill. You wait for the light and cross with the light, in a big stripe-marked crosswalk. (OK, there are countryside folk who just drift out into the traffic -- that's their problem.) Meanwhile the taxi or bus roaring up from the side and planning to turn right -- or left!-- at the red light doesn't even slow. I've learned the local trick of not looking at the onrushing cars, on the assumption that if you make eye contact with the driver, avoiding a collision becomes your responsibility. Pretend you don't see them, and they're supposed to weave around you. It takes real nerve to do that, because taxis and buses in particular really don't slow down. Thirty miles per hour approaching the red light, and, ok, down to maybe 28mph through the crosswalk and around the corner.

There's no point in complaining; this is how it is. It would be like whining that cars don't stop to let you cross a freeway. There's not even a point in looking daggers at the taxi driver who has just hit your leg. Apart from violating the "no eye contact" rule, this is effective only if the party getting the fish eye thinks he has done something wrong, which no one behind the wheel here does. The driver would look as puzzled and hurt at this hostility as would a man on a motorcyle when he roars along a crowded sidewalk and blares his horn at people too slow to get out of his way.

So what's the explanation? I had assumed that it's the combination of a nation of first-generation drivers and a police force only mildly interested in enforcing traffic laws. (Issuing tickets to bicycle riders, and receiving cash payment on the spot, is something else again. I see that every day.) In fact, that's what I still assume.

But I've heard a folk etymology explanation that reaches deep into Chinese history. When horsemen came through a village, the crowds of village folk, the 老百姓 or laobaixing, were supposed to part to let the rider through. When military or imperial processions were on the road, the horsemen had to make way. In general, whoever had the biggest, fastest, most powerful device for getting someplace could assume that smaller, slower, weaker travelers would get out of the way. This is not strictly a Chinese phenomenon: We've all seen the Wild West movies in which a posse thunders into town and the women-folk and onlookers scatter. Which I suppose is a reason to doubt the Chinese-specific folk etymology. But it makes me feel slightly less bilious toward the bus drivers. Instead of thinking as they bear down on me, "this is the way I will die," I can tell myself, "these are heirs to imperial troopers."