On two separate occasions, in different parts of Nanjing, I have observed a local practice of bicycle use that is a sad commentary on value and waste in urban Nanjing—bicycles chained to the ground along the side of the road as ritual sacrifice.
While they were created to be ridden for transportation and enjoyment, the sad, twisted objects with their tortured frames pegged to the ground will never again be used as a means of locomotion. Their “bicycleness” has been snuffed out—sacrificed so that their their rusty corpses can be used as placeholders for automobile parking.
Who first glanced at a forlorn bike, perhaps sitting unused by the side of the road and thought, “If I only sink a heavy bolt into the ground and chain this bike to it I’ll be able to save a parking space on this crowded street for my new Honda.” Who first saw a bicycle and instead of seeing it as a bicycle thought of it as a potential metal blockade? And, how did this new way of seeing a bicycle get transmitted from one part of the city to another?
I imagine this to be a small innovation originally shared in a small geographic area like those once mapped by early anthropologists concerned with the origin and diffusion of cultural traits—like a pottery motif or style of house construction. Somehow the arcane practice of bicycle sacrifice moved between the northwestern and southeastern part of the city.
This very public ritual sacrifice of bicycles on the streets of Nanjing strikes me as particularly sad because it demonstrates the precipitous collapse in of the value of the bicycle in Chinese society. A generation ago China was a Bicycle Kingdom where the relatively egalitarian, democratic and frugal form of transportation was the practice of a social virtue. Bicycles are are objects of a fundamentally useful value and owning one a source of pride. For most of a century, they were the workhorses of transportation and light logistics in China—hauling products and making sure that workers got “happily to work and safely home.” I once saw a whole caravan of farmers going to market on two wheels each carrying one live pig on the backs of their bicycles!
China’s economy and society have changed dramatically over the past thirty years and automobiles have ascended despite their indisputably wasteful environmental impact. In fact, I’m pretty sure that most people, when pressed, would acknowledge that car ownership is more about status than actual convenience. In China the object-lives of most automobiles are spent either idling in traffic—the burning fuel of their engines contributing to China’s endemic air pollution—or awkwardly parked in public spaces that might be better used for other purposes.
While I admit to a bit of nostalgia for the bicycle days, Nanjing’s bicycles-as-sacrifice don’t bother me as referents to that nostalgia. They bother me because they are being humiliated—the shame of their sudden slide into uselessness so publicly and violently displayed. Why couldn’t their owners have saved their bicycles such indignity by removing them under cover of darkness to the great bicycle recycling center in the sky?
Or, perhaps this is the intent. Perhaps the innovation of bicycle sacrifice isn’t just about saving a parking space. Could there be some other meaning to this ritual? Perhaps the callous neglect, abuse and killing of these bicycles is the practice of critique—a commentary on that earlier time.