Ruminations on Tianjin

Why the long silence? I’ve been in Tianjin for the past 11 days running a kids’ summer camp for my company. It had been my intention to update from the road, but I decided not to.

For one thing, the internet cafes weren’t the most cooperative. Most of us know that China blocks a lot of websites, like anything on Geocities or any Typepad blogs. Trying to access those pages directly from China yields the browser’s “page not found” error. However, some of Tianjin’s internet cafes have a kind of proprietary software installed that closes all open browser windows if there is any attempt to access a page on the blocked list. Let me tell you, that is really annoying! Sometimes you don’t even know that the link you clicked on is blocked, and then suddenly your e-mail, news stories, etc. that you had open are all closed. Grrrr… Maybe this is becoming more common in internet cafes in China — I haven’t needed to use an internet cafe in a while — but it’s the first time that I’ve seen it.

But anyway… about Tianjin. I’m not going to go into the camp now; there’s a lot to say and I’m going to save that for a separate post. There’s plenty to say about Tianjin itself, so I’ll take a stab at it.

I had hoped that with 10 whole days in Tianjin I would have ample opportunity to meet Adam of in person, but it was not meant to be. (I think he’s avoiding me. He beat a hasty retreat to the USA with some kind of “I’m getting married” excuse. Hehe.) He did, however, leave me some sightseeing tips, which I forwarded to another e-mail account for easy access on the road. Unfortunately, all the Chinese in it went to crap and it ended up being useless. Oh well. Thanks anyway, Adam.

One of my first impressions of Tianjin is that it’s very Chinese. I think to understand what I mean by this ridiculous statement that it’s useful to compare Tianjin to Beijing and Shanghai. Shanghai is very international. Snooty expats in other parts of China like to go so far as to say that it’s “not China.” I disagree with that, but Shanghai is certainly singular in its modern atmosphere. Beijing on the other hand, feels very political and cultural to me. (Like the nation’s capital, even!) The city is steeped in politics, and it tries hard to be the nation’s cultural center. It succeeds.

Sure, Tianjin has its own peculiarities… it’s got plenty of leftover Western architecture from that period of its history, and it’s got its own local dialect and cuisine, etc. But to me, these don’t detract from the overall Chineseness of Tianjin. It would be impossible to thoroughly explain or delineate, as it’s really just a big mass of tiny details. But I’ll share some of my observations.

When the student of Chinese begins studying Mandarin outside of China, northern Mandarin in general (and often Beijing Mandarin in particular) is stressed as the standard. Cultural images of China presented in class are usually of Beijing. The influence is a subtle but lasting one. Even now, after four years of living in China, I immediately recognize Tianjin as meshing well with the “proto-China” images still lodged stubbornly in the recesses of my mind.

Yet the Mandarin of the people of Tianjin doesn’t sound nearly as harsh as that of the Beijingers. I actually liked it quite a bit. The “R” sound (er-hua) wasn’t nearly as pervasive as I remember it being in Beijing. They add in their own little Tianjin words too, and the overall effect is just sort of… homey. (A few quick dialect examples: in Tianjin you can say (not write) for and for 饿, although perhaps the feeling changes slightly. I was also amused by their local word for ice cream on a stick: 冰棍儿.)

This all amounted to the Mandarin of Tianjin sounding unquestionably northern to me, but less assaulted by Beijing’s ego. That seemed to fit more with my “proto-China” impression of Mandarin.

The taxi meters in Tianjin start at 5 rmb. I found that charming. In Shanghai taxis start at 10 (13 at night), and even Hangzhou starts at 10. I’m not sure if Beijing still starts at 5, but there’s something that seems right about a 5 rmb Chinese taxi ride, even in a big city. (Meanwhile in Shanghai we can get a short ride in a Mercedes Benz with a built-in TV for 10 rmb.)

Tianjin is a very large city and thus has its traffic problems, but it’s nowhere near the proportions of Shanghai’s traffic problem. There are still tons of taxis on the road, and taking a taxi at rush hour didn’t result in any notable delays for me. Lots of people bike (and yes, they wear solar visors too). The street scene is just so China.

But enough of this “Tianjin is so China” nonsense. I think you get the point. How is Tianjin different from the proto-China image?

Probably the most notable difference is Tianjin’s huge Korean population. It’s really stunning. I had dinner one night in a sort of “little Korea” area, and virtually every store had Korean hangul lettering in the window. I didn’t know that there were places like that in the hearts of China’s cities. I really wonder what other Chinese cities have such sizeable foreign immigrant populations.

Tianjin also has weird traffic lights. They can’t just have the normal “three circle” kind. All traffic lights seem to be in the shape of arrows or colored bars that shrink to indicate when it will change.

The people of Tianjin are friendly, and old people walk the streets at all hours of the day. I didn’t get the typical Beijing impression of there being only old people on the streets, though. There were lots of young people everywhere I went. I was surprised by the number of attractive girls I saw. They didn’t look terribly different from southern girls to me, although I think they tend to be fuller figured (which is a good thing!) than their southern (sometimes anorexic) counterparts.

I attribue fuller figures of the women to the overall northern tendency to eat more. The people of Tinjin adhere strictly to this policy. Sometimes the 10-year-old kids at the camp would out-eat me! I heard an amusing explanation from one person: In the south they eat soup with their meal. It helps fill them up, so they feel full sooner. We eat our soup at the end of the meal, so we end up eating more. I really had to laugh at this, because it’s just like the kind of thing you might hear from Americans rationalizing American obesity. I wanted to tell that girl: No, actually you all just eat a hell of a lot!

I didn’t take many pictures in Tianjin, and certainly nothing notable. I didn’t feel it was necessary. In many ways, Tianjin just fits images of China I’ve already mentally collected. Now I can attach a place to those images. It is Tianjin.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. The taxis start at 10 RMB in Beijing, but 5 most everywhere else I’ve been in the north. They’re also at 5 in Xian, but the cabbies there seem to do enough business to compensate for it… I was always having trouble finding empty ones there.

  2. I think ÄÍ& °®£¬ÎÔ&¶ö¡¡are too different,hehe.Anyway TianJing accent sounds very interesting.

    By the way, Ì«Ñôñ you metinoed in the last entry.
    I think it’s really popular everywhere in China,but it really looks funny 😀

    Just found your website , it’s very nice, I like it 🙂

  3. Hi John, welcome back to Shanghai.

    Friday night, Berkeley, California: Wayne, his co-worker, Sean, Pete and myself out on the town. A one-way taxi ride from one end of Telegraph to the other end near campus cost $10 (80 RMB) with tip, which is almost mandatory – the taxi cab driver visibly didn’t want to give any change back. Mind you, it’s a 5 minute drive. Five minutes, ten bucks. Once again, 5 minutes…10 bucks. In an ex-police patrol car that the driver bought for $4,000 at a police auction. So, “there’s something right” about 10 RMB taxi fares, too.

    I would’ve liked to have been in Tianjin with you, John. I could’ve taken the photos to accompany your text 😉

  4. I once was in a cab in suburban Chongqing that started at 3 RMB.

    And what the hell are you doing trying to access the Web in an internet cafe? Don’t you know those places are only for playing Counterstrike and Everquest?

  5. People from the south eat soup before their meal. And we eat a hell of a lot! Some people just have high metabolism.

  6. Anonymous Says: August 2, 2004 at 5:31 pm


  7. I like the travelogue link. Neat addition.

  8. Taxis in Haikou also start at 10RMB. I don’t know about you guys but here, we bargain with the drivers. It helps to prevent the “long way around”. I recently heard though that the taxis here “must” make 214 RMB a day!

    Soup is before the meals here. Me..not much of a soup person when the weather is hot. Personally I’m a stew and chili person. Everybody tells me to eat it though…good for your health.

  9. Kikko Man Says: August 2, 2004 at 9:43 pm

    I love Tianjin… the accent is funny. ±ù¹÷¶ù isn’t just in Tianjin though. I’ve heard it in the North, Central, South, and East. It’s just one of the several ways to say “popsicle”.

  10. Kikko Man Says: August 2, 2004 at 9:49 pm

    Koreans in Tianjin… out the wazoo. Bunch of them are not “Korean” though… they are the Korean “nationality” from northern China along the border with North Korea. Of course there are also some refugees from the North and lots of Korean students and business folkt too. Used to eat Korean food everyday when I lived in Tianjin. Also had to have a ¼æ²¢¹û×Ó£¿

  11. Man, you didn’t take pictures of the ill-shaped traffic lights? I heard Tianjin is famous for intersections of 7, 8, or 9 streets.

    Southerners eat rice and northerners eat wheat, that’s the cause to the difference in physique. And fish vs pork may contribute, too. Japs also eat rice and lots fish and are even smaller.

  12. well northerners eat rice too, but we love our man-tou.

  13. “Japs also eat rice and lots fish and are even smaller.” May I ask who said that? Such kind of explanation is really funny, but of course is reasonable. If rice and fish together can make one slim, then rice only may inevitably help one get bigger, or “fuller”, as John said.
    The reason is that, I love eat rice(´óÃ×·¹£©only, without vegetables. I thought in this way I will become slim, but things turned out to be just the opposite. I am bigger than before, and even bigger as time goes by. My love for rice goes to such degree that, I cannot help happily cry out whenever I saw a bag of rice.Everytime when my friends asked me why I love rice so much, I tell them that is because I once endured a period of famine earlier in my life. Of course they were all surprised and stared at me in doubt. Because I’m now twenty years old and in the past 20 years, there is no famine in China. Then I have to explain, I experienced the famine when I was still in my Mum’s body.
    So today when my friends ask me why I became fuller than before although I eat rice only, I contributed the reason to the “fact” that I went through a period of famine earlier in my life, not the rice.

  14. Rachel, I share your love for rice. Whenever I find the dishes delicious, I tend to eat more rice just to enjoy the vegetables. 🙂 I also like to add cooked rice to every soup. Now my strategy to limit my carb intake is eating something filling before a meal, such as yogurt or watermelon. That worked fairly well.

  15. Hey John,

    Damned shame about the email problem. Enjoyed this post on Tianjin. Living there I couldn’t do a decent write up. You are right though, one of the things about the place is that it feels more like a Chinatown Chinese than a Cosmopolitan Chinese. I love the place, and yeah the accent is bearable.

    Really wish I could have been there, but hey getting MARRIED was kinda a priority. 😛

  16. Thank you Shamu for your support. You know it’s no easy job to find someone really like rice as me.
    Does yogurt and watermelon really help in limiting you carb intake? If so, then I will have try too for being slim is of great importance for everyone, including me.

  17. As a somewhat fuller figured former Tianjin-er (16 years removed though), I wanted to thank you for your thoughtful commentary on my city. For high school graduation a few years back (in 2002, just for a frame of reference since everything in China changes so quickly) my three friends (Indian, Serbian, and American) and I went back to my hometown and their comments all sounded very much so like yours – “It feels so Chinese!” I’m glad Tianjin has its own charm since it’s hard to find Tianjinese in America (why does it feel like all the mainlanders here are Shanghainese? And did you notice all the different ways I’m trying to say ‘someone from Tianjin’ – it’s because I have no idea and the odds of my being right increase the more ways I try). Anyway, just wanted to let you know I really enjoyed the post.

  18. Shuj, I once stoppped for a quick meal in small town of Erie, Pansylvania, the west tip of PA on Lake Erie. The restaurant name is Beijing Palace but the lovely owner and her husband the chef were from Tianjin and he spoke the good ole Tianjinese.
    One of my coworkers years ago was from Tianjin U, several others from Nankai but I doubt they were Tianjin Yier.

  19. Oh, my fam. knows tons of Tianjin people, as my parents both went to Nankai and their college friends are all around here. It just seems like we meet very few we weren’t preacquainted with.

    I doubt I’d make it to Erie, PA anytime soon, but that’s such a cool story. Weirdest place I ever ran into anyone from Tianjin was at the base of the Eiffel Tower 🙂

  20. I live in Tianjin for a year in 02-03, and had the pleasure of passing through a coule weeks ago. I fell in love with the city all over again, and your post does it more justice than I could every write. Thanks!

  21. I just found your blog here, it’s nice.:) I’m a Chinese who have lived in Tianjin for about 6 years. I share with you some impression on Tianjin. Your description of Tianjin Mandarin is interesting. It’s true. Did you notice other interesting words such as “ßç¶ù”£¨means interesting or funny)? I still live here and I love Tianjin.

  22. Hi, I was in Tianjin in the 80s and was really amused by what you say re: Tianjin. Haven’t been in China for a long time (more than 10 years) and it must be so totally different now…

    Wow…like your blog, your quotes, and the community of expats that you seem to belong to!

  23. Wow, what a useful read. I have got a new job teaching english at the civil aviation university, and i leave for Tianjin in 5 weeks, I’m reading everything I can about it! Ta!

  24. I soon intend to go to Tianjin, and continue my studies in chinese medicine & acupuncture. I found the comments reakky interesting with helpful points. Yannis from Athens Greece. I also study mandarin for 1 year and i’m in love with the language and the culture. I have many Chinese friends here and talking to them is really a lesson.

  25. I got a job (at least 2 years) in Tianjin and I am still trying to get used to the place. I found that there are very few foreigners here and where do they hangout for a bit or a beer at night. Anyone can advice me on that.

    John did a good job in describing Tianjin. I have been to Shanghai and Beijing and I really feel that Tianjin is just not that International. That makes staying here on a long term harder for me.

  26. Don’t know what to say because I want China my next home everything interest me in Fuijian and in hunan thus I am now teaching in the Jordan Laguage school in Putian city I hope someday I will know more about the different tradition in China foir I have seen that in china different citu\ies are having differewnt tradition……….

  27. Hi, John, I happened to scan your website, it’s interesting, wishing you could stick more articles about TJ, or other cities in China, I and my friends all like to read comments on China by a foreigner. Some of their idears are really helpful to us. Thanks again and waiting for more news from you. Keep contact! Anna 2006.12.16.

  28. Try 15 years in this city of Tianjin, I have seen it all, from the past farming village behind the Friendship Store, to the construction of the Olympic Stadium not far away… Tianjin is definitely a city with charm, and politics, … just gotta know which way to turn at those “red lights.”

  29. That sounds like Tainjin allright (I live in TEDA). That accent really makes Tianjin unique. I too am picking up Tianjinhua and am slowly becoming a Tianjin rurr.

    All of my cabs start at 8 yuan though, funny that yours start at 5. Give bargaining a try, drivers will be happy to take less than the regular fare, especially since they all seem to like foreigners!

    I’m a foreigner in China too. I wanted to share my experiences with friends back home and reading your blog and was inspired to start my own at

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