The Commutants

The Shanghai Metro (subway) commuters are infamous for their “enthusiasm.” The subway philosophy of 先下后上 (let people off first, then board) is blasted repeatedly during rush hour by station attendants each and every day, but it always falls on deaf ears as the hoarde surges to board the subway cars the split second the doors open, forcing the passengers who wish to disembark to shove and claw their ways through the subway doorway battlefield. It really is insane, and it shocks most newcomers to Shanghai.

I once said to a Chinese friend that the rush hour commuters are “like animals.” That comparison didn’t sit too well. Although at rush hour they may be doing their best imitations of subhuman creatures, the commuters are, in fact, human beings deserving of respect (if only because they are human beings). Somehow Shanghai’s particular societal circumstances–including cultural factors and a massive population–contributes to this inexplicably barbaric commuter behavior.

I’ve been riding the subway a lot lately on my way to ChinesePod, and I am forced to ride both Line 2 and Line 1 (the Evil Line) every day during morning rush hour (oh, the horror!). I have quite a few thoughts I plan to share about these commuters with whom I rub elbows (among other things) on a regular basis.

But somehow the term “commuter” doesn’t seem entirely appropriate. Social conditions have transformed them into something beyond what the mere term “commuter” implies; their behavior has already mutated into something else. They are… Shanghai’s commutants*.

Fear them.

* OK, I’m aware that commutant is a mathematical term, but I think you know what I’m going for here.


John Pasden

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


  1. Those guys were bad. Sometimes, when I was trying to get off, it felt more like rugby match than a commute. Still, I have to say the people at the train station were much worse. One of them twisted my arm and gave me an indian burn just because I didn’t let him cut in line!

  2. Ha! It’s crowded, but actually I really dig the Shanghai rush hour commute. When the doors open, it’s something like the offensive and defensive line, right after the ball is snapped in real-style football. As a very tall person (and I believe Mr. Sinosplice is the same) I don’t think it’s all so bad. It’s the frail little grannies I feel sorry for.

    On the other hand, the frail little grannies are the ones who push the hardest…by the way the most crowded is the morning rush hour commute, transferring from line 2 to line 3 at Zhongshan park…oh and I love the way people jump at the remaining seats, and I’m right there with them…such fond memories…

    Truth be told this is perhaps my favorite part of Shanghai. I’m a little upset at this blog posting.

  3. The phrase “like animals” is exactly how I’ve always though of it too, although this doesn’t sit well with the Chinese, for obvious reasons. It’s exactly the same in Beijing. I also enjoy seeing how far I can push the “opposing team” in the opposite direction when they try to board the train before I can get off. It’s just lucky that the average Chinese is short and of slight build.

  4. I find the exact same phenomenon happens in elevators. People crowd in before you get a chance to get out. Makes no sense at all.

    My apartment has three elevators. Usually there’s about 5-10 people waiting to get on down in the lobby. When the first elevator comes down, they all pile in.

    I just wait for the second elevator, and quite often I ride up to the top floor alone. Nice and comfy… And invariably, I’ll race them to the top too, because no one slows me down by getting off.

    Ok. That’s enough about elevator tactics for one day… 🙂

  5. I have to agree with Jeff (except for the Line 3 transfer thing — I did that for a while, and it wasn’t so bad, nothing like Line 1 at least). Knocking the crap outta the guy on the other side of the door (who is bigger than all his friends and figures he can push anyone he meets around) is a lot of fun.

  6. Any good ideas to explain why certain conventions of coutesy that westerners are used to seem so foreign (or so unnecessary) to Chinese people? I realize that courtesy is a very subjective and is very culturally-specific concept, but still…. I think the reason it is interesting to compare cultures in this way is because the cultural differences that manifest themselves in this way are differences that go deep and are very old.

    The same thing happens in Taipei on the commuter and subway trains. And, yes, there are clearly-marked ‘lanes’ on the platform, where people are supposed to form lines. And yes, there are posters and audio reminders to first let people get off before trying to get on.

    But when the train stops, and the doors open, the lines people had been standing in simultaneously disintegrate and everybody moves in a single mass of people to get themselves into position. I do the same thing, because otherwise I would never get on the train. If you leave more than 7 inches between you and the person in front of you, people take that as a cue to cut in front of you.

    Traffic Rant:
    When crossing the street, even when on the striped pedestrian crossing, and even when the green ‘WALK’ signal is flashing, the cars turning the corner STILL have the right of way in Taiwan. Drivers expect YOU to leap out of the way if you don’t want to get hit. I have to say I thought drivers were even less considerate to pedestrians in Beijing. I have found they give me a bit more space when I am carrying my big umbrella, with the metal tip sticking out in front of me. WHY???

  7. I believe that it is simply a matter of, Shanghai is straight country. I don’t just mean the worker-men, I mean, if you talk to your average Shanghai office worker, the chance that their grandfather was a farmer is something like 99.8%. Developing a city culture takes time. Hong Kong is much more polite about such things than Shanghai, I understand Taipei is better than Shanghai (and markedly improved from 5 or 10 years ago), and even in the past year I think I’ve noticed lines are forming a lot more in Shanghai.

    Of course, when that happens, there’ll be no more reason to live here. I’ll have to move somewhere else, somewhere where people are still pushing to get where they want. My only problem with it is, I would be 100% cool with people in a hurry to get on or off the subway, except that then people are all walking down the street so damn slow. What’s up with that?

  8. I bet Chairman Mao could whip ’em into shape…

  9. Da Xiangchang Says: August 25, 2006 at 7:42 am

    Haha, what hilarious stories. Yeah, Chinese people in general are often rude. Don’t know whether it’s cuz they’re 1) Chinese, 2) communist, or 3) rural folks. Maybe all three (and I’m Chinese too). Again, I don’t think it’s Shanghainese people only; no matter where you find Chinese people, you’ll bound to find rude bastards. Again, the bitchslapping Taiwanese lawmen take the cake. But then again, Chinese have a limit to their unpleasantness. It’s not like they’re killing each other, and would you rather live in a place where people push each other or shoot each other? I can deal with Chinese rudeness. It sure as hell beats being blown away by some redneck or gang member! (And let’s face it, VERY few nationalities are actually polite ON AVERAGE. Maybe Americans and northern Europeans and maybe the Japanese. Who else? Maybe Latin Americans, I don’ know . . .)

    (A side story: I’ve NEVER had a problem on the Chinese subways ever, but in the span of 4 days, I nearly got into a fistfight with some old man on the New York subway! And New York is like considered the safest BIG city in America! WTF?!!)

  10. When i was on my backpacking trip in Shanghai, i was standing behind a crowd on the platform. When the train came, through the windows you could see there’s an empty seat in the train. (Generally the aggressiveness of Shanghainese getting on the train is directly proportionate to the number of empty seats in the train.) In the middle of the door, there stood a lady in her 40s and was getting ready to battle her way into the train for the empty seat. When the door opened, in the middle of the door too, stood a young mother carrying her baby, wanting to get off the train. Instead of finding space to get around the young mother, the lady used her strong hand single-handedly pushed the young mother aside and went straight into the train. I couldn’t help but clapped my hands at that time, what a classic. What a classic.

    For me, when i’m getting off the train in this kind of situation, the more desperate the person wants to rush in, the harder and farther i’ll push that particular person away. Yeah… sometimes it can be fun.

  11. Now imagine lugging a huge (literally) 50 pound suitcase and overloaded backpack into a rush hour Shanghai subway! My friend and I were late for our train, and let me tell you, we MADE room for ourselves.

    It was funny when no one would let us out of the door at our stop. I got a hand on the door frame, heaved, and knocked about 3 people completely out of the train, dragging my enormous suitcase through the mess behind me.

    And I’ll be happy to do it again some day. Good times!

  12. Chinese in New York Says: August 25, 2006 at 8:49 am

    I find it laughable the way westerners look down on chinese people. Crowded western cities are no better. Have you been on a NYC subway during rush hour? It’s not that much different from Shanghai except Shanghai has a lot more subway riders. So it’s understandable the pushing. You don’t want to be pushed then go back home to the little villages you come from. Or go live in the villages in China. No one to push you there.

  13. Most of the Westerners in Shanghai are from US cities without much public transportation to speak of.

  14. I have to agree. It’s totally a matter of density. Culture goes out the window when you’ve got to get to work and there’s a bazillion other people doing the same. It really doesn’t matter where you are. Shanghai does blow Tokyo out of the water when it comes to loss of manners though….

  15. I have to agree. It’s totally a matter of density. Culture goes out the window when you’ve got to get to work and there’s a bazillion other people doing the same. It really doesn’t matter where you are. Shanghai does blow Tokyo out of the water when it comes to loss of manners though…. but a bit less of stretch in China I’d say.

  16. These days I’ve taken to when riding an elevator just standing right in the middle of the elevator with my nose to the doors waiting for the doors to open. As the door opens somebody inevitably will crash into me. I’m hoping one day she is cute. Most days though it is little munchikins knocking themselves out bumping into my legs. I figure I’ll change the world one crash at a time.

  17. I don’t think the Beijing subway is nearly so bad.

    I used to catch the subway from Sihuidong, the eastern terminus of line 1. The carriage would arrive empty, and people would push through the doors and literally run to get a seat. But at all other times there seems to be a code of etiquette: if a person gets up from a seat, then the passenger standing closest always has the right to take the seat. People further away will not rush to try to take it.

  18. The town that I live in China is the same way. Even during non-rushour. Of course, crossing the street is much more dangerous than taking the subway, even if you have to wear your pads and helmet in order to get off a train.

    I like how you termed the streets in an earlier post, “Human Frogger”. Perfect.

  19. I understand that people try to rush in to try to get an available seat. But, I get off at ZhangjiangGaoKe and the idiots still try to come in first, even though there is no possibility of not having a seat. Simple math. That’s when I take great pleasure in pounding straight through them.

  20. I keep quiet. BAD.

  21. Da Xiangchang, good point. Would you rather deal with pushing and being pushed on subways or end up like Vincent Chin in the US? I’ll take Shanghai anyday.

    Actually I had a HK client visit my office in Los Angeles and he remarked: “Americans are so unfriendly,” and he had only been there for a week. I told him if he was a cute Chinese girl his experience might be a little different.

    And you tall guys who talk so much bravado about how hard you push, sounds like you need a cheap shot in the solar plexus, then we’ll see how hard you can push, lol.

  22. No, I think the ones rushing on before anyone has got off, trying to mow down any old ladies who get in their way are the ones who need a shot in the solar plexus.

  23. The annotation for 先下后上 has xian1 xia4 hou4 shang1.

    Now, it should be shang4, unless you are shanghainese and dont really care about Mandarin tones.

  24. OH and in regard to the content, just to be fair with the Chinese I’ll mention the beloved Japanese — in Japan it’s just as bad. At the end of the day no one wants to be late for work and “sorry boss for being late, I did want to shove some foreigner on the mtr” excuse doesnt go too well.

  25. Moose,

    Thanks for pointing out that mistake. It’s fixed. I certainly do try to pay attention to proper tones.

  26. Sorry guys, density is a cop-out.
    Why excuse bad manners with generalizations? I have to admit though, it seems Shanghai is getting better. I myself take the bus to work and most other places (it just makes sense from where I live). Most foreigners are shocked that I do this, but depending on which line I take, it’s not that bad (and oh so air conditioned on 80% of the buses).

    By the way, I’m considering doing a thesis on those 45-55 year-old women who, perhaps as a result of being starved of education during the Cultural Revolution, are the worst of the offenders. Really they’re worse than the men, and it seems to be that age group that push the hardest (my lower back takes a beating each morning). Perhaps they’ve earned the seats, but shouldn’t us youngins be the ones to give them up?

  27. Guangzhou’s metro is much better than Shanghai. Nice and civil here.

  28. Ok, here is the deal. It is not even a matter of courtesy, it is simple common sense (although common sense is apparently N/A in China). Locals, if you are blocking the way of someone getting off the train how on earth can you expect not to get pushed out of the way? If only locals could understand that even if they just tilt their bodies sideways a bit to let the exiting traffic slip through that would be easier for them too, they wouldnt get pushed. It really is just plain stupid, they form a human wall blocking the door. Seriously, these people are messed up. I dont care how crowded a city might be, simple little things make a big difference and as Kris says, density is such a cop-out. It prevents prgress, that excuse is used to explain everything here. The problem is the density of simple people with no common sense. And “Chinese in New York”, you dont get it. You are in denial.

  29. […] every day in this city, so why shouldn’t I? Well, eventually I learned why. Over time the crushing commuting hordes really got to me. I would start every day lying in bed cursing my alarm clock, dreading my commute, […]

  30. […] will totally ignore the metro company’s etiquette guideline “first off, then on” (let people off first, then board); before the passengers on the train have taken a single step, whoosh, they’re crowding in […]

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