The Most Cliché China Photo

Check out this picture:

So Cliché

These were the thoughts running through my head leading up to the shot:

> Wow, look at the size of that load. I should take a picture. Hey, this is totally one of the most cliché China photos ever: the “big load on a tricycle” photo. And this load isn’t even that big. In all my time in China, I’ve never taken that picture, though. I’m gonna take it.

So the above is one of the great China photography clichés. We’ve all seen these things. Many of them are about contrasts, such as the high-power businessman talking on his cell phone next to the peasant carrying produce. Or the old home getting torn down with the huge skyscraper in the background.

I’m curious, though… what is the most cliché China photo to you? Link to the photo in your comments!


John Pasden

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


  1. What about the pics of people seemingly napping on any horizontal surface available or seat?

    How about pictures of the heavy pollution?

    Pictures of people commuting on bikes?

    Bad traffic jams?

    Huge crowds of people at beaches and/or pools?

    You can probably write a book on the topic.

  2. What’s with the black box within the comments? I highlighted it and found the text “You may click on your name and/or comment to edit.” Looks like the style is off. Black on black doesn’t work too well.

  3. it’s a tie between

    1) car driving down the wrong side of the road

    2) old man in old padded jacket on his cellphone

    then again, I’ve taken a LOT of Chinese cliche pictures to show friends back home. They’re not cliches stateside!

  4. A picture of bicycles chained to, surrounding, and in general obscuring by force of numbers a “No Bicycle Parking” sign. Most commonly seen on university campuses up around Haidian.

  5. ambrose Says: July 4, 2007 at 9:18 am

    How about the signs with mangled English on them

  6. A man wearing a pointy “rice patty” hat and a Kobe Bryant jersey taking a crap on the street while chatting into an iPhone, standing in front of a Haagan Dazs in a hutong…anybody caught this on film yet?


    Frank: “i think that 90% of China is bored or sleeping at any time…..”

  8. Those are some nice effors, but are you telling

  9. coljac,

    Ha, those are pretty good. I have one of my own to add.

  10. Shaun,

    After you post, you can click on the comment to edit your own comments. It’s Flickr-style AJAX editing functionality.

  11. A few years ago I saw a man riding a tricycle with a Coke machine in back while chatting on his cell-phone. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera at the time though that would have been a pretty good entry.

  12. Great question. I must be a sucker for the cliche China shot, because I’ve taken them all at some point:

    Old woman, heavy load

    Livestock traffic jam

    Huang Shan in the fog

    Mocking the unsmiling Chinese guard

    Napping on the job

  13. tim,

    I’d definitely hesitate to call your photos cliche… they’re really good!

  14. The old man with a Mao-ish suit sat beside a Ronald MacDonald plastic statue

  15. When I think of cliche photos of China, several things jump to mind.

    I think of bicycles in a busy intersection.
    I think of farmers bringing their produce to market by donkey cart in North East China.
    I think of livestock being tied up outside of restaurants for cooking later.
    How about skewered beetles and scorpians from the Beijing food markets near Wangfujing?

  16. When I think of cliche photos of China, several things jump to mind.
    I think of bicycles in a busy intersection.
    I think of livestock being tied up outside of restaurants for cooking later.
    I think of farmers bringing their produce to market by donkey cart in North East China.
    How about skewered beetles and scorpians from the Beijing food markets newar Wangfujing?

  17. Sorry for the mess on your comment page. I tried to cancel my first comment and wasn’t able to. I must be a complete bonehead! This is a great idea of a post. I really enjoy reading your blog. It reminds me of everything I miss about China.

  18. Pictures like this shows alot about a society. It can invoke different thoughts depend on which individual that is viewing it. Few thoughts that came to my mind was. 1. Widening gap of have and have nots. 2. Traditional vs. Modern China. 3. Skill and Unskilled jobs, and Educated vs less educated. 4. Changing of times in China vs. People who refuse to change or unable to change.

  19. Picture in Tiananmen Square with the guard right behind you.

  20. For foreigners, the most cliched picture has to be the old man with the wispy beard smoking a pipe.

    For Chinese, it’s the group doing the V sign.

  21. My “big load on a tricycle” photos are easily my family’s favorite photos of mine from China. And, no matter what cultural and linguistic insights I throw at them, the things they remember most are the spitting and the children with split pants. (Is everywhere else able to see Flickr photos? I can’t see any)

  22. An old man doing tai chi next to a stone-faced guard in front of a McDonald’s where a peasant is selling fake Louis Vuitton handbags. And there are some Chinese “symbols” in the background somewhere — probably on the sign above the hot girl on a cell phone, adjacent to the McDonald’s.

  23. Tim, the Huang Shan you experienced is a visual painting alive, stunning in the fog – I got the sunny and cool environment when visiting.

    The Starbucks at Forbidden City is another recent photo cliche.

    It’s funny you mention cliche/tourist photography shots because it is what goes through my mind when I’m in a tourist zone: “What shot can I take that no one has shot before?”

    Just revisited and found a cliche shot, circa 2004, from the popular Xu Jia Hui intersection, next to the Cathedral in Shanghai:

    (Regarding the difference between 2004 and 2007 – less public buses, less bikes and less pedestrians, more private cars! Coincidentally, a week after Shanghai, the Bay Area papers had front page news of gridlocked Chinese freeways, titled, “What China Could Learn From Us” as in don’t copy our car/oil dependency.)

  24. Here’s one from the North-West mountains of Sichuan Province.

    (Primitive home in the mountains with a giant satellite dish on the roof)

  25. Greg TK Says: July 5, 2007 at 9:37 am

    There was a shot I didn’t get, from where I live in Singapore. OK, not China, but very chinese. It featured a similar man with a bicycle piled high with material for recycling (rag-and-bone men, they are called here). Behind him was a candy-apple red ferrari with the top down waiting to make a turn off the main road.

    I was on my way to work, and the bus pulled away before I could take it.

  26. as a china photographer, one of the most cliched photos to me is tiananmen square and mao’s portrait over the gate of heavenly peace. usually there is a soldier in the foreground standing guard around the portrait..BORING!

    another one is the mountain/river scenery from zhangjiajie or yangshuo/guilin and its karst mountains. not only are those photos everywhere, chinese artists have been painting those for thousands of years.

  27. Dezza, your comment reminded me of one of my all-time favorites.

  28. gringoreturns Says: July 6, 2007 at 1:37 pm
  29. I think this must be cliched, but I haven’t seen it on the web (not that I’ve really looked). When you visit the Potala Palace, it would take a significant amount of effort not to take this shot.

    Here’s another cliched sequence–the over-filled bus. In this case I was riding it. Before, feeling all comfy, and after the migrant workers boarded.

    Great website, John.

  30. Anything about the old and the new, both in articles and pictures. Ooh, the contrast of ancient Chinese tradition clashing with modern technology. I’m guilty of this myself, of course.

  31. Regarding the AJAX comment-editing feature: I also see just a grey box thing (perhaps text background and foreground both set to the same colour?). Then if I click on it, I see a text box appear with the words “Load comment failed”.

    I’m using Firefox

  32. What about the guy stopping the army tank? I guess it’s not cliche, but it’s definitely the most famous photo ever taken in China.

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