The Chinese people, particularly men, take pride not in their actual participation in political decisions, but in being able to gossip profusely about politicians—secret connections, unknown anecdotes about Xi Jinping, the “real” purposes behind a new policy, the cause of the latest arrest of corrupt officials.
Political gossip is the best way to strike up a heated conversation between two strangers, and sophistication grows with the sincerity of the gossip they produce. Beijing men are doubtlessly the most famous for their grandstanding, but within this group of the politically not-so-savvy, one breed stands atop the rest: the Beijing cab driver.
They have everything it takes to be at the top and one wonders why they drive a cab at all: they know the top ranking officials just like they know their neighbors, their profession allows them to hear and know all, and, most importantly, they are the most cynical, funny, and talkative people in the city. This makes the Beijing taxi less of a mode of transport and more of a mobile radio station broadcasting the latest winds blown from Zhongnanhai.
After a long cab ride, it’s not unusual for you to have a complete analysis of everything from China’s anti-corruption campaign to the tensions in Gaza. In fact, Beijing taxi driver knowledge covers not just politics, but all known human endeavors, from IT to the Theory of Relativity. You’d be surprised by what you can learn (or at least overhear) from the backseat of your job as a cabbie.
To top it all off, they do it with style. Newcomers to Beijing would assume that crosstalk exists only on CCTV’s New Year Gala for the benefit of, well, someone; however, that’s normal cab driver lingo— dramatic, acid-tongued humor with good comedic timing while maintaining an arrogant but not offensive demeanor. The best Beijing cab drivers always have their radio tuned to the crosstalk channel, and they are no less competent crosstalkers themselves.
To master the style, insight, encyclopedic scope, and cynical humor of a Beijing taxi driver is difficult to say the least, but it’s never too late to start learning.
Think Like a Premier
First, remember that you are not a Zhou-shmo from West Beijing, rather you are a top-level minister, so stick to grand issues. Speak like you just came out of a national conference where you heard the reports from all the ministries. Your heart is weighed down by the perils the nation is facing. The easiest way to start a conversation is to complain about the obvious, but remember to think big and begin the sentence with “你 说…… (Do you think…)”:
Do you think there will be a war?
Nǐ shuō, zhè huì bù huì dǎ qǐlái?
What do you think is happening with the anti-corruption campaign?
Xiànzài zhè fǎnfǔ, nǐ kàn shì zěnme huí shì er?
Do you think the Ministry of Environmental Protection is of any use?
Nǐ shuō huánjìng bǎohù bù shì gànshénme de?
Beijing is planning to control the city’s population by removing population intensive industries. Do you think it will work?
Běijīng wèile kòngzhì rénkǒu yào táotài láodòng mì jí xíng chǎnyè, nǐ shuō zhè néng guǎnshì er ma?
What do you think about taxi calling apps competing to give users more subsidies?
Nǐ zěnme kàn dǎchē ruǎnjiàn qiǎng yònghù zhè shì er?
It’s okay if the passenger knows nothing about the topic; that’s never prohibited a political debate, and the driver doesn’t really care what you know. He asks you so that you will politely ask in return: “What is your opinion, sir? (您有什么高见？N!n y6u sh9nme g`oji3n?)” and allow him to spend the next three red lights answering the question he raised.
Here comes the second point you need to know.
Here are some typical answers the drivers offer to the questions they themselves raise. The point is that you need to be able to give original, cynical, and funny comments on these issues.
Chinese diplomacy works this way: they are indignant on Monday, protest on Tuesday, strongly reprimand on Wednesday, seriously negotiate on Thursday, deeply regret on Friday, and rest on Saturday and Sunday. The same thing repeats the next week.
Zhōngguó de wàijiāo gōngzuò a, zhōuyī biǎoshì bù mǎn, zhōu’èr kàngyì, zhōusān qiángliè qiǎnzé, zhōu sì yánzhèng jiāoshè, zhōuwǔshēn biǎo yíhàn, zhōu liù zhōu rì jiù xiūxíle. Xià gè xīngqí chóng lái.
I just learned a few days ago that the Ministry of Environmental Protection is basically in charge of monitoring PM 2.5. It makes me furious! Why spend all that money? I monitor it with a free app!
Qián jǐ tiān wǒ cái zhīdào, huánbǎo bù zhǔguǎn cè PM 2.5. Wǒ zhège huǒ er, cèng de jiù mào chū láile! Wǒ shǒujī miǎnfèi xià gè ruǎnjiàn jiù néng cè, yā huāle nàme duō qián!
前几天我才知道，环保部主管 测PM 2.5。我这个火儿，蹭地就冒出来了！我手机免费下个软件就能测，丫花了那么多钱！
In my view, the most population-intensive industry in Beijing is the government. Can that be removed?
Wǒ kàn a, běijīng xīyǐn wàilái rénkǒu zuì duō de chǎnyè shì zuò guān, zhège yě néng táo tài ma?
Who’s Who of Stalking
When driving in Beijing’s hutong labyrinth, remembering the names of hutongs is not enough; you need to be able to point with careless abandon to a top-ranking official’s courtyard. It also helps if you know how that official’s family members were connected to the leadership in the 1950s. Of course, always remember the top-secret locations of officials’ secret family businesses.
This yard was the home of a navy commander. He was on very good terms with Chen Yi [a famous marshal in Mao’s time]. His son owns a company located at Jianguomen. The family also has a house on Xiangshan Mountain. Never heard of him? Of course, you didn’t grow up in the hutongs.
Zhè yuànzi lǐ zhù de shì qián hǎijūn sīlìng, tā hé chényì de guānxì tèbié hǎo. Jiànguó mén yǒu gè gōngsī jiùshì tā érzi kāi de. Tāmen jiā zài xiāngshān hái yǒu tàofáng. Méi tīng shuōguò zhè rén? Nà dāngránle, nǐ yòu bùshì hútòng piànzi zhǎng dà de.
Assuming you don’t know anything about politics (which, once again, has never really been a bar to political discourse), this might not be your cup of tea. Still, you can learn to be nosy and give relationship or life advice to the passengers, whether they want it or not.
Hey lady, why the sour face? Had a fight with your boyfriend? You know, there is nothing in your life that you cannot get over. You may come across a better one around the corner.
Gūniáng, bǎnzhe liǎn gàn ma a? Shì bùshì gēn nán péngyǒu chǎojiàle? Rénshēng a, méishénme kǎn er guòbuqù de, guǎi gè wān shuō bu dìng jiù yù dào gè gèng hǎo de……
So, there you have it. You may not have the yellow shirt, the cup of flower tea, or a license, but you are well on your way to becoming a cabbie politico. The only thing remaining is to learn how to have your light on and have no intention of picking up a fare—just to watch the hope fade out of passing punters’ eyes.