202206 02 1By Elaine Dunn | June 2022

 “… people ride on a vehicle with only two wheels, which is held together by a pipe. They sit above this pipe and push forward with movements of their feet. They dash along like galloping horses.”


That was how the bicycle was first described in China in 1860 by Bin Chun, a Chinese official on a European trip to evaluate the latest technological innovations to be adopted for military purposes, after seeing the fantastical 'velocipede' in Paris.  (The velocipede, also known as “boneshaker,” is a pedal-less, unsteerable wooden precursor to the bicycle.)


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June 3 is World Bicycle Day, established in 2018 by the United Nations to mark the transformative nature the bicycle had on society.  And no other country was the bicycle more transformative than in China.

Of the one billion bicycles in the world today, approximately half are in China. 

The bicycle was considered the practical vehicle until the mid-2000s when the Chinese economy took off and the four-wheeler displaced the two-wheeler.  For the latter part of the 20th century, bicycling was, for the Chinese, for life, i.e., to get to and from work, to shop for groceries, to get kids to and from school, etc., not for exercise, though anyone bicycling will get a decent workout from it, I’m sure!  The Chinese relied on bicycles as the mode of transportation. 

So popular was the bicycle that, along with watch and sewing machines, it was a must-have item for marriage during the 1970s and 1980s.  During the 1990s, bicycle ownership was one per two persons. 

But that was not always the case.

At the end of the 19th century, the only people who used bicycles in China were foreigners who lived in Shanghai.  No self-respecting Chinese would consider moving around on his/her own pedal power.  Sweating and exercise were not the Chinese way.  Chinese got around by sedan chairs or rickshaws.  Therefore, the Chinese were continually amazed at the “big noses’” passion for the bicycle and the physical exertion required.

One early incident of Chinese riding a bicycle involved the Guanxi Emperor, who was under house arrest following a coup by Empress Dowager Cixi in 1898.  One day, the emperor decided to have a go at a bicycle belonging to a foreign doctor within the Forbidden City.  The ride ended with a royal tumble as the emperor’s queue got caught in the rear wheel.  And that put an end to the emperor’s interest in the bicycle.

It was not until the 20th century that imported and, therefore expensive, bicycles were sold to the Chinese.

Early adopters of the bicycle were ‘sing-song girls’ (prostitutes) in the late 1920s who, at the time, made a decent income to afford bicycles and found navigating the ports on them convenient.  By the 1930s and 1940s, the two-wheeler was widely accepted in China.

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The Flying Pigeon bicycle, symbol of an egalitarian social system that promised little comfort but a reliable ride through life, is a black, one-gear bike.  Deng Xiaoping defined prosperity as "a Flying Pigeon in every household.”


During the 1970s and 1980s, the prevalence of bicycles in the country made China the “kingdom of bicycles” ('zìxíngchē wángguó, 自行車王國). Chinese rode in the rain and in the snow.  There were so many of them that bicycles were the cause of many traffic jams! 

According to a 1993 transportation research paper, the earnest use of bicycle as transportation mode took off in the late 1970s.  By 1982, 40% of registered bicycles were in urban areas, with the average distance covered per trip as 2.5 miles.  Since many Chinese cities have narrow roads in its old business districts, public transport cannot access these areas, making the bicycle ideal.

However, with the increase bicycle traffic came increased accidents.  In 1982, statistics from 20 cities indicate 32.1% of accidents involved bicycles, resulting in 798 deaths.  By 1989, the fatality rate of bicyclists in Shanghai alone reached 56.3% (367 bicyclists).

By 1990 in Beijing, 70% of people traveled by bicycle while public transport ridership declined to 20%.  Bicycle ownership in the country had reached approximately 500 million.  There were seven million registered bicycle riders in Beijing and 6.5 in Shanghai.  Bicycles outnumbered cars 10 to 1. 

However, when car ownership increase in 1998, bicycles were banned from East Xisi Street, near the Forbidden City in Beijing to ease (car) traffic congestion.  The ban was extended to other streets later on.  Not exactly a “good call” as Beijing was experiencing some of the world's worst air pollution at that time. Bicycles were banned from all major roads in Shanghai in 2004 to make more room for cars. 


How the Chinese use their bikes

The internet has tons of photos capturing the amazing assortment of stuff carried on the backs of two- and three-wheelers!  Safety not an issue, people.

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Cycling hazards

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Riding a bicycle in China takes great skill.  It is definitely not for the faint of heart!  Cars and bikes co-mingle – bikes in car lanes and vice versa!  Chinese cyclists cross six lanes of traffic with no hesitation.  One Westerner’s account on a ride in Beijing:

[she] moved ahead to the first lane of cross traffic ... Seeing a gap, she pushed through to the next lane, braked to a near standstill, them pumped her way across another lane. After a couple more lanes I began to see the gaps that seemed so clear to her.


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U.S. Olympic cyclist Taylor Finney said he couldn’t believe that none of the Chinese were wearing helmets after he took his bike out on the streets of Beijing during the Olympics in 2008.  “I wore a helmet because I’m scared of Chinese drivers!” he said. “I’m scared even on a bus. There’s no way I’m not wearing a helmet.” 

Ah, yes, helmets.  While leisure cycling is catching on among Chinese yuppies and college students, few take to the busy streets.  Those who do wear helmets, but they’re a tiny minority. The majority of commuters don’t wear helmets. Some drivers are courteous to cyclists, but others, especially the nouveaux riches in their luxury sedans, tend to cut off cyclists and deny them the right of way. They honk, not as a warning, but as “get out of my way!”

Of riding in Guangzhou, William Foreman of Associated Press wrote in 2009:

“Cyclists feel themselves being pushed aside. A bike lane near my home is marked with a thick white line, a sign and a bike symbol painted on the pavement. But the line has been chopped up for parking spaces. It’s now a bike lane only when motorists aren’t using it. Anyway, lanes may as well not exist — drivers seem to think their cars are protected by a force field. And it’s not just drivers who are a menace, but pedestrians and even other cyclists. I recently slammed into a migrant worker who blindly pedaled into an intersection. Neither of us was seriously injured, but I badly bruised my hip and wrist as I hit the road and bounced for a few feet.

Speed bumps -- and the Chinese authorities love them -- are another hazard!  Their purpose seems designed not to slow speeders but to punish them. There are no posted warnings and they are usually unpainted and hard to see. Worst, sometimes bumps come in a cheap option — a thick pipe across the road, anchored by roughly cut spikes of rebar that can slice open bike tires. 

And, not to be forgotten, the equally dangerous hazard: construction waste! Cement chunks, broken bricks, scraps of dry wall, splintered plywood — dumped on streets where they can, and probably have, take down any unwary cyclist


Bike graveyards

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Heaps of ride-share bikes laid to rest in the city of Xiamen


Recycling facilities are scarce in China.  Huge piles of old bikes continue to grow as people ride their bikes to a bike graveyard and toss them onto the already massive heap.  Another source of abandoned bikes is from the over-rapid-growth of ride-share bikes that users can use and drop off anywhere without the need to return them to a dock.  Oversupply and insufficient demand led one failed bike-share company CEO to admit his business plan was “filled with arrogance.”  And that miscalculated move by him and his peers have led to truckloads of discarded brightly coloured bikes dumped at bike graveyards around the country.


Chinese bike industry

The bicycle industry in China began in the 1930s with assembly plants for foreign-made bicycles established.  By the 1940s, Chinese-made bicycles began appearing.  One of the earliest Chinese brands, Anchor, was actually started by a Japanese in Tianjin.  The brand was renamed “Victory” and, eventually, “Zhongzi.”

At its peak, the Shanghai Forever Bicycle Company produced 33.5 million bicycle every year, and one out of every four Chinese rode a bicycle made by them. However, bicycle production in China has been falling since 1995.  Statistics provided by the China Bicycle Association CBA, China’s total bicycle production in 2018 was 73 million units, a decrease of 15.3 million units compared with 2017. The main reason given for the 17% decline was the impact of shared bicycles. Total bicycle export volume is 57 million units, with the top three export markets being the United States (16 million units), Japan (nearly 6 million units) and Indonesia (more than 5 million units).  But China Daily reported in February 2022 that Chinese bicycle exports soared during the past two years as consumers sought to maintain social distancing.  Exports rose 14.9% to 69.26 million units in 2021, at a value of US$5.11 billion.

The recent decade, bike lanes in China have been gobbled up by cars.  The country has been rapidly losing its attachment to the human-powered two-wheeler.  Bicycle usage declined when car ownership rose.  Nowadays, the roads belong to the four-wheeler, not the bicycle anymore. 

However, given the cost of gas these days, the two-wheeler is probably a much more economical means for getting from point A to point B for the foreseeable future.  And maybe e-bikes and e-scooters will replace the traditional bicycle.


Tags:  two-wheeler, bicycles,

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