The end of slow green trains: a gaze into the social impact of China's modernization
For the past decade, the fast-paced development of China's railway network, now the largest in the world, has been making headlines. Between 2008 and 2021, 37,000 km of tracks have been completed, connecting 75 percent of the country’s most populated cities (over 500,000 residents) to at least one of the 9,600 high-speed daily trains running across its land.1 Yet, despite the development of high-speed railway (高铁gāotiě), abbreviated as HSR, being the symbol of the country’s modernization and economic success, the reality of being a passenger in China is far from always colliding with the comfort of riding HSR, especially for those with a lower income. What does it mean to be a slow-rider in China today, and can HSR ever become a reality for all Chinese passengers?
Embarking on “green carriages” in nowadays China
In 2019, I first embarked on a slow train (慢车 mànchē), which, unlike their high-speed counterparts, make frequent and numerous stops. More precisely, I boarded a slow, noisy, and unairconditioned green train (绿皮车lǜpíchē), labeled as such due to its green livery, and affectionately nicknamed green carriage (绿色马车 lǜsèmǎchē). The 16-hour journey from Shanghai to Guangzhou was indeed slow, noisy, and unairconditioned. I had bought the cheapest ticket available, a hard sitter that would have to do for the warm, long, and shaky night ahead. The young Chinese man who sat next to me had just quit his job and was on a ride to find a new factory to work in down South. Across the alleyway, four men that the randomness of assigned seats had prompted into being friends were sharing snacks. However, many didn't have the luxury of sitting and spent the ride walking back and forth between carriages, smoking in between them, and resting in a momentarily free seat. Passengers of slow green trains are diverse but are often unable to use other means of transportation. Most of them are workers whose financial resources are too limited to afford an HSR ticket, let alone an airplane one. For many others, slow trains are the only way to depart from or reach a destination too small to be served by HSR. For a minority, riding the slow green train is a deliberate choice to enjoy a rather quaint traveling experience. This latter category encompasses Chinese and foreign tourists, like myself, and more regular travelers who chose the slowly-unraveling scenery and company of fellow riders over speed. People belonging to the first two categories experience a different reality than the third. Most of them are rural migrant workers (农民工 nóngmíngōng) and are part of the floating population (流动人口 liúdòngrénkǒu). Mobility is their mode of inhabitation, and they travel out of necessity (to find or change jobs and to visit relatives during national holidays). Unlike those who can afford soft sleepers or first-class seats in HSR, the lower-income population is more accustomed to hard sleeper bunk beds, second class seats, hard seats on slow trains, and standing tickets. Long queues, endless rides, crowded stations and carriages, and outdated facilities are also part of the package.2
When discussing the shared experience of those boarding on slow green trains, no item is as representative and symbolic as a woven carrier bag (typically red and blue with a white background). First, this item is ubiquitous. When returning home in particular, migrant workers would bring a wide array of items and gifts that are likely to be cumbersome and impossible to fit in a regular suitcase. Second, because of its symbolic significance. One can and needs to fit their whole life in it, and a woven bag is the most efficient when doing so. Yet one has to bear the burden of transporting it on their back, literally bearing the weight of their mobility.3
Green trains’ final stop: more convenience or overlooking the needs of part of the population?
As of 2021, 81 of the slow green trains introduced in the 1950s still transported 12 million people annually for a cost not exceeding 0.06 RMB per km.4 Yet, as previously highlighted, China is modernizing its railway network and slowly getting rid of green carriages.
Is getting rid of slow trains the solution to improve people’s travelling conditions? Not really.
The current HSR upgrades favor urban areas since they represent a higher demand (both because of the number of potential passengers and because this population's disposable income and demand for time-saving are higher). As such, and to keep their speed, HSR tend to skip small cities and rural areas.5 Slow trains are often the only way for part of the population to get home (at least the last mile) and for visitors to access certain regions.
In addition, many cannot afford HSR fares, making slow trains the only option even when their departure and destination are well served by modern railways.6
These have prompted some to say that getting rid of slow green trains would deepen inequalities between developed and underdeveloped areas, urban and rural regions, and socio-economic classes.7
Qian Haifeng: from passenger to acclaimed gazer
Award-winning photographer Qian Haifeng gained popularity for portraying life on slow green trains. Born in Wuxi in the late 1960s, Qian is part of the working class and makes a living as an electrician in Wuxi Grand Hotel. After recovering from cancer in 2006, he decided to act on his passion for travel documentaries and realize his dream of exploring the countryside as a backpacker. To do so, and within his budget, slow green trains were the obvious choice.
This riding choice, brought out by economic constraint, soon became a vocation for him, mainly because he belonged with his fellow passengers. "If you just try to be a hipster by occasionally seeing and feeling the hardness of life, it will be only short-term memory. It won't reach your heart," he confessed to SixthTone.8 His journey thus switched from documenting his travels to showcasing an underacknowledged social class, one whose needs seem to be overlooked by the current railway modernization. These passengers’ reality overwhelmingly revolves around riding slow green trains, and thus around this particular experience, filled with playing cards, eating, chatting, reading, and surfing online, as well as various food smells and dialects.9
"I have photographed a part of the population who was not about appearances, a part of the population which was very poor. By showing the day-to-day and sometimes difficult lives [riding green carriages], I wanted the public attention to be directed at them, for them to have a better life. By working with color, I am recording the present day. Color photography enables us to showcase something we see every day more vividly. For me, it is a way to get closer to reality, to be more sensitive and also more direct.”10
Today, he regrets the fate green trains are doomed to. “Preserving green trains will preserve the freedom to travel for those underclass workers, or at least maintain their dignity. […] If my salary remains the same when high-speed trains become the only option, I'll have to stay at home, flipping through old photos,"11 he remarks, showing how widespread and dire the need for these outdated carriages is.
Passengers becoming temporary brothers around a "cap of baijiu" or a funny story in slow green trains. Taken by Qian Haifeng. (2013)
Far from only being a quaint experience for voyeuristic tourists and curious audiences, slow green trains still remain essential. Overcrowded, outdated carriages and the hustle people experience in train stations and trains themselves are definitely not ideal and could benefit from large-scale reforms. Yet, riding them is a necessity for many. Discarding green carriages without an appropriate replacement solution that considers the needs of the lower social classes means turning a blind eye to them both literally and symbolically. Works like the one of Qian Haifeng or hired laborers poets bring a highly needed gaze to the reality of millions of migrant workers, rural populations, and the less well-off. Yet, what influence and choice do they have in the face of progress, modernization, and the symbolic success of a nation?
References / To go further
Ben Jones, "Past, present and future: The evolution of China's incredible high-speed rail network", CNN, December 27, 2021, https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/china-high-speed-rail-cmd/index.html
Mike Crang and Jie Zhang, "Transient dwelling: trains as places of identification for the floating population of China," Social & Cultural Geography 13, no. 8 (2012): 895-914.
Crang and Zhang, “Transient dwelling,” 895-914.
Xia Hua, “Slow trains bear witness to life changes in southwest China,” Xinhua, April 4, 2021, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2021-04/27/c_139910259.htm.
Yu Qin, “No county left behind? The distributional impact of high-speed rail upgrades in China,” Journal of Economic Geography 17, no. 3 (2017): 489-520.
“那些开往春天的‘慢车,’” Netease Hao, April 20, 2021, https://www.163.com/dy/article/G822JSE80534B7MO.html.
“那些开往." Xiaohen Su, "China's Disappearing Brand of Rural Tourism Threatened by Modernization and High-Speed Trains," Branding in Asia, January 12, 2022, https://www.brandinginasia.com/chinas-disappearing-brand-of-rural-tourism-threatened-by-modernization-and-high-speed-trains/.
Peiyue Wu, “Life on Slow Train: Views of a Vanishing China,” SixthTone, August 21, 2020, SixthTone, August 21, 2020, https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1006089/life-on-the-slow-train-views-of-a-vanishing-china.
"China's journey through green trains," China Daily, December 4, 2015, https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/culture/2015-12/14/content_22708814_8.htm.
Qian Haifeng in Ville de Mérignac, “Interview Qian Haifeng – Mérignacc Photographic Festival 2017,” November 17, 2017, Youtube Video, 2:15.
Wu, “Life on Slow train.”