让座礼仪 Generational tensions on display: public transport culture in China

By Shen Hao

Translation by Amy Bodner

“爱心专座”标识
A sign featured on buses and subways indicating who is entitled to priority seating
Photo credits: Baidu Baike

南京,中国——据新华社报道,截止2017年底,中国60岁及以上老年人将达到41亿人,占总人口17.3%。同时,到2050年老年人将占到我国总人口的三分之一。 随着老龄化日趋严重,老年人正在和年轻人共享甚至竞争有限的资源,年轻人和老年人因此产生各种代沟和误解,这一点体现在中国地铁和公交等公共交通的利益文化中。孝道为先的中国传统文化与提倡自由的新时代观念产生了碰撞,两者间的矛盾分歧亟待解决。

NANJING, China — According to Xinhua News Agency, by the end of 2017, China’s elderly population — those over the age of 60 — will reach over 4.1 billion people, accounting for 17.3 percent of the total Chinese population. By 2050, this elderly population is estimated to exceed one-third of the total population. As the average age increases, the elderly must share or compete with younger people for limited resources, which creates a generational gap that can breed misunderstanding between the young and the old. This tension is reflected in the public transport trends in China. China’s traditional culture, which values Confucian filial piety and deference to the elderly, has clashed with modern Chinese culture, which values personal freedoms.    

网易新闻报道,2018年4月1日,北京大爷坐上807路公交车,当时车上还有其他空位,却无缘无故坐在女孩大腿上。女孩表示不满并且要求大爷坐在其他位置,大爷批评女孩“不讲道理”,并且回应说“我爱坐哪里就坐哪里”。这一纷争迅速引起网友众多关注,有人批评这位大爷倚老卖老,也有人批评国家对人口老龄化治理不力。这场危机要求社会反思如何正确应对老年人口养老问题,解决两代人抢夺资源的困境。

On April 1, 2018, Netease News reported that an elderly gentleman in Beijing took bus No. 807 and sat on a young woman’s lap, even though there were empty seats on the bus. The young woman objected and asked the man to move. Instead, the elderly man criticized the young woman for being “unreasonable” and stated that he had the right to sit where he liked. The controversy quickly caught the attention of netizens, some who criticized the elderly man but others who criticized China’s inadequate governance of its aging population. Incidents like this one have forced Chinese society to reflect on how to solve generational tensions between the young and old that arise when resources are limited — even bus seats.      

无独有偶,网易新闻于2018年5月20日爆出另一桩新闻,一名女孩在地铁上未给孕妇让座,遭到老人批评。当时一位年轻男子为女孩辩解,却引发了老人和年轻男子的对骂大战。事实上,很难判定到底是谁站在道德制高点上,争辩双方都声称自己同情并帮助弱者,问题症结在于当弱者同时出现时,到底该偏向哪一方。自古以来,让座行为体现了中国尊老爱幼的传统美德,当今社会,尊重个人权利,发挥个人自由也备受推崇,“让不让座”也是一种个人权利,我们必须在此之间区分一个界限,这条界限就是到底谁更需要这个座位, “让不让座”这个问题没有标准答案,具体问题具体分析,我们可以呼吁道德,但不能道德绑架,捍卫权利,也要厘清权利的边界。

In a similar incident, Netease News broke another story on May 20, 2018 in which a young girl was criticized by an elderly man for refusing to give up her seat to a pregnant woman on the subway. A young man came to the defense of the child, which triggered a tirade of abuse from the old man and incited a heated argument. It is difficult to determine who held the moral high ground in this situation, as both sides claimed to be helping and sympathizing with the “disadvantaged.” The crux of the problem seems to lie in the question of who should compromise when both parties have rights to priority seating. In Chinese culture, giving up a seat on public transport has become associated with the traditional virtue of “respecting the old and cherishing the young.” In today’s society, respecting individual rights is also highly valued and many argue that the right to not give up a seat is a personal freedom that must be protected. Chinese society is still struggling to reach a consensus, and each incident must be judged on a case-by-case basis. We can appeal to a sense of morality, but first we must clarify and uphold the boundaries between individual rights.

公交车内座位都“分属”给老年人
The younger generations in China tend to give up their seats to the elderly
Photo credits: Baidu Baike

艺术源于生活,电影中也对这一现象有所记录。2013年国内有一部影片“搜索”(Caught in the web)讲述了一个患癌女孩在公交车上未让座给老人,被乘客拍视频发到网上,引起了社会巨大谴责,最终女孩选择了自杀。这部影片反映了当今互联网时代之下,恶意宣传会让群众盲目卷入 “道德绑架”的情境之中,并且对当事人造成难以愈合的创伤。这一部以公交车事件作为主题的影片,如果年轻人和老年人同时处于弱势群体中,到底谁可以获得座位这个问题摆在了群众和媒体面前,也敦促我们做出客观且公道的选择。

As art imitates life, controversies surrounding seat-forfeiting culture have also been captured in Chinese film. The 2013 domestic film “Caught in the Web” chronicles the life of a cancer-stricken young woman who refuses to give up her seat to an elderly passenger on a bus. This interaction is recorded and posted online, which leads to vitriolic attacks against the young woman. Unable to bear the social backlash, she eventually decides to commit suicide. This film mirrors the modern internet era, where malicious or misrepresentative media can cause the public to blindly judge or persecute people, sometimes causing irreparable harm. If young and old people can both be classified as “disadvantaged,” and the question of who deserves the seat is put to the masses and media, the correct outcome is unclear. The film encourages us to make objective and fair choices.       

国内出现了各种公交纷争,归咎其原因一方面是资源缺乏,更多的与中国传统文化的特殊性有关。在当今社会践行传统美德本来是为了营造一个更加美好的社会环境,一旦过度渲染,必定导致传统美德和现代化的自由风气形成巨大反差,两者进行巨大冲击。我们需要辩证的看待这一矛盾,不应该一昧的强调自由权利而忽视传统道德给我们带来的正面价值,同时我们也应该警惕过度的“传统价值”可能会伤害个人权利,助长差别对待的风气。

The disputes associated with seat etiquette can be attributed both to a lack of resources and the particularities of traditional Chinese culture. It is worth remembering that China’s emphasis on the practice of traditional values was originally intended to maintain a harmonious social environment. When overdone, however, these values clash with the ideals of modernity. It is critical that Chinese citizens analyze this contradiction dialectically. We should not emphasize personal freedoms at the expense of traditional morality. At the same time, we need to be alert to the potential for excessive reliance on traditional values which harm individual rights and promote an atmosphere of differential treatment.    

为解决这个问题,我们可以参考郑州市推出的“女性专车”做法,可以考虑推出“老年人专车”这一方案。真正做到帮助老年人不用“挤公交”,而是让有需要的老年人“坐公交”。让座是美德,不是义务,作为新时代的年轻人,我们在继承传统美德的同时,也要勇敢走出强制让座的道德窘境。

To solve this problem, we can look to Zhengzhou’s  model of “female-only” cars on the subway. Perhaps we could introduce a similar program that includes an “elderly-only” car, which would guarantee a seat for those elderly people who truly need it. As the young generation in China, we should inherit traditional virtues while moving away from enforcing the morally problematic elements of seat-forfeiting culture.  

Shen Hao is a first-year M.A. student at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center focusing on international politics.