Somewhere in the streets of Beijing lies an old and broken bicycle. Abandoned though it is, with its basket long since bent out of proportion, its rear wheel long since separated from its counterpart, the words “FOREVER” are nevertheless defiantly displayed on its frame in bold uppercase letters. “Lost in the auto boom has been the humble, dependable bicycle. The once iconic mode of transit has been severely marginalized in the modern city,” Xiaomeng Zhao (1987) writes in the artist statement for her collection Bicycles in Beijing, Now (2017).
The post-millennial surge of wealth in China’s larger cities has paved the way for a bustling car culture, leaving the bicycle behind for people considerably less financially fortunate: “Rather than a universal cultural symbol, cycling has been reduced to a sign of the socially vulnerable groups of China.”
Excavating Beijing for some of these bicycles, Zhao expectedly found most of them in severe disrepair. Few of them had survived the Chinese transition to gasoline, and those that did have since burrowed inside their owners’ basements, or seemingly nestled themselves in trash and cardboard on the side of the road. According to Zhao, the fate of the bicycle in China is a snapshot of accelerating change:
“The present fate of these objects is a reflection of how the Chinese, as individuals, are coping with the seismic shifts that their lives, and their country, is undergoing every day.”