What happens when two friends combine their love of biking with a desire to understand the existence of the common man in China? Portrait of an LBX, or laobaixing.
WildChina’s Alex G spoke with Andy and Evan, two-thirds of the three-man Portrait of an LBX team, to find out more about their project, goals, and how their perception of the laobaixing – or common Chinese person, abbreviated by the Portrait team as ‘LBX’ – has evolved over the past few months.
Follow the Portrait of an LBX team on their blog and Twitter account for updates, photos, and bike routes.
WildChina: Tell us a little about Portrait of an LBX.
Portrait of an LBX: Portrait of an LBX is a project to find humanity and beauty in the daily lives of common people living in both urban and rural areas of China. We – Andy, Evan, and Alexis – are three American and French professionals in China who wanted to see a side out China outside of our corporate existences in our sprawling urban homes. As such, we are biking through China’s urban and rural areas for the next year to document and reflect on the lives of ordinary people in ordinary communities across the Middle Kingdom.
WC: What inspired the project?
LBX: When we [Andy and Evan] first came to China to work, we brought with us a set of preconceived notions about what China would be like. After living here for some time, we realized that China’s value systems, culture, et cetera were drastically different from how we thought they would be. Furthermore, we were getting tired of the daily grind that comes with living in large Chinese cities, and needed something new. When we were biking in Yunnan province, we found what we had been looking for in China: Chinese people who are more representative of a simple lifestyle, doing the best that they can do for themselves despite their circumstances. We didn’t, and don’t, want to be critical of China – we want to find the beauty in everyday life here that we’ve dreamed about witnessing.
WC: What about laobaixing intrigued you, and made you want to find out more?
LBX: While we were in Yunnan, we witnessed very traditional communities because of their remote locations. There was no way to get to these areas to develop them, and so they were steeped in traditional Chinese ways of life. There was an elusive quality to the environment and people here. Unlike urban areas where the mad rush for development continues to increase at break-neck speed, these rural pockets seemed to quietly possess the secrets of the common man’s existence. We wanted to explore and understand that existence.
WC: You began your journey in Beijing and, 11 months from now, you will again end there. Why?
LBX: Firstly, it was a matter of convenience. Andy was already there, so it made sense logistically. But, you can’t ignore the symbolic significance of bringing the trip and the experience full circle from where we started, either. That definitely bears some weight.
WC: Based on your experiences thus far, how have you come to define a laobaixing?
LBX: It’s a complicated and ever-changing idea for us, since this entire trip is about trying to determine that. Our initial impression was that laobaixing are commoners – which you could say everyone in China is, theoretically. In the worst case scenario, they don’t have much mobility, money, or power, and so there isn’t much hope to be more than they are on a day-to-day basis. At their best, they are living simple, whole lives and making the best of what they do and how they live. Every place we visit brings new perspective on the term’s meaning.
WC: Why did you decide to embark on this journey by bike? How do you think it informs your experience and understanding of LBX?
LBX: We first considered traveling by mianbao che [literally a “bread van” due to its loaf-like appearance], but realized there would be unlimited liability and a lot of expense. We decided on bikes because we’re both big proponents of biking, and a year-long journey via bike sounded like a lot of fun. More importantly, traveling by bike allows us experiences and views of daily Chinese life that we simply cannot see from a car, a train, a plane, or any other type of transportation. By going slowly, we breathe in the pollution that people in the communities we visit live with every day; we take small country roads on which they must travel; and we make immediate friends with local people who think we are crazy for undertaking such a project.
WC: What has been your favorite place that you’ve visited so far?
LBX: Yixing, a small town in Jiangsu province. It’s a small, decrepit village that nevertheless has a really nice atmosphere. It’s known for red clay teapots that are simply beautiful. These days it seems that, with all of the development occurring, most Chinese might not care too much about quality. The artisans in Yixing are an exception to this – they’ve kept their art alive through generations of change, and old masters still teach young apprentices how to carefully craft these teapots. It was really refreshing to see such a strong tradition kept alive.
WC: Any memorable anecdotes thus far?
LBX: Our stints with local governments in Jiangsu have provided us with plenty of baijiu [a Chinese distilled alcohol beverage].
Photo credit: Portrait of an LBX