The Xi’an Metro: “Next Stop… Happiness”*

(*Front page headline in Chinese Business View (华商报), September 17, 2011; “下一站,幸福”)

By Jeremy Tai

On Friday, September 16, I joined thousands of other curious Xi’an residents for the opening day of Northwest China’s first subway line. After five years of construction and four days of trial runs, local headlines announced the official start to the “Age of the Metro” (地铁时代). The Metro is supposedly the latest chapter in the story of modernization efforts dating back to the 1930s, when Xi’an was first connected by rail to eastern China. At that time, the New York Times reported that “new life flowed through Sian, ancient seat of China’s northwestern empire, giving promise of restoring some measure of the glory that was hers in centuries long past” (NYT “Trains Amaze Populace,” December 29, 1934). This sentiment is not lost on present-day Xi’an, as the construction of the subway system has been undertaken alongside a 2005 plan to “revive the imperial capital” (皇城复兴计划), materialized in Tang Dynasty theme parks and attractions.

Bell Tower subway station in Xi'an

Running on a north-south axis, Line 2 of the Xi’an Metro is just one of six routes expected to be built by 2018 as the city works toward the goal of relieving traffic congestion, especially within the walled city center. Local news sources like Xi’an Evening News (西安晚报), Sanqin Daily (三秦都市报), and Chinese Business View (华商报) praised the values of speed, convenience, comfort, reliability, and going green, contrasting the experience of underground travel with surface transportation, namely, public buses, privately owned vehicles, and taxis. According to a Sanqin article, the subway will usher in a new credo for urban living: “Time is life, efficiency is money” (时间就是生命, 效率就是金钱). The cost of riding the subway (2-4 yuan based on distance traveled) remained unproblematized, presumably because its efficiency makes up for being twice as expensive as regular and express buses (flat rates of 1 and 2 yuan, respectively). Of course, cost was hardly an issue for opening day passengers, many of them elderly, who appeared more interested in capturing the Metro’s novelty with their cameras than commuting. A fellow spectator crowded next to me reckoned she might take the subway once a week from work, but the fare would certainly be too expensive for her to do so every day.

Local flavor: A mural celebrating Qinqiang opera on one subway station wall

The Metro presents an occasion for local officials and residents to imagine Xi’an joining tracks with a world system of metropolises. From the news coverage, it is clear that the “happiness” (幸福) reported in local reactions to the subway is measured in terms of “internationalizing” (国际化). While the sterile, fluorescent lighting, widely posted rules of conduct, and advertisements for real estate and 3G smart phones may be familiar to subway riders in any Chinese city, the space of the Xi’an Metro is given a distinctive flavor with motifs drawn from local culture, such as Qinqiang opera and shadow puppets. Videos played on repeat throughout the trains reassured audiences that local authorities took care in digging tunnels deep enough to avoid damaging potential cultural relics typically found closer to the surface. They also installed proper supports to protect existing historical sites like the Bell Tower. The impulse to accommodate reified images of both a local past and a universal future was even present on my first ticket.  The design depicts a Silk Road caravan traveling away from the Big Goose Pagoda to meet its modern counterpart, the Xi’an metro emerging from an unidentifiable background of skyscrapers and cloverleaf interchanges. Likewise, one billboard admonished passengers to “touch history and experience the future” (触摸历史, 感受未来).

Metro ticket

For a city that seeks to become one of China’s largest metropolitan regions over the next decade, the Metro is expected to open up the suburbs through what Wolfgang Schivelbusch described as the “annihilation of space and time” in his study of nineteenth-century railroad travel. Its effect on the perception of distance and travel time between points in the city is supposed to be particularly acute for urban white-collar workers (上班族) used to accounting for the unpredictability of public transportation. Yet the creation of value and desire along the outer edges of the city remains uncertain. Crowds quickly thinned out by the time we reached the end of the 20-kilometer route at Beikezhan (北客站) – otherwise known as Xi’an North – a massive terminal that seems more suited for flights than for the high-speed trains to Zhengzhou and Luoyang that replaced them. This monolith stands alone in a nearly barren landscape awaiting the momentum of real estate speculation. The impact of the subway on local sensibility cannot simply be calculated using the logic of planning and development. Instead, we will have to see how different classes of Xi’an residents come to inhabit and make sense of the Metro as it becomes part of everyday life.

Outside Beikezhan (Xi'an North Station)

Jeremy Tai is a PhD candidate in Chinese history at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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