The Tianjin Chengguan Street Market Game

Watching the street vendors and the chéngguǎn do their little dance at the street market near our apartment provides an interesting anecdote for two crucial Chinese cultural concepts: 人情 and 面子。

There’s a colourful, bustling, crowded and filthy street market near our neighbourhood (see here for more photos), and I suspect its days are numbered.

Every time I go recently in the late afternoon there are chéngguÇŽn (城管:”city management” by-law enforcers) cooperatively hassling the illegal vendors who choke the roads leading to the Jade Spring Road Vegetable Market (玉泉路菜市场). By “cooperatively” I mean it’s a big game. The chéngguÇŽn deliberately and obviously drag their feet. Their van inches around the corner at the far end of one street, giving the vendors plenty of time to yell, bundle up their stuff, and, sometimes laughing, sometimes running, make a show of clearing off. Or they cover up their produce and act like they’re just hanging out… next to closed boxes full of tomatoes. The chéngguÇŽn take their sweet time pulling around, parking, and getting out. Then they saunter up the street, and as soon as they’ve passed by the vendors roll their sacks back out on the pavement and re-stack their cabbages, fish, rabbits, fruit, or whatever. The day I took the following photo, three of the chéngguÇŽn were sitting on the side of the road having tea with a couple vendors who had boxed up their stuff and had it stowed away right there beside them. I would have taken their photo, but we had our daughter with us and they were smiling and making faces at her. In the picture below, a chéngguÇŽn (on the left) ignores a vendor who has obediently folded up her produce in blankets in a pile beside her. She’s just waiting for them to leave so she can uncover her vegetables and start selling again.

I have seen a chéngguÇŽn in this market get a little mean (it was the guy in the picture above, about 30 seconds before I took the picture), and it was when a cucumber seller decided to ignore him and not make a show of clearing off as he approached. That seemed to make this particular chéngguÇŽn a little angry and he lunged for the guy’s wooden vegetable box, which was quickly yanked out of reach by a rope and dragged off down a side street. No attempt to pursue, even though he would have easily had it in about two or three steps.

“Humanity” 人情 and “Face” 面子

I described all this to one of my Chinese coworkers, and he explained it with two terms: 人情 and 面子。 “Human feelings” 人情 is how he explained why the chéngguÇŽn carry out their orders to the absolute bare minimum ‘letter of the law’ degree, and how they can sit down and chat over tea with the same people they’re supposed to be hassling. They recognize a lot of these people, he said, and don’t want to stop them from trying to make a living; they personally couldn’t care less whether there’s a street market here or not. It’s nothing personal. But they have their orders, and the point of orders in China is to do just enough so that you can tell your superiors that you did them. The actual purpose of the order, the ‘spirit of the law’, is entirely beside the point, especially when your superiors are only giving you the order because their superiors gave it to them and they want to make their superiors happy because they’re working on a promotion.

The other key term he used was “face” 面子。 Why do they bother with the silly charade of bundling up their cabbages in full view of the chéngguÇŽn (who’s walking toward them maybe only a few meters away), and scooting off down an alley only to come back a few minutes later? It gives face to the chéngguÇŽn. It’s an acknowledgment of who’s in charge. ChéngguÇŽn can give these kinds of people all kinds of trouble if they want to; sometimes they can be brutal (see here, here, here and here). Sometimes the vendors fight back. The vendors are almost all illegal migrants near the bottom of society and without legal protection. They’ll yell and run and make a sincere effort to clear off as quickly as possible when they sense that they need to; they aren’t always laughing and you do sense fear sometimes, depending on the circumstances. But at least for now, in our particular street market, all the chéngguÇŽn require is a little “face”, a show of deference, a lack of defiance, tails between legs, and they’re satisfied.

These streets are easily the most lively (热闹) in our area, but with the consistency of the harassment, half-hearted as it appears, I bet it’s only a matter of time before this one goes they same way as the street markets near our old place.

There are more street market photos in the Our Tianjin 2010 photo gallery, which I just now finally finished uploading. So if you’ve seen it before there’s some new stuff (like sheep brains and an explosive dog). You can also see video of what it’s like to try and ride a bike through this market here: Tianjin Street Market Dash video.

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5 thoughts on “The Tianjin Chengguan Street Market Game”

  1. Great post, this truly falls into the category of ‘very Chinese’ that I often fail in describing to friends. This matter of face can be seen in those American bosses who expect not that their employees will do their job, but simply that they will act like they are doing it in the presence of a supervisor.

  2. To the Chinese 人情(humanity) and 面子(face)are indeed very important. I am not surprised that the chengguan are doing their job only perfunctorily. The same thing, however, won’t happen here with regard to the Chinese in Malaysia and particularly Singapore, although humanity and face are nevertheless still considered very important here.

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