The last of a generation (or bangbangjun and urbanization)

Bangbangjun, Elosua Miguel

Built on mountains and crossed by the Yangtze and Jialing rivers, Chongqing is known as the “mountain city” (shancheng – 山城), and “bridge capital” (qiaodu – 桥都). Streets are often steep and arduous to walk along, with many stairs. This particular orography was a catalyst for the emergence of the bangbangjun (棒棒军), a legion of incredibly tough porters who are always ready to help Chongqingers carry their loads through the streets of the city. Equipped only with one-meter-long bamboo poles and thick nylon ropes, they can carry loads of more than 60 kilos, containing different items such as materials for construction, shopping bags, or luggage.

The presence of the bangbangjun in the city has been traced back to the time of the opening of the ports to commerce. Fluvial transport boomed and labour was needed to carry goods from the docks. However, it was during the 90s, when the urbanization process started to accelerate that their numbers peaked. Thousands of migrants flocked to the city looking for better job prospects. Some were farmers dispossessed of their land as a consequence of the expropriation frenzy, while others simply wanted to leave the farming life behind. Because of their lack of higher education or the fact that they were too old to be employed, many joined the porters because it was their only opportunity to earn a livelihood. At the time, farmers did not have access to social benefits such as the subsistence allowance (zuidi shenghuo baozhang, aka dibao – 低保) or old-age insurance (yanglao baoxian – 养老保险), which is indeed still rare in the countryside[1]. Some estimates have put the number of bangbangjun at more than 400 thousand at their apogee. They epitomize the mingong struggle for life and highlight the contrast between the two Chinas, urban and rural.

Bangbangjun2

The sight of the once ubiquitous porters is becoming rarer nowadays. In his quest to find ways to make life easier, man has created cars, department stores, parking lots and the like. Urbanization and a higher standard of living have brought all this to Chongqing. Nowadays, entire neighbourhoods have been razed, the city has expanded, and citizens can drive up to department stores and conveniently load the trunk of the car right at the doorstep of the shop. In addition, living standards in the countryside are improving. Social benefits are at last available for farmers, which is something to celebrate.

One may therefore assume that the bangbangjun will soon be gone for good. In the meantime, a visit to the city today will allow the visitor to witness the transition between two generations: the generation that has known hardship and planted trees, the one this horde of braves belongs to, and the generation that has known comfort sitting in the shade of those trees.


[1] The dibao is available almost nationwide now. The yanglao baoxian covered just 10% of the territory in 2009.



Cite this blog post
Miguel Elosua (2013, April 24). The last of a generation (or bangbangjun and urbanization). URBACHINA. Retrieved April 15, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/v2f4

Miguel Elosua

Spanish qualified lawyer; PhD in Chinese Law. UrbaChina Research Officer. Has lived in China since 2006.

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