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Cornell University Press

Owning a car, becoming middle class

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The current US-China trade war has caused many industries a lot of distress; and automakers have been some of the worst hit.  As the US has increased taxes, China has retaliated, and automakers, from the Chinese suppliers of parts to the Japanese, German and American manufacturers at the top, have all been caught in the crossfire. What is intriguing though, is that many emerging urban middle class individuals are used to this feeling of being caught in the middle, a position they use to characterize many aspects of their lives in contemporary China. That perception is what I seek to unveil in my book Driving towards Modernity: The Car and the Lives of the Middle Class in Contemporary China.

The intersection between cars and the middle class that I write about in the book did not originate as something by design; instead, it stemmed from research that almost took on a life of its own once it got started.

In the summer of 2003, before moving to the United States to start graduate school, I signed up for driving lessons in China — I had been told that not knowing how to drive would make life difficult in America. The moment I first set foot into that blue pickup truck, struggling to coordinate eyes and limbs, was a far cry from the number of years I had spent researching lives around cars.

The moment I first set foot into that blue pickup truck, struggling to coordinate eyes and limbs, was a far cry from the number of years I had spent researching lives around cars.

In a trip to Germany in 2004, I became very intrigued not only by cars, but also by autobahns, the way people drove, and how cars interacted with pedestrians. At the same time in China, car sales started to shoot up, and the major purchasing force started to shift from government, state-owned enterprises, and other government-affiliated organizations, to individuals and their families.

In the decade that followed, private car ownership gradually became tangible for many ordinary Chinese citizens. What we were witnessing was the massive rise of a first generation of non-professional drivers. Unlike their counterparts in the United States and Europe, these car owners did not have a car in the family growing up, nor had they learned how to drive from their parents. What does a car mean to them now, and what did it mean to them before? Where did their knowledge about cars come from? How do they associate cars and driving with prestige and propriety? How do they use cars in their everyday life? And how do they handle car-related issues, such as parking and securing a license?

In the decade that followed, private car ownership gradually became tangible for many ordinary Chinese citizens. What we were witnessing was the massive rise of a first generation of non-professional drivers.

When members of my dissertation committee asked me whether I would focus on the middle class, I answered with a firm “No.” I claimed that I wanted to study how cars shaped the lives of various people, such as car owners and mechanics, but deep down, what had made me apprehensive was the term “middle class.”

Nowadays, “the Chinese middle class” has almost become a cliché in any discussion on China’s consumer spending, but back then, in the early to mid-2000s, the term had yet to catch on.

China’s history has resulted in the language of class and class struggle being inextricably tied to traumatic experiences for many people. In addition to the reluctance to use class language, many of those whom we label “middle class” remain uncertain about the role they play in society, particularly in the face of increasing social stratification. “Caught in the middle of a traffic jam” is one of the metaphorical ways through which they try to make sense of who, and where they are.

“Caught in the middle of a traffic jam” is one of the metaphorical ways through which they try to make sense of who, and where they are.

I ground such sense of uncertainty and anxiety in the material and social interactions with and through cars, and the practices that come with cars—buying and selling cars, driving, getting a license, and finding a parking spot. Mechanics continue to be featured in my analysis as well. They, together with families, friends, property management companies, the police, and other government agencies, constitute the social world that revolves around the regime of cars.

The intertwining stories of the car regime and the middle class are not intended to either promote China’s economic achievement, nor to censure the middle class for their consumptive desires, especially in face of climate change. Instead, they are meant to provide an interesting entry point, and an insight into the social transformation that has taken place this past two decades in China.

The intertwining stories of the car regime and the middle class are not intended to either promote China’s economic achievement, nor to censure the middle class for their consumptive desires, especially in face of climate change.

Life is often filled with twists; I received my driver’s license in 2003, and I have finished a book on cars, but driving has never been a part of my everyday routine. I walk, I cycle, and I take public transportation. And yet nevertheless, sharing car rides with friends, colleagues and research interlocutors have taught me a great deal about life, society and politics.


Jun Zhang is an anthropologist at the City University of Hong Kong. She is interested in social transformation in the process of rapid urbanization both from contemporary and historical perspectives.

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