The Illustrated Rules of the Road When Driving in China

by Bucko on May 17, 2012

This incredibly entertaining and accurate write-up was passed along to me by a friend also living in China. Unfortunately, we haven’t yet identified the original author, but I’ll be sure to provide an update when we do. In the meantime, please enjoy this walkthrough of a typical crossing at an intersection in China. And if you have any of your own experiences where you can relate to this, please share in the comments below!

UPDATE: Original author found. Took less than 12 hours to find the original, five year old post that this originated from. Incredible what the internet can uncover. I think the best part is is that despite how quickly China has been developing, this pre-olympic illustration still rings true for a lot of us. Enjoy the post, originally from So I’m Going to China by Henry B.

The Basics of Driving in China: A Walkthrough

The following is a walkthrough of a seemingly simple concept: the left turn.

For the ones who live in China: an overview of what we live everyday.
For the ones who are out of China: happy memories of the traffic here!


Chinese intersection diagram

Just your average, every day traffic crossing.

We see here a typical intersection. The light has just turned green for the east-west streets, and car [A], an enormous black Audi with pitch black windows, wants to make a left turn into the southbound lanes. Pedestrians wait on each corner. (For purposes of this demonstration, we’ll assume no one is running the north-south red light, and no one is jaywalking – a rather broad assumption.)

Step 2:

Diagram of a left turn in China

Making a move to make that left turn

To make a left turn, it is VITAL that [A] cut off all eastbound traffic as soon as possible. The first few brave or foolish legitimate pedestrians step off the curb; this is of no concern. [A] makes his move.


Getting caught making the left turn

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a stand off!

NO! Too slow! [A] has managed to partially block [B], a brand new purple and yellow Hyundai taxi, but [A] has only achieved what Beijing drivers would consider a ‘weak’ blocking position.


You're going to need a better position than that!

You're going to need a better position than that!

In this detail, we can see why: [A] has only inserted his left bumper and cannot move forward without contact. [B], on the other hand, is in the dominant position – by putting his wheel hard to the right and flooring it, he can fully block [A].


Low density "dead space" leaves room for the tricycle dump truck

Low density "dead space" leaves room for the tricycle dump truck

[B] proceeds to swerve right, cutting off [C], a tiny red Peugeot with a gold plastic dragon hood ornament, spoiler and assorted knobs glued on. Since [B] is just accelerating, and [C] is now decelerating, this has created a low-density ‘dead space’ in the intersection. [D], a strange blue tricycle dump truck carrying what appears to be 40 of the world’s oldest propane tanks, sees this and makes a move.


Tricycle dump truck denied!

Tricycle dump truck DENIED!

DENIED! [E], an old red taxi with its name sloppily stenciled in white on its doors, has boldly cut across two lanes of traffic, behind [D], and then swerved right, driving [D] into an extremely weak position behind [A]. Meanwhile, [B] and [C] are still fighting for position, with [C] muscling his way into the crosswalk. The only thing between [E] and a successful left turn is a few lawful pedestrians. [E] steps on the gas…


The slow biking elderly man making his move

The slow biking elderly man making his move

…and is cut off by [F], an elderly man pedaling his tricycle verrrryyy slooooowwwly with a 15-foot-diameter sphere of empty plastic cooking oil bottles bungee-corded haphazardly to the cargo area. He was part of the lawful pedestrians, but seeing the stalled traffic, decided to cut diagonally across the intersection. Not only has [F] blocked [E], he is headed straight at [B], giving [C] the edge he needs.


Bikes, trikes, and pedestrians, sensing weakness make a break for it against the light

Bikes, trikes, and pedestrians, sensing weakness make a break for it against the light

[B] concedes to [C], who drives in the crosswalk behind [F] and blocks [E]. Meanwhile, [G], a herd of about 20 bicycles, mopeds, pedestrians and wheelbarrows, sensing weakness in the eastbound lane and seeing that much of the westbound traffic is blocked behind [D], breaks north against the light. [F] pedals doggedly onward at about 2 miles per hour, his face like chiseled marble.


There could be some space breaking free

(A) could have his chance!

Now things get interesting. [C] has broken free and, as the first vehicle to get where he was going, wins. [E] makes a move to block [B] but, like [A] at the start of the left turn, only gains a ‘weak’ block. [A] has cleverly let [F] pass and guns into a crowd of [G], which both moves [A] forward and drives some [G] stragglers into the path of [D], clearing [A]’s flanks. Little now stands between [A] and a strong second-place finish.

STEP 10:

And then comes along the double length bus with accordion connector

And then the double length bus with accordion connector comes along...

Except for public bus [H], one of those double buses with the accordion-thing connector. [H] has been screaming unnoticed along the eastbound sidewalk and now careens dangerously into a U-turn. This doesn’t appear to concern the 112 people packed inside and pressed against the windows (although that could be due to a lack of oxygen.) [H] completely blocks both [A] and [D]. On the other side of the intersection, [B] has swerved into the lawful pedestrians (who aren’t important enough to warrant a letter) and has gained position on [E]. [E] has forgotten the face of his father: He was so focused on his battle with [B] that he lost sight of the ultimate goal and is now hopelessly out of position. This clears the path for dark horse [I], a blue Buick Lacrosse, to cut all the way across behind [H] and become the second vehicle to get where he was going (and the first to complete a left turn), since [F] has changed his mind again and is now gradually drifting north into the southbound lanes. But everyone better hurry, because the light is about to change…



STEP 12:

Let the cycle begin again

Let the cycle begin again

And we’re ready to start over…

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  • Jeff Dannenberg

    See, I believe this is the original author. I think that I first ran across this through a BoingBoing link back in 2007, hilarious :)

    • Buck

      Awesome, thanks for finding that! Leave it up to the power of the internet for some good detective work. Great story and update added!

  • Gregory Root

    It is uncanny how well these scrawlings reflect the reality of Beijing’s intersections.  As a bicyclist, I am typically in the mass of “g”‘s fighting my way through flailing limbs and honking horns…

    • Buck

      I try and categorize each crossing object I see now every time I go through an intersection.

  • Chris

    This is awesome. China’s the only country I’ve seen a 4-car-gridlock at a junction that lasted for 5 minutes with all cars honking their horns manically :)

    • Buck

      Definitely! Because everyone knows that if you honk that horn enough times eventually those three other cars (and the slow biking elderly man with the face of chiseled marble) will let you through first. 

      • Sbooysen

        In the early hours of the morning, I imagined having super powers, where I could magically replace all their horns with farm animal noises, much more amusing I would think ;).

        • Buck

          Oh the games we play with traffic in China eh!

  • Amina Trabelsi

    I’ll post a comment in italian, I’m sorry for those who cannot understand, is the recent article I wrote on my blog:

  • Danhstine

    I heard traffic in China be referred to as the art of war. It is true. I currently live in southern China, the drawings above are very realistic. There is no traffic law the chinese will not violate and there is no accountability in any shape or form. The drivers can’t be seen (nor can they see my finger) becuase of window tinting or believe it or not, curtains all around except the windshield. The law exists only where there are cameras and even then, whats a 200 RMB fine when there is zero affect on ones drivers record? Horns are honked and ignored but my favorite is the headlight flash. Chinese flash their headlights like lasers, hoping to clear a path before them or warn j walkers to get out of the street. Its my favorite becuase it immediately puts the driver in a weaker position by acknowledging their targets exist. The targets see the light and slow down becuase they are confident they driver will swerve or otherwise avoid them. I cannot tell you how many times a car or motorbike has erupted from some side street or parking lot to cut across two or three lanes of traffic without ever even tapping their brake pedal. When I first began driving a car in China I fell back on my natural polite manners and once let an old woman cross a street  before me. Big mistake. All traffic simply flowed around me, endangering the old woman and earning me the evil eye, from the old woman. If I am polite and wait for a bike or trike or some other slow vehicle pass before I enter the street I get treated to the phenomena of the vehicle seeing me wait and then slowing down to a leisurely pace, fully content to make my wait a regretted thing. Nowadays I drive like the Chinese. No camera, no law. I strive for the power position in every intersection. I defend my lane against all transgressors. I wait for no man, I respect no elders, I drive on any surface that can be navigated. I lay on the horn, I flash my lights, I hide behind tinted windows, I drive in my own world and I see nothing at all but my path before me. I am but one with the scurrying masses. 

    • Buck

      The flashing of the headlights is the worst! Even more annoying is at night when everyone just leaves their high-beams on. I’ve been driving on 国道’s before at night (yeah, imagine the above diagram acted out at night…) having to shield my eyes from all the oncoming traffic’s headlights just praying for the barriers of hedges that have been planted sporadically, presumably for exactly the purpose of blocking out the high-beams.

      Also, in terms of ignoring the cameras, I love observing the number of cars driving with no license plates on most likely because they are not allowed to drive that day. So rather than risk getting caught on camera, they simply take off the plates with the (mostly correct) assumption, that most cops won’t bother stopping them!

  • Roy Pine

    Oh merciful gods, this is so true. Especially the “MAGIC!” part. Only place in the world where I’ve been in a taxi going 110kph on the WRONG side of the road, headed straight at an oncoming bus….and yet somehow, was not terrified. I think I decided that taxi drivers in China are wu ren. Because not only do they defy the laws of physics and get away with it, they defy the traffic police and get away with it, which is even more impressive. ;)

    • Buck

      It could depend where you are. In my experience in Beijing, a lot of time the police tend to just turn a blind eye as they consider going after you “tai mafan”. As long as you get out of the way of that oncoming bus on time, no harm done right! …

  • Wavydavy

    The initial asumption that no one is running the light or jaywalking make this completely unrealistic, but I do understand that the author had to start somewhere. In my neighborhood I would have added an unlicensed street vendor or two blocking traffic in the right turn lane.

    • Buck

      True true, but I guess as with other highly academic studies and sociological observations: Ceteris Paribus “all things being held equal or constant”

  • Dazsnow

    Rules for driving in China:
    1) NO NEED to look before pulling out – people will move out of your way… probably.2) NEVER indicate more than 2 seconds before you’re about to turn, and ONLY if you feel you have to… don’t want others to catch on to your plan.
    3) ALWAYS aim to be within 15cm of the car in front of you so that you can get to where you want to go FASTER
    4) Smoking and/or using a mobile phone will driving will save you from being distracted by anything else on the road.
    5) DON’T turn on your headlights while driving at night – it will just wear out the battery.
    6) Park or stop WHEREVER you want. In fact that’s precisely what bus/cycle/outer lanes are for!
    7) If in doubt, BEEP the horn… that always works!
    8) Lanes are for guidance only and serve no real purpose, and the arrows painted on them at junctions are purely decorative.
    9) If you’re driving a black AUDI, then do WHATEVER you want because you are like an EMPEROR!

  • Philip E.P. Woods, II

    Thank you for the great work BUCK!

    • Buck

       No problem! Glad you liked it!

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  • Kelby

    As an ebike rider in Zhengzhou, I find this absolutely hilarious.

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