Car Horns, Factories and Snot Rockets: Regulating Sound in the 1970s

It is easy to see the changes in China since 1980. Real estate developers tear down hutongs and put up tall,  gleaming residential apartments; construction cranes dot the skyline; a local restaurant vanishes overnight, replaced by another small shop or eatery; work crews dig up the earth to build another subway line or road to accommodate a growing urban population.  China appears to be one endless construction project, drawing on the natural resources of the globe to rebuild and remake itself.

These changes to do not escape the observant eye but their sheer starkness lead us to think about China in purely visual terms. But we can detect changes in China through other senses, particularly sound.

China is a noisy place. The hacking sound men make clearing their throat or preparing to launch a snot rocket, endless streams of car horns, cell phone rings and raised voices all contribute to the din of life in a Chinese city. Like other aspects of Chinese development in the past 30 years, the government noticed, studied and promulgated regulations about noise pollution in Beijing. Interestingly, though, noise pollution was a problem even before the period normally viewed as a time of rapid development. As early as 1974, authorities worried that increasing factory production and a rise in the number of cars on the street made it too loud.

Due do a number of complaints about rising noise levels, the Beijing Municipal Government, in coordination with several hospitals and universities around the city, monitored noise levels in certain areas and intersections. In more visible districts, like the space around Zhongnanhai, home to the party leadership, the investigators undertook a continuous 24-hour survey.

The results were disconcerting. Due to increasing traffic—car horns and shoddy, screeching breaks—and the sounds that accompanied industrial production, Beijing was a very noisy place. Larger intersections were usually the worst. Busy areas like Xisi and Dongsi were near the top of the list. Other cacophonous places around the city included The Agricultural Exhibition Center, Andingmen and Ciqikou intersection.

Factory workers, too, suffered from a constant din of sound at their work places. Because workers couldn’t hear each other to communicate, they made mistakes. Sometimes, workers couldn’t stand the sound and had to take days off. The report attributed the low worker-turnout rate (gongren chuqinlu 工人出勤率) in part to noise pollution.

The physical location of the factories added to problems of noise pollution. A glass factory within 30 meters of the Norther Korean embassy disturbed diplomats; Beijingers living near a screw factory did not dare leave a pot out on a table because their apartment shook from the activity of the factory. At night their heads bounced up and down on pillows.

The noise had very real consequences. It impacted rhythms and routines of resident’s work and sleep, leading to high blood pressure and insomnia. In one area of the city, Duanxing, the report found that a third of all patients suffering from some type of mental disorder contracted their problems from incessant and inescapable noise.

The panel advocated a series a recommendations that were at once predictable and surprising. First, they called for further research into how car breaks and car horns could be made to emit softer sounds but still retain their safety functions. For the busy and more important areas around the city—Chang’anjie, Zhongnanhai, the embassy district— the report thought that besides ambulances and firetrucks, all other cars should be completed prohibited from using their horns on these thoroughfares. Regulating the noise from factories was not quite as simple. Each one produced different levels of noise depending on the types of products they made.

In 1978 the city promulgated regulations concerning noise pollution in order to “protect the people’s health, and provide the people will the opportunity to safely work, study and rest.” When broadcasting programs or announcements over loudspeakers, each danwei was supposed to keep the volume at a minimum level. Cars without noise reduction equipment were not allowed on the road. Picking up on the initial study’s advice, the regulations also established areas of the city where no cars horns were allowed. Outside of these zones, the regulations asked citizens of the capital to refrain from using car horns for long durations.

Not much force stood behind these rules, though. Drivers who continued to lay on the horn were subject to criticism and education through their danwei. If they continued in their heavy-handed and noisy ways, their driver’s license might be suspended.

It is common to think of the period after 1980 in China as one of rapid change and reform. This view is generally accurate but also incomplete. It leads to the easy but ultimately deceptive conclusion that nothing in China changed all the much between 1970 and 1980.  The sound and noise pollution of Beijing shows just how much the city was changing and growing—with more cars and more factories—before the beginning of Reform and Opening. In a similar vein, it is also common and easy to think of the period between from 1966 to 1976 as a wasteland for knowledge and reason. The tenets of the Cultural Revolution prioritized redness over expertise and a faith in revolution over the principles of scientific inquiry. Yet, here are scientists conducting noise level studies throughout the city in 1974.  Finally, this small episode reveals the importance of moving beyond simply what we see when thinking about how China is changing.

*Taken from Beijing Municipal Archives, 193-002-00610 and 193-002-00239

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Car Horns, Factories and Snot Rockets: Regulating Sound in the 1970s

  1. Does anyone know why Chinese are so loud when clearing their throats whereas people in other cultures seem to clear their throats much more quietly?

    • I think that would be an interesting project for an anthropologist. I would imagine there here been different government campaigns to get people to clear their throats as part of a move towards 文明 but I personally don’t have that much knowledge on the subject.

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