On the Bus in Beijing: The future (and past) of bus ticket attendants

An intellectually interesting but possibly distressing thought experiment is to consider whether the people you normally interact with—the cashier, the banker teller, the parking lot attendant, or, for that matter, the professor—will still have a job in ten years of if this labor will be replaced by technology. It is possible to approach this experiment with great formality, as do Oxford academics Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, by categorizing the statistical likelihood of human labor being replaced by computers. Or, the subject can be approached anecdotally but rigorously, as Matt Yglesias does by describing just how difficult it would be to replace human labor when it comes to one of the most delicate of tasks: making burritos at Chipotle.

With this thought experiment in mind, it is initially difficult to see much of a future for the ticket attendants (xiaoshouyuan 销票员) on public buses in Beijing. Seated in the middle of the bus, they represent an interesting division of labor. The driver drives; the attendant asks a passenger where they are headed, names the fee and hands over a ticket. In the U.S, the driver plays all these roles. In transit, the attendants also announce the next stop.

But the two main roles of bus attendants are easily replaced. Many city residents increasingly use pubic transit cards, good on subways and buses, instead of buying physical tickets. Maps of the route on the walls of the bus and an automatic public address system remove the need for ticket attendants to announce the next stop. They do so anyway. They appear to be prime candidates for redundancy.

At the moment the group providing bus ticket attendants with some semblance of job security are likely tourists in Beijing from other parts of the country who don’t want to spend money on cabs and find the subway too overwhelming. They don’t have a public transit card and they don’t know where they are going.

The nature of ticket attendant work is still undetermined but beyond thinking about the future of this job, regular bus trips lead to another conclusion. It is a highly gendered role; most ticket attendants are female. However, this was not always the case. In the 1950s, work as a ticket attendant on a bus was considered too burdensome for female workers.

At a fundamental level, the initial years of the People’s Republic of China were about classification. Of course, a person’s class background was considered “good,” “middle,” or “bad” based on the amount of property and land they controlled. However, these distinctions might not necessarily reflect actual social conditions in local villages as much as the need for cadres to create these labels in order to foment land reform. At a larger level, as Tom Mullaney, shows, the task of determining how many ethnic groups there were in China, who belonged to them and why, was also a very human process laden with judgments and assumptions, the results of which were taken as objective facts. In cities, work was neatly classified into different ranks based what a worker needed to know and what a worker needed to be able to do.

Being a ticket attendant sounds like a simple job but regulations of the 1950s broke this position into four ranks based on knowledge and skills. At the lowest rank, an attendant needed to know the basic traffic rules and regulation and have a good attitude. The highest ranking attendants had the knowledge and skills of all the other ranks but also knew the places and times of the city where rush hour was busiest, the names an locations of important government bureaus along routes and the basic safety mechanisms of the bus. They also had to help the driver ready the bus for service at the station. These tasks, leaders in the transportation bureau thought, were more suitable for men.

In 1956, the bureau came under fire for the lack of female ticket attendants on buses. In a time when official rhetoric stressed equality between men and women, the absence of female bus ticket attendants represented an obvious incongruity.  Though from one point of view, this might represent the danwei “taking care” of its female workers (zhaogu 照顾), when judging by the rhetorical standards of the day, it was clearly discrimination (qishi 歧视).

Under attack, the party committee of the bureau offered a number on reasons why there were not more female bus ticket attendants that provide insight into the nature of work as well as a vivid depiction of the rhythms of daily life in Beijing.

The committee first stressed that bus lines preferred men as attendants because they did not miss work as often as female attendants. In 1956, one hundred and thirty seven women were employed as ticket attendants across the various bus lines of Beijing; over twenty attendants were pregnant. A survey of transportation workers in July of that year found that the monthly workforce participation rate for female attendants was only 65.98%. That was too low.

The taxing physical nature of the job also created a potentially dangerous work environment, especially for pregnant attendants. Buses were quite crowded (yongji 拥挤) and the journey very bumpy (zhendang 震荡). Exacerbating the unpleasant nature of the ride was the necessity to get on and off the bus, apparently to sell tickets. The report calculated that over an eight-hour workday, attendants had to get on and off the bus about 240 times. These work condition could lead to tragic results. One female ticker attendant had a miscarriage while on the job in 1955.

The job also made it hard for female attendants with young children who were still breastfeeding. Workers on the early shift had to leave their home by 4am and those on the late shift did not arrive back until after 11pm. The report worried that young children separated from their mother’s for so long might suffer from poor health.

With these worries in mind, the report held firm in its policy of preferring men to women as bus ticket attendants. In all other positions, though, they would not have any preference based on gender.

Bus ticket attendants might not have much a future but there sure have an interesting past.

*Information comes from Beijing Municipal Archives 117-001-00804


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