A Comprehensive Guide to Horn Honking in China

First this week, I would like to thank MaryAnne over at Wok With Me, Baby for awarding me a Liebster Blog Award.  It either has something to do with recognizing other awesome, small blogs, or something to do with being a hipster.  If it’s the former, well thank you, MaryAnne, for thinking I’m awesome.  If it’s the latter, then I suppose all my readers can rejoice in the fact that, since this blog is fairly small at this point, they can state with certainty that they were reading my blog “before it was cool”.  Congrats.

Anyway, I’m supposed to thank MaryAnne and link to her (check), and then pass on the award to five other similarly awesome small (200 followers or less) blogs (or those whose authors I think dress in skinny jeans and plaid flannel shirts, listen to obscure indie bands, and talk about how other people just wouldn’t ‘get’ their taste).  So here we go:

Jo at Life Behind the Wall lives in China and shares her experiences as an African-American woman living here and married to a Chinese man.  I love her honesty.

Sara at Living a Dream in China is a Finnish girl who has lost her heart to the Middle Kingdom (and a boy!).  She’s studying Mandarin and even posts in Chinese once a week or so.

Christine at Shanghai Shiok! is a foreign-born Chinese woman trying to make her way in life and love in, you guessed it, Shanghai.

Michelle at My Beijing Survival Diary just got engaged to her Chinese fellow, and is trying to make heads or tails of life in Beijing.

Alex at Married to China is my little sister (we’re both Canadian girls, both engaged or married to Chinese guys – heck, we even dress alike!).

And now, onto the post for today.  As you probably couldn’t tell from my recent posts on style and cooking turkey, I’m all about trying to help people understand and assimilate to life in China.  If you found those articles useful, then I’m about to blow your mind with helpfulness in today’s post.

One of the first things a newcomer to China will probably notice (at least if you are coming from a western country) is the cacophony that is everyday street traffic here in the Middle Kingdom.  For me, coming from the prairies of Canada, where the main function of a horn in a motor vehicle is to scare wildlife off the highway or cats out of the fan belt during the cold winters, it certainly took some time to adjust to the ever-present din.

At first, it is easy to dismiss it all as simply “noise”.  In actuality, however, horn-honking is a language all its own in China, and understanding it can be crucial to your personal safety.  As a result, I’ve put together this handy-dandy guide to all things vehicular-noise-related, though please bear in mind that different regions of China may have different horn ‘dialects’, so to speak, so it’s best to consult a local for clarification (for example, in some regions, flashing one’s lights is an acceptable alternative to honking one’s horn in certain situations).  If you plan to drive, cycle, or walk across the street (or heck, even walk on a sidewalk) in China, this guide could save your life.

I can't post pictures of sounds. Sad face.

First of all, and most importantly, you need to be aware that everyone honks, as often as possible – everyone on wheels, that is.  Whether it be a pedal bike, electric bike, what passes for a ‘motorcycle’ here, car, or bus – if it transports people, it’ll be honking at you.  Learning to distinguish the calls of these different modes of transport without turning one’s head can help you to prepare yourself (and save valuable seconds) to smoothly sidestep a couple of feet, in the case of a bicycle approaching, or to desperately sprint towards, and press yourself up against, the nearest wall or fence, in the event it is an overloaded transport truck hurtling towards you through red lights in the middle of the city during daylight hours when such trucks are supposedly banned…ahem, where was I?

Right, honking.

The following general rule can be applied:  the lower the honk, the more important the owner/driver perceives himself to be.  It may or may not be true in reality, but as with a woman’s possession of a “designer” handbag, it truly is the perception that counts.  If you decide to purchase a mode of transportation in China, before you ever take to the roads to drive it, be sure to become familiar with the level of the honk and adjust your driving style accordingly.

People riding bicycles, with their cheery sounding rotary phone-like ring, are the least pretentious – perhaps because they know they are only a tiny step up the transportation evolutionary scale than you, the lowly pedestrian, and are only slightly less likely to be creamed by a larger vehicle.  Next are the folks with electric bicycles and their identifying beeps.  They are followed by those driving small compact cars with beeps resembling Roadrunner from the Bugs Bunny cartoons.  These are then followed by most of the rest of the car population.  Motorcycles, with their echoing, sing-song-y honk, city buses and large charter buses with their deafening and heart-stopping air horns, and black luxury sedans with darkly tinted windows round out this hierarchy of horns.

It is important to note that this hierarchy in no way implies any sort of belief in the “right of way” or of respect for size.  It is just as common for a cyclist riding in a blind spot to ring his bell as a warning to a large city bus trying to turn a corner as it is for the reverse (and in fact, usually both situations are occurring simultaneously).

It is also not enough to simply have a horn and use it; you must utilize its full potential by learning the proper honk for each situation.  As a pedestrian, it is key to learn which honks apply to you and which you can filter out as extraneous white noise.

I don't know where on the honk hierarchy these cars fall, but I'm guessing somewhere near the top.

If the method of transport is a bicycle or electric bike, the following mathematical reasoning should be applied:  the time between beeps is inversely proportional to the distance between the bike and the object in its path.  The upper limit of this law occurs when the distance is approximately less than one meter, meaning that the rings or beeps meld into one continuous ring or beep at this distance.

If the auto in question is a motorcycle (I hesitate to refer to them as this, since so many are little more than so-called “crotch rockets”), the honks will most often be heard after the vehicle has already passed.  In adherence with the laws of physics, the speed of sound is slower than the speed of light – that, and the young teenaged driver will almost always drive at such a high rate of speed as to have no hope of his reflexes being quick enough to honk his horn before swerving past you.

For cars and other four-wheeled automobiles, there are nearly innumerable combinations of honks to be used.

One short beep – This is known as the “greeting” honk.  It is most often used when the distance between the car and the object blocking its path is greater than 500m.  This signals that the driver has acknowledged an object in his field of vision (but not necessarily in his intended path).

A single set of two short beeps – Commonly known as the “first warning,” it says, “My car is moving, or soon-to-be moving, and I intend to keep on this trajectory and at this speed, so you’d better adjust your course accordingly.”  It is common to hear this directed to stopped pedestrians or cyclists who are waiting to cross the street the car is currently traveling along (although is it perhaps one of the most well-used honks on the list – the possibilities are endless).

Two short and one long beep – Vehicles driving along sidewalks are the most likely to use this combination in order to warn pedestrians that they are not safe anywhere.

Multiple sets of two short beeps – Much like the increased persistence of bicycle rings, this is best utilized when the car is immediately behind the obstacle, but still moving.  This is the horn equivalent of an impatient clearing of the throat or sigh.

Combinations of short and long beeps – These are most commonly heard during traffic jams, or other situations where it is generally evident that the cars (or other objects) are unable to move.  It is thought by some that the displacement of the air particles caused by this beeping may, if enough honks are collectively sounded together in harmony, push the objects out of the way, allowing for a clear path, although absolutely no scientific evidence supports this belief.

One single, prolonged beep – reserved for use only late at night or early in the morning, inside residential zones, when one finds themselves waiting behind another, unoccupied vehicle.  Its intention is to wake up every person living in said residential zone so that the owner of the offending car can stumble out to move it.

Contrary to popular belief, the most dangerous drivers on the road are not the unlicensed, the drunk, or the distracted, but are in fact those who do not utilize their horns at all.  Anyone who has ever been grazed by a bicycle or car which passed from behind as if out of thin air can attest to the danger of keeping silent on the roads.  Thus, it is not simply recommended, but necessary, to sound one’s horn as often as possible.

Finally, perhaps the most important piece of information to take away from this article is as follows:  If you have a horn, and you are the first to sound it, you are invincible.  Do not, under any circumstances, yield or alter your path to anyone else, regardless of size, speed, or right-of-way.  Horns trump everything, and if you back down after sounding your horn, you will simply confuse the other driver.

Happy honking!

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14 Responses to A Comprehensive Guide to Horn Honking in China

  1. Jack says:

    I swear the Chinese invented the horn honking as a form of language!

  2. Ben says:

    Thanks for the write up, I’ll use this next time I go back to China :)

  3. The driving in China scared me more than anywhere else I’ve ever been! Saw many grisly accidents too. I definitely wouldn’t want to drive myself there.

    • kjsandor says:

      It certainly is…different from what we are used to. I think it’s kind of crazy too, but in a weird way, it works for them. There seems to be a collective understanding of the craziness here and as long as they all drive in the expected crazy way, things are often fine. I’ve said many times that if I were to drive here I would be the one causing accidents because I’d be trying to drive the way I was used to and it would disrupt their flow!!

  4. Hello,
    I came across your website and found it very enjoyable. I just had a couple of questions so if you could e-mail me back that would be great!

  5. A hilarious post were honking not such a serious business in China. It seems quite the same honking madness applies in India too. A colleague who visited there said that if you don’t honk, you are considered hostile and a danger to other road users. So, he honked like mad! A nice post though. And you seem to have it down to the last detail. Pity those who don’t have an ear for horns. Ha ha!

    • kjsandor says:

      Thanks! It was meant to be somewhat sarcastic, although you’re right – it is based on the truth. Honking is a much bigger deal throughout SE Asia than it is in North America, from what I hear. Good thing I’m attentive! ;)

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