What appears superficially to be a line is actually just a one-dimensional mob

In China, queueing is honored more in the breach than in the observance. If you see a line for something, you must understand that what you are seeing is not really a line. It is a one-dimensional mob. You must be prepared to defend your position in line fiercely, because any sign of weakness will be pounced upon, and the next thing you know, five people just cut in front of you.

I first became aware of this characteristic of "Chinese queueing theory" while still at the airport. When the gate agents announced that the flight to Beijing had begun boarding, a one-dimensional mob quickly formed, and I naïvely joined the end. It wasn't long before my lack of attentiveness to the minuscule open space in front of me resulted in another person cutting in front. At that point, I realized that the Chinese implementation of queueing theory was already in effect even before we left the United States.

As another example: After the plane pulls up to the gate after landing, the aisles quickly fill with people anxious to get off the plane. In the United States, you can rely upon the kindness of strangers to let you into the aisle so you can fetch your bags and join the queue. But in China, you must force your way into the aisle. Nobody is going to let you in.

Colleagues of mine who have spent time in both China and the United States tell me that it's an adjustment they have to make whenever they travel between the two countries. For example, in the United States, it is understood that when you are waiting in line for the ATM, you allow the person at the ATM a few feet of "privacy space." On the other hand, in China, you cannot leave such an allowance, because that is a sign of weakness in the one-dimensional mob. You have to stand right behind the person to protect your place in line.

Bonus airport observation: How ironic it is that your last meal in your home country often comes from a crappy airport crfeteria.

Comments (35)
  1. Sunil Joshi says:

    In England, queueing is taken extremely seriously:

    An Englishman on his own at a bus stop will form an orderly queue of 1.

    Any form of pushing in is extremely bad form.

  2. asdbsd says:

    Similar thing in Russia. What looks like five people long queue can quickly turn into 20 people long because every one of those five lets his friends in, plus there are people who just went away for several minutes since the queue wasn't moving anyway, and now they're back.

  3. Diffuse says:

    One thing that I never understood is why you should wait in line for boarding the plane?

    Usually you are already sitting near the boarding gate and waiting for the gate to open – there is no reason (as I see it) not to wait comfortably (more or less) in your seat and wait for most of the other people to finish their boarding process and then, when there are one or two people in the queue, join the queue and thus avoid being in the plane waiting for all the others to board the plane (or worse, wait for someone who gets called on the PA system).

  4. Cyrill says:

    In Russia queues are trees because of multiple errors in answers to traditional question "Who is the last?"

  5. Max says:

    @Diffuse: If you have carry-on, there might not be enough space in the overhead compartments later.

    @Cyrill: They are trees also because one person can hold a place in line for other people, and they will hold the place for even more people, etc.

  6. Ian says:

    The whole point of a queue (in the English sense) is that it is a leveller of all people. Since you are not allowed to get a place further up the queue by paying money or by having a proxy wait in your stead, money and influence will be of no use to you. Everyone is treated the same. Indeed, people whose time is less valuable could even be considered to be at an advantage.

    Of course, it doesn't always work this way. Even in England it is often permissible to let friends into the queue directly in front of you (though never behind you).

  7. Gabe says:

    Note: You misspelled "crapeteria"

    [I would normally fix a typo, but your comment is so funny I'm leaving it in! -Raymond]
  8. Maxim says:

    @Diffuse: Chinese people all have full-size carry-on suitcases and assorted coats, airport shopping, etc, so the overhead lockers will be full by the time 50% of passengers have boarded. Also, they will stand up and start to get them out as soon as the plane slows below 30mph, the better to successfully queue/mob off the plane to get to the front of the next queue/mob at passport control. This applies whether flying to, from or within China.

  9. Diego Mijelshon says:

    Raymond, you should go to Israel some time… It's what you described multiplied by 10.

    In fact, I'd say the "queue" concept doesn't even exist there; whoever walks faster to the counter/door/etc gets served/in/etc.

  10. dave says:

    Ah, yes.  One time in the USA, I was in line for some popular tourist attraction.  

    The person behind seemed to me to be rather too close to me for my personal comfort, so I shuffled a bit closer to the person in front of me (who was with me, so crowding her wasn't so bad).  This left a little more airspace at my back, which was immediately taken up by the person behind shuffling up, too.  I shuffled up some more. The person behind me did too.  And a third time, by which time shuffle-space was entirely consumed.

    The person behind me was ethnically Chinese, so I now assume this was Chinese queueing theory in operation. (At the time I just vaguely assigned it to different cultural ideas of personal space).

  11. Frits says:

    Wonderfully interesting.  This sheds light on an expression I have not heard since childhood — "Chinese cuts" — for breaking in line.

  12. jcs says:

    The next time you're at the airport, hang out at the departure gate for a Tokyo flight and watch what happens when the flight begins to board: a perfectly straight and orderly line extends across the terminal, far neater than the line you'll see for flights within the US.

    On the other hand, flights to and from Mexico City suffer from the same problem that you noticed on your airplane — you have to elbow your way out of your seat in order to leave the aircraft.

  13. Jeff says:

    It's like that with Skiing too. In America, we all wait in line (Except, occasionally for the bratty children). However, in Europe, it's perfectly acceptable to simply jump in front of others.

  14. Pete says:

    Chinese queuing sounds like the queue at a bar.

  15. Henning Makholm says:

    When leaving a plane, I always wait calmly in my seat until there's space in the aisle to retrieve things from the overhead bins. I'll catch up with the next-to-last stragglers before the exit door, so it's not as if I'm causing any net delay in the how-soon-can-we-turn-this-aircraft-over-to-the-cleaning-crew calculus.

    Nevertheless, I have yet to arrive at the baggage carousel, in any airport, before my suitcase does.

    What are people in such a hurry for?

    [In the United States, there is a fee for checked baggage, so most people travel with carry-ons only. Therefore, the sooner you get off the plane, the sooner you get out of the airport. -Raymond]
  16. Dominic Cronin says:

    When I first moved from England to the Netherlands, I had to learn that it wasn't that the Dutch were rude; rather that they didn't see my vague hovering near the end of the queue as a claim to a place. Dutch people completely understand queuing, but you have to stand foursquare behind the person in front or it doesn't count. In a barber's shop, a Dutch person entering will be quite at ease asking who is last, just as an English person might.

  17. Jolyon Smith says:


    @Tom: "Dutch Auction" is not an ethnic insult, it has an entirely logical and reasonable historical derivation, stemming from the form of auction that first came to prominence during the DUTCH tulip craze of the 17th century.

    It's not that it's done "wrong", it's done "different", and naming it as such is intended to eliminate confusion, not sneer.

    As for "Polish Bomber", I know that the Polish are the butt of jokes in the US in the same way that the Irish are in England, but beyond that I've never heard (and can find no reference to) "Polish Bomber" as a derogatory term for anyone or anything.  Far from it.  The RAF Polish Bomber Squadron served with distinction in WWII.


    In Auckland (NZ) there is a large Chinese population, and the cultural differences in public/social decorum/etiquette can be very noticeable.  To a "Western" observer those differences can lead to an impression being formed of the Chinese as a rude and selfish group, when in my experience the truth is quite the reverse.

  18. mobilevil says:

    I really hate to be a identified as Chinese, I would rather be a Hong Kong-ese. The other day I was flying and a fat Chinese youth sit near me. It was a long flight and I noticed the lady next to me went to the wash room, so I asked him if we should just go too, to avoid the squeezing. His face looked like he didn't understand my language, so I repeated in Cantonese, Mandarin and English. I was flying to a non-English EU country so I thought he was born there and don't speak my languages, fine. Few mins after lady and I came back, the fat boy started to squeeze out without a word. I gave you a chance to go out peacefully but you ignored, and I found that he actually speak Mandarin with his friends in another row. When I found he is sequeezing out, I quickly jump up and stand on my seat(I took my shoes off), I think it can leave the most space for him to go out, and I told him that he should ask me to make room for him instead of going directly. The same happened for a few times and I gave up co-operating.

  19. Gregory Kong says:

    I understand there are services which will allow you to nominate someone to queue for you (as part of a 'household bill administration' package) in banks, post offices, etc. Probably not very useful at an airport.

    I never can understand why Americans put up with the inconveniences of air travel within the continental USA. You have TSA stripping you, luggage that cannot be locked (or locked with a 'TSA-certified' lock) or they'll break it open, surly babas of stewardesses, crappy food, paid checkin luggage… and the tickets are still ridiculously expensive.

    As a Chinese, I must say that queuing is highly overrated. But then, I defend my position in any type of queue to the death, so there's that :)

  20. Cheong says:

    In Hong Kong, the situation varies in different situation.

    Like I've said before, in bus terminus you have 2 (or 3) queues. The first one to get on the bus is for the wheelshair users, but this queue exist only on bus routes that supports wheelchair boarding. The second is the normal queue. Sometimes when the bus becoming full, the people in 2nd queue would rather to wait for the next bus in order to get a seat, so the third queue usually waiting in the opposite direction of 2nd queue would get one the bus. If you wait on the third queue, you essentially give up your chance to get a seat on the bus, but who cares when you're in a rush?

    In MTR station, there are 4 lanes in for each door, and in the middle there's out-lane that noone should queue in there. Sometimes someone would sneak in to wait in the out lane if noone protest, but I've seen a few times that people protest just before the train arrives, and they have to go back to end of the now-much-longer in-lanes.

  21. prb says:

    Usually when someone cuts in front of me I let out a mighty cough complete with streams of sputum all over the back of their neck. Then apologize profusely of course.

  22. virtualblackfox says:

    Being french we are not really orderly but cutting in line is accepted sometimes…

    The two extremes that i experimented are china and japan

    Japan is so orderly that when you take the subway people wait in line on both side of the gate that the last person exit before even beginning to move toward the train… compared to paris where only the first people going out are free to do so and all following must fight people entering the train to be able to exit it.

    And as you said queuing in china is… well more like a mob.

    Another big difference between france/china/japan is the respect of the red lights by people walking. Ranging from waiting even without any car passing (japan) to total ignorance of if and pedestrian crossing (china) with paris being in the middle, pedestrian crossing are mostly respected, red lights… not so much.

  23. Tom says:

    IIRC from my childhood, "Chinese cut" means to get in line immediately *behind* that person.  It's one of those ethnic insults embedded into the English language: like Dutch auction, or Polish bomber — the implication being that they're not doing it the right way.

  24. Alex says:

    There is a simple technological solution to cutting the line: http://waitinginlinesucks/ Cell phone queueing makes it impossible to cut the line, and gives the people in line freedom while they wait.

  25. Alex says:

    Sorry, meant http://waitinginlinesucks.com/ . No more standing in line!

  26. AdamWu says:

    Believe me Raymond, it used to be worse than you saw today.

    I think the extreme poverty and scarce of goods (like, food) in the past have trained the Chinese to be *very* competitive, things like cutting queues is almost a survival instinct. And it will still be there for a couple of generations, even if no one need to do this to survive now. :P

  27. John C. says:

    I never can understand why Americans put up with the inconveniences of air travel within the continental USA…. and the tickets are still ridiculously expensive.

    The TSA security theater and cattle-car economy cabin certainly make the experience unpleasant to be sure. But expensive? I took 10 domestic flights last month, none of which cost more than about 10 cents a mile. That's cheaper than gas alone for my 30+-mpg car.

    Also, I value my time. The 1,150 or so miles from SEA to LAX is, realistically, an 18-hour drive if you can avoid traffic. Now, I like to drive. I've done that drive (albeit by the spectacularly scenic route along Highway 1, which is far longer). But by plane it's a bit over two hours; call it 2:30 with taxi time. Add time getting to and from the airport and waiting to board and disembark, maybe another 90 minutes total on both ends, so four hours in all. No comparison.

    If high-speed rail (the real thing, not the lame Acela NE Corridor effort) ever takes off in the U.S., it could be an interesting alternative for short- to mid-range flights. Until then…

  28. Worf says:

    Funny, I thought this Chinese queuing theory was the norm here in Canada. Though it's a bit of a mob between those who know where to stand for the next train (two types of trains with differing arrangements leads to different places to stand), and those that attempt to crowd those standing at the right spot to cut.

    If I'm first, I usually position myself such that the cutter is blocked off from the door, and no one else in the line lets them in. If I'm in the line, I crowd the person in front to head off any cutters, or if they try to force their way in front. a little scoot around and a little shove usually means they have to deal with the door.

    Occasionally screwups happen (the train comes from the wrong direction, which has a different set of standing positions).

  29. Jody says:

    Finland has the answer for most cases of queuing, you take a number. Then you can sit down and wait and no-one can cut in front. You even have to take a number in many shops to get served.

    [I saw some take-a-number style queues in post offices and banks, but it's rather impractical for things like bus stops, the subway, and ATMs. -Raymond]
  30. Neil says:

    @Ian: after having let their friend in front, the friend then lets them back in front, thus achieving the equivalent of letting them in behind them in the first place, without your consent.

    @virtualblackfox: during a recent strike when most services were not running, I was at Oxford Circus queueing up for a Bakerloo train. The platform was basically packed with travellers, and the train itself was also full. Such was the crush that one passenger was pushed out of the train and had to berate the person who pushed him out. To add insult to injury, a passenger behind him still trying to get off then berated the victim for reboarding the train without waiting for everyone to disembark. (I myself failed to board that particular train and had to wait for the next one.)

  31. Al says:

    Occasionally it seems letting people cut in can pay – though i guess this works equally well as an argument for cutting in, you could just as easily lose out! http://www.bbc.co.uk/…/world-asia-pacific-11969987

  32. Dylan says:


    I always took 'Chinese cut' to be a simple description of inversion, with china being 'upside down on the opposite side of the world'.

  33. Saveddijon says:

    All of this Chinese queuing business sounds like standard operating procedure for driving almost everywhere except the United States.

    Even Americans think that their driving is rude. I have to reassure them that their conduct is downright pleasant compared to where I come from (Ottawa, Canada).

  34. tom(another) says:

    Beijing's population is about 22 million, approximately the same as two thirds of Canada's. Think of it, move those Canadians into one city such as Toronto. Will they remain their behavior style as they do now? Will they build a better city that Beijing is now ? Consider you are one of the participant. This is a real question for thinking, Canada is chosen by chance.

  35. Worf says:

    @tom(another): I don't think the Canadian examples show any pleasant queuing behavior – do as you suggest and it'll probably be far worse than Beijing…

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