Are Kids to Blame for China’s Noisy Trains?
Xu Xiaoping has come to dread traveling by rail — specifically the endless racket she often has to endure. The 28-year-old says that whenever she takes a high-speed train, nine out of 10 times she will encounter a noisy child, or even several. All she can do is remind herself not to lose her temper.
Xu struggles to tolerate noise at the best of times, especially the screams of children, but during a recent bout of depression, she found that every time she heard shouting her scalp would tingle, blood would rush to her head, and she’d become emotional.
In June, during a high-speed rail journey from Chongqing to Chengdu, in the southwestern Sichuan province, her emotions got the better of her, and she became embroiled in a conflict with the fathers of two young boys.
Before catching the train that day, Xu had been rushed off her feet and had been looking forward to getting some much-needed rest during the 90-minute ride home to Chengdu. It was 6:30 in the evening. However, the quiet of the compartment was shattered by two boys running, jumping, and yelling in the aisle. Xu put on noise-canceling headphones, but they did little to block out the children’s penetrating screams.
In a gentle tone, Xu twice asked the children not to be so loud. One boy’s father noticed what was happening and also told them to keep it down. Instead, the boys began deliberately provoking Xu by running up to her and shouting, then running away and looking back to observe her reaction.
The boys’ parents appeared oblivious, according to Xu. Offended, she confronted one father directly, warning him, “Don’t make me argue with you in public.” He was unapologetic, though, and responded only by saying that that’s just how children are, and that adults need to be tolerant. The father of the other boy, who was sitting at the front of the carriage, turned to glare at Xu. She angrily asked him what he was looking at, which prompted him to stand up and shout, “I’m looking at you! What are you going to do about it?” At this point, Xu began to feel afraid. “I was arguing with a man,” she says. “If the fight had got physical, my chances of winning were slim.”
Xu fell silent, her only course of action to end the argument. But the two men continued to taunt her, saying, “If it’s too noisy for you, go sit in first class.”
In reality, a seat upgrade is no guarantee for avoiding screaming children. Zhuzhu, 26, has taken to riding in business class to protect herself against the possibility, but not long ago she encountered a similar predicament to Xu when a family of four boarded her carriage. While the father carried out a long conversation on his mobile phone, his two children were shrieking. When Zhuzhu asked them to stop, their mother went on the defensive, responding that there was no way children would behave like adults and just sit silently the whole journey.
Although she understands how difficult the situation can be for parents, Zhuzhu disagrees with that attitude. “I need quiet. I shouldn’t be the one who has to pay for their problems,” she says. “My parents’ generation felt that children are all lovely and cute, and they’re more accepting of this kind of behavior. Our generation doesn’t even like children.”
She says that it’s unfair she has to like it or lump it whenever she comes across a so-called “bear child,” a term used on line to describe a loud, annoying, and destructive youngster.
Like Xu and Zhuzhu, many passengers regularly complain on social media about the noise on China’s high-speed trains. It can be someone taking the train home for the weekend after braving a two-hour Friday night traffic jam, an unemployed graduate who has just bombed a job interview, or an insomniac who’s already on edge. They all ask the same question: Why should I put up with this?
A passenger called Wang, 22, says she once attempted a “crazy person hack” she had learned about online. On a train from Weihai in Shandong province to Shanghai, she was seated beside a child of about 5 years old who began to cry and kick the seat in front of her repeatedly. When Wang tried to stop him, she was scolded by the child’s mother, who said that actually she was the one with the problem and that people like her “don’t deserve to have children.”
After enduring the noise for more than an hour, Wang finally decided to “play crazy,” as she’d seen others do on social media. “I have a mental illness,” she told the mother. “If you continue allowing your kid to do that, I’m going to kill somebody!”
The mother was enraged. “Just try touching my boy,” Wang recalls her shouting, before she called out to everyone around her that someone was trying to harm her child. Fortunately for Wang, a train attendant intervened and advised the mother to control her child.
When Wang shared the experience online, she faced a public backlash. Some accused her of being embittered because she was unable to have children of her own, while others said that she was just incompetent at arguing and “wasn’t crazy enough.”
Although people often put the problem of noisy or unruly children on high-speed trains down to parental negligence, Lianzi, the mother of a 2-year-old boy, has experienced the issue from the other side.
She and her husband once took their son on a high-speed train, and he began giggling loudly as soon as they were seated. When Lianzi went to get snacks to keep him occupied, a middle-aged man toward the front warned her to “take care of your kid.” Lianzi’s husband reacted angrily, but to prevent the conflict from escalating, Lianzi apologized to the man. Still, she felt wronged. “We were already handling the situation. Our child hadn’t done anything excessive,” she says.
Lanzi says she travels less frequently since having her son. The first time she felt discriminated against was six months ago when she was traveling with her family back to her hometown. The commotion of the train leaving the station woke their son, who cried through the rest of the journey. His parents could only take turns carrying him out of the compartment to the gangway to coax him back to sleep, each time seeing the other passengers stare daggers at them as they walked through the aisle.
Before she got married, Lianzi used to travel only with an eye mask, neck pillow, and headphones, and would sleep right through to her destination. Now, she has to prepare snacks, tissues, and diapers before leaving the house, come up with techniques to soothe her child, and plan well in advance. “If he starts making noise, we have to carry him away immediately,” she says.
Lianzi feels helpless. It’s not that she’s allowing her son to make noise — there’s just nothing she can do about it. In her opinion, children under the age of 3 have basically zero control over their emotions. Some children are naturally high maintenance and some are naturally well-behaved. “This has nothing to do with parental ability.”
From a parent’s perspective, society has revealed its child-unfriendly side, triggering a ripple effect. For example, a mother was riding a city subway with her 5-year-old son who touched a storage crate carried by the woman next to him. The woman immediately chided the boy, telling him not to touch her things. “I didn’t even get a chance to speak up and apologize,” says the mother. She was perplexed: 5-year-olds are at a developmental stage where they are intensely curious about the world around them. It seems the adult world is in such a hurry that she doesn’t have enough time to teach her child what he needs to know.
And it doesn’t stop there. On high-speed trains, children are often perceived as the source of all problems. One mother related how, when she was boarding a train with her two children, an attendant urged her to “mind your children and don’t disturb the other passengers.” She felt it was unfair. “The baby was resting quietly in my arms,” she says. The attendant’s warning left her feeling apprehensive throughout the entire trip. For a baby just over 1 year old on a seven-hour train ride, “there’s really no way to guarantee she’ll make no noise,” she adds.
A father who also has received this kind of “special treatment” has warned that such discrimination against parents dressed up as “justice” could become widespread.
Complaints about noise on high-speed trains regularly appear on social media, with children increasingly taking the blame. Parents feel they are an easy target, however. As one mother posted, “It’s obvious there are more people watching dramas and playing games without headphones, or talking loudly on the phone … why aren’t these people being mentioned or targeted more?”
In the past year, train attendant Ning has noticed an increase in noise complaints, with children and the elderly the main targets. But according to her observation, the environment in the carriages has not changed much from before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some noises can be truly disruptive, she says. For example, groups of seniors are not only much louder than children but also less willing to accept feedback. In Ning’s opinion, though, most complaints about noise are blown out of proportion. Once, a woman in the second row complained about two elderly people chatting six rows back. When she investigated, Ning found that they were speaking at a normal volume, but to avoid a negative employee performance review, she had to go and talk to them anyway.
Right now, there is no uniform standard on how to define noise in the carriage of a moving high-speed train. “Noise is determined according to a passenger’s own subjective perception,” says Ning.
Fellow attendant Chen Wei, 22, has developed her own set of standards: Noises that can only be dimly heard from two rows away are not within her jurisdiction, but if she can hear someone’s voice or a cellphone clearly from the front or back of the carriage, that’s her cue to step in.
But it’s hard to please everyone. Not long ago, on a train from Chengdu to Zhengzhou, in the central Henan province, Chen had to repeatedly remind a child to be quiet, but she stopped after the parents became angry with her. As a result, a university student in the same carriage complained about her inaction after disembarking.
Chen revealed that her team had created a demographic profile of the complainants and found that 80% were passengers born in the 1990s and 2000s, basically millennials and Gen Zs. She believes that most people in these age groups are their family’s only child, meaning they are likely highly aware of protecting their own interests and less tolerant of environments that are different from what they are used to.
Another reason for the increase in complaints is that since slower passenger train services were phased out, people with different needs and income levels are now squeezed into the same shared spaces, creating opportunities for conflict.
Train regulations require attendants to deal with a complaint immediately after receiving it. Failure to do so can result in a fine of several hundred yuan.
Chen is responsible for the business, first-class, and second-class compartments. The high-speed train service she works on stops every 30 minutes, and at each station she has to run back and forth to check tickets, adjust the luggage racks, and patrol at least 12 carriages. She also has to hand out gifts to business and first-class passengers, and remind them of their arrival times.
To avoid complaints, Chen pays attention to the expressions of the passengers whenever she finds a noisy child in a carriage. As soon as she spots a frown, she will remind the child to be quiet. “It’s also to show the passengers that you’re handling the situation,” she says. However, more than one parent has expressed displeasure at receiving this special attention.
Her colleagues are also baffled by the controversy over noise, she says. “In the past, trains were so crowded you could barely get on board; you were grateful if someone helped shove you in. Now, if you just look at another passenger too long, they’ll think you’re glaring at them.” Chen feels that passengers today seem to be tired as soon as they board. “They need to do their own thing in a quiet environment.”
Ning has also felt a shift in passengers’ demands. In the early years, the train was merely a transportation tool, but people now want more than speed — they want a pleasant environment and good service. With this has come a change in the social climate, she says. “Suddenly, everyone hates seniors and children; it wasn’t like this before.” In her opinion, some noises are justifiable, such as elderly people who talk and watch videos on their cellphones at a high volume because they are hard of hearing. Sometimes, a crying child has an illness. She recalls one time a sick child traveling to Shanghai for medical treatment was crying on the train, and when Ning explained this to other passengers, a middle-aged man complained about her inaction.
The subjective nature of noise, the collision of different needs and demands, and the characteristics of this new generation of passengers have all contributed to the escalation of noise-related conflicts. Ning hopes that the introduction of dedicated carriages for seniors and parents with young children might solve the dilemma.
Rail networks in several European countries have been operating services with “quiet carriages” and “family carriages” for years, even equipping some train cars with slides, games, and other entertainment for children. China’s high-speed network began piloting a quiet carriage program in 2020, with noisy rulebreakers receiving a warning or being removed to another carriage. However, some passengers who have ridden in quiet carriages have commented that enforcement is not strict.
Others also have objected to “solving the problem through segregation,” including many parents. “One child is difficult enough — a train compartment full of children would be absolutely intolerable,” said one. Another pointed out, “There’s no guarantee that you can get a ticket for the family carriage every time, and bringing a child in a standard compartment will subject us to even more criticism.”
When it comes to noise on high-speed trains, passengers, parents, and train attendants are all protecting themselves in their own way. Xu Xiaoping now avoids traveling during summer vacation, and Lianzi chooses to drive with her children whenever possible.
As for Chen Wei, her recording devices are switched on at all times, and she tries to patrol her carriages as often as she can. Still, every time she discovers a noisy child, she says her heart is in her throat.
Reported by Cai Jiaxin.
(Due to privacy concerns, all interviewees have been given pseudonyms.)
A version of this article originally appeared in White Night Workshop. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.
Translator: Carrie Davies; editors: Xue Ni and Craig McIntosh.
(Header image: A mother comforts her baby on a high speed train from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, 2018. VCG)