China’s Respiratory Communities

Photo by Victoria Nguyen, Beijing, China, February 2017.

“It’s always busier here when the pollution is bad,” Lili, a community engagement coordinator, told me. Worried I would not be able to find the place, she had waited for me outside where we exchanged muffled greetings through our respective air masks. Early that October morning, another lethal cocktail of industrial emissions, car exhaust, and burning coal had enveloped the city of Beijing. Now into the afternoon, the pollution showed no signs of abating as the air continued to thicken, muting out the sky and swallowing the tops of buildings. We walked over to a greyed high-rise where Lili pushed open a rusted metal gate. Once inside, she shut the entrance behind us and pulled off her mask, revealing two faint lines that the mask’s elastic straps had etched onto her round cheeks. I followed her lead, removing my own, and we made our way down a ramp into the cool darkness below. At the bottom of another flight of stairs, beyond a bright orange door, was Digua Shequ (Sweet Potato Community). Painted in cheery yellow and adorned with colorful strings and paper crafts that hung from the ceiling, Digua Shequ housed a library, café, exercise room, hair salon, and children’s play area. Such conventional amenities are found in neighborhoods across the capital, only here, they were entombed in concrete several meters underground. Two stories below Beijing’s smog-shrouded streets, we had arrived in Beijing’s infamous subterranean city (dixia cheng). I took in a deep breath.

A self-contained airspace is precisely what the original architects of Beijing’s sprawling bomb shelter network intended as they laid down plans for approximately ten thousand bunkers and labyrinthine tunnels at the height of Sino-Soviet tensions in 1969. Outfitted with elaborate ventilation systems and airshafts, the underground city was designed to provide six million Beijing residents with respiratory refuge in the event of a nuclear or biochemical attack (Goel, Singh, and Zhao 2012, 256). Decades later, as these threats receded and China’s economy liberalized, shelters no longer needed for military and security purposes were leased out to landlords and developers who turned the spaces into shopping arcades, manufacturing facilities, budget hotels, and perhaps most notoriously, cheap and derelict housing. In 2015, another alternative emerged as the new Beijing start-up Digua Shequ transformed its first unused bomb shelter into a renewed community space for both under and aboveground residents. In this second life, the fortified chambers and passageways of the underground city once again offer Beijing inhabitants a form of respite against what Elias Canetti (1979, 13) has called “the defenselessness of breathing.” Today, however, rather than insulating the population from foreign assault, the underground city shelters residents from the noxious aerial signature of rapid development.

Lili explains that creating a new kind of public space, where people could be physically active while they socialize, was a primary aim of Digua. “Especially with the air pollution as bad as it is,” she adds, “outdoor activity can now actually harm your health.” As such, Digua is not only hermetically sealed off from aboveground pollutants; several high-performance air filters also thrum through its corridors. As Lili and I chat, children just off from school dart from room to room, their watchful grandmas and grandpas shuffling after them. With the neighborhood's middle-aged residents still at work, Digua has managed to shelter the remaining young and elderly—those most vulnerable to the effects of air pollution (Stilianakis 2015)—inside its reinforced walls. In a city increasingly divided by the social and economic stratification of breath, the community center was thus able to redistribute air, “the last common property,” back to the people (Canetti 1979, 13). Digua, then, was not only a community of residents, but also one of breathers: united by the necessity of breath and connected by an atmosphere of mistrust as they negotiate the unseen perils outside and above. That day, dramatically enacting premier Li Keqiang’s “declaration of war” against pollution, young and old, locals and migrants bunkered down together. Breathing in common, they offer a vision of respiratory urbanism across and between proliferating aerial enclosures, distinctions, and divides in a city under siege.


What kind of community can be bound together by breath if every breath is a story of difference? As air pollution amplifies respiratory disparities across age, gender, wealth, geography, architecture, heredity, and stress, how might it simultaneously galvanize new affinities and solidarities? In post-Mao China, where nationalist ideas of the power of “the people” continue to reverberate, how are poisonous atmospheres nurturing both new and old political subjectivities? Attending to such questions can reveal how air pollution today not only acts as an agent of fracture and segregation, but also as a crisis that is highlighting vital connections and expanding social life in contemporary China.


Bemoaning the under-theorization of air in Western philosophy, Luce Irigaray (1999, 14) examines how air’s ubiquitous presence becomes a conceptual absence, asserting that air “allows itself to be forgotten” in Western thinking. If this is so, Chinese air is proving to be decidedly more indelible. For all of its protean and ephemeral qualities, air exerts a remarkably muscular influence on urban form and contemporary life in China. In recent years, as the breakneck speed of China’s development has altered the very chemistry of the atmosphere, the boundaries between breathing subjects and their toxic environments have become increasingly blurred (Ford 2019). In this climate, Beijing inhabitants have sought out various modes of respiratory refuge (Zee 2015). Endeavoring to sufficiently insulate, purify, sense, and negotiate their atmospheres (see Sloterdijk 2009), residents turn to the latest air monitoring devices and air purifiers for home, school, and work, with pollution masks and built-in car air purifiers to safeguard them as they make their way between these points.

University students come and go in the dense air pollution.

Certainly the commodification of clean air marks the emergence of new configurations of respiratory privilege in Beijing, a city long punctuated by unequal breaths. Here, I am reminded of the millions of street vendors, construction and sanitation workers, and service sector employees imbibing the vagaries of urban air each day; of the cyclists stuck behind and between cars during the capital’s notorious traffic jams; and of the wives and mothers that must lean over smoky woks daily to prepare meals in the old city’s poorly ventilated kitchenettes. As deadly air divides the metropolis into a series of protected insides and precarious outsides, it threatens to reorganize the city into new spaces of segregation. In this context, communal spaces like Digua are both rare and crucial. Offering up free, purified air, they address a breathing public that has gradually come to recognize itself as what Timothy Choy (2011, 14, 17) calls “atmospheric subjects”: breathers made viscerally aware of their vital dependency on shared substances and circulations in a “world of conjoined but unequal fate.” Tethered together by airy emissions and transmissions, this form of respiratory kinship is igniting new political possibilities in China today.

Beginning in 2013, as the real-time quantification of air pollution transformed anonymous grey haze into color-coded systems of alarm, the official publication of China’s air quality index (AQI) has engendered a visceral awareness of the shared, if uneven costs of China’s vertiginous growth. Collectively exposed, Beijing residents discovered a new form of solidarity in their shared vulnerability. As the “Chinese dream” seemed to dissolve under a veil of smog (Chai and Chai 2013), the political power of this solidarity was readily understood by President Xi Jingping, as well as by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. They each announced their alliance with China’s laobaixing—the “common people”—on separate occasions by smiling wide and bare-faced for press photos amid toxic levels of air pollution. In each instance, the absence of a pollution mask and the stark nudity of their faces aimed to communicate affinity in a communal plight. Over and against elites insulating themselves within the air-filtered corridors of their homes and offices, or those with the resources to entirely escape the city on “lung wash” vacation getaways, Xi and Zuckerberg’s calculated exposure performed a critical commonality with the people, asserting their share of a shared carcinogenic fate.

If the absence of an air mask could wield this kind of political utility, the potent symbolism of the mask itself was not lost on Beijing’s artists and activists. In February 2014, after six consecutive days of severe pollution warnings, students at Peking University discovered that even the statues on campus had taken refuge behind kouzhao (cloth masks). Surreptitiously slipped over the bronze faces of historic figures, the kouzhao bridged the promises of progress with the suffocating reality of China’s economic development.

Similar “silent protests” have subsequently occurred with statues in Chengdu and Xi’an. In a performance piece entitled “Marry the Blue Sky,” Beijing-based artist Kong Ning walked the streets of the capital in a ten-foot long wedding dress made up of 999 pollution masks. During her surreal wedding march, she implored Beijingers to take public transit. Another such example is Maskbook, a collective art project cofounded by Beijing artist Wen Fang that invites people around the world to design, photograph, and share their own pollution mask. As Wen explained in an interview, “In China we do not have Facebook, but since we are all wearing masks to protect us against pollution, if we had it, Facebook would be renamed Maskbook!” Such initiatives rely on the now mundane ubiquity and shared experience of donning an air mask in China. Deployed on a statue or sewn into a wedding gown, the kouzhao becomes a discursive medium among otherwise socially and economically distinct Chinese interlocutors. Invoking the embodied dangers of bad air and its habitual modes of defense, the mask recalls the fear and isolation air pollution has generated—cancelled school days, self-imposed quarantines, and the sheathed faces of friends and loved ones—even as it connects and empowers by rendering the lived effects of P.M. 2.5 visible and empathetic.

While artists and activists have mobilized the air mask as medium and message, China’s “netizens” have flooded the Internet with poignant images of their own views of the pollution crisis. Weibo and Wechat, China’s most popular social media platforms, are routinely crowded with personal chronicles of smog. Snapping photos in front of disappeared urban landmarks, from high-rise apartment windows, or from the ground up, Beijing inhabitants avidly document their quotidian airscapes. Evading state censorship, this collective action in the early days of the crisis helped establish the severity and prevalence of air pollution across Chinese cities, putting additional pressure on the government to act (Mina 2019, 135). Perhaps most notably, 55-year-old Beijing resident Zou Yi has gained national and international attention for his meticulous documentation of the city’s air. Each day, since January 2013, Zou has photographed the Beijing Television tower outside of his living room window and posted the image. Garnering millions of views, Zou’s feed provides a visual archive of Beijing’s pollution from a vantage point that is at once singular and widely recognizable. With this daily act, Zou depicts a city transformed by air, his images resonating most deeply with those that know the city, and that particular landmark, most intimately. In this way, his photographs have become profoundly participatory as they elicit public and private commentary, encouraging others to post their aerial perspectives and reflecting and reorienting urban life around the atmospheres that enfold it.

Bound together under the same leaden sky, Beijingers enact an atmospheric politics premised on shared substances, experiences, and necessities (Choy and Zee 2015). Kristen Simmons (2017) notes that in “attuning to how others (cannot) breathe, our haptics are enhanced and we develop capacities to feel one another otherwise.” In China, these aerial attunements galvanize new affinities and action among a population increasingly divided by income and status. In doing so, Beijing residents demonstrate how airy circulations might ground new communities and connections, revealing both the destructive and vital potentialities of contemporary atmospheres.


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