Saturday, 1 May 2010

keep off the grass

When I was young, I can remember my local park featuring several small signs bearing the legend “keep off the grass”, but when I went to a big city for the first time I found that open expanses of grass were somewhere to sit and bask in the sun, on the rare occasions when that busy old fool bothered to put in a reluctant appearance. In Beijing, things are rather different.

In the small park that I mentioned in my previous post, we had noticed a number of discreet signs, an approximate translation of which was “this is a beautiful area of grass; do you really want to spoil it by stepping on it?” Fair enough; this is no more than a subtle change of emphasis and not worth further comment. Until, that is, I stepped on the grass to take the following photograph:

I was subjected to a prolonged harangue by a metallic, disembodied voice: however, as this was in Putonghua, I cannot offer a full translation, although it was along the lines of “get off the grass”, and the tone was peremptory and distinctly unfriendly. We quickly discovered that a small speaker was embedded in the warning sign, and I wondered whether I had triggered some kind of hidden motion sensor. Naturally, I tested this hypothesis by stepping on the grass close to other signs, but nothing happened each time. I therefore reached the conclusion that I’d been subject to video surveillance by someone whose job it was to ensure that nobody walked on the grass.

I was not perturbed by any of this, but the incident did bring into sharp focus the difference between the Chinese view of neatly mown grass in a city park and how this same grass is viewed in a park in the West. In the latter case, it is a practical facility, to be enjoyed by being walked or sat on; in China, the grass is a purely visual amenity, to be appreciated only from a safe distance.


  1. I think the fact that it is apparently somebody’s job to “watch” the grass is amusing, I wonder what you get paid for that

  2. As a native Hongkonger, what you've said is very true... When I step out onto some grass with my friends in Canada or here in the UK, just for a second, inside my heart, it actually does strike me as peculiar that we should be treading upon grass-growing ground.

  3. Very interesting, Dennis.
    Big brother is watching...

  4. Grass is no fun if you can't romp, sit or lay on it! Yes, it's pretty to look at, and I suppose that's the point in staying off it, but grass is resilient; it always recovers from a squashing. For me, there are few things more inviting than a spot of lush, freshly cut grass to play on!


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