Dealing with China Noise


Noise. Probably the single most unnerving aspect of Chinese city life anyone from a country with reasonable standards of decibels is the concerning rate of noise pollution. As you plan on making your new life in China or are returning from a relaxingly, or disturbingly, quiet break in your home country, brace yourself against the wall of sound that will regularly assault your hearing organs. We have prepared a few tidbits on what to expect and how to escape the daunting decibels that loom in Nanjing. Whether its the concert of a thousand honking cars stuck in a traffic jam, the chatter of customers in a restaurant that reaches astonishingly high levels or the incessant hammering and drilling of one or the other construction site at what to foreigners are often ungodly hours; in China it seems if it does not make noise, there is something not quite right about it.

As early as 1980, a year after the Opening-Up and Reform, when cars were still few and far between, noise measurements of the city of Nanjing rendered shocking results. Less than 5% of the city qualified as very quiet 35 years ago and over 61% were classified as noisy to varying degrees. One can only imagine what three and a half decades and new technology have done to hurry along the increase of decibel levels in our town of residence. In many Chinese cities, noise now ranks third among pollutants after air and water in terms of severity. Luckily, the Chinese government has recognized the issue and as part of their campaign to clean up the soundtrack of the city, measures such as outlawing the sales staff in front of stores screaming into their megaphones have been mostly successfully implemented. That being said, every trip down to Suguo often comes with an audio accompaniment that makes one’s hair stand on end, while the very basic street vendors will continue to loop a pre-recorded cacophony of their daily offering in a megaphone. There is still a long way to go.

Some might wonder why anyone would make such a big fuss about a bit of extra noise. Consider that with noise pollution come seriously harmful effects to people’s health. On the most basic level, noise can keep us from sleeping, and we all know the issues that come with sleep deprivation. In a second instance, noise can cause loss of hearing, tinnitus, elevated blood pressure, headaches, vertigo, stress, anger and depression, a whole host of physical and psychological problems.

Being aware of the issue, one can actively seek out quiet in one’s daily life to the extent that this is possible and realistic. We have carried together some suggestions and noise-avoidance tactics to help you with the quest for a low-decibel lifestyle.


1. Don’t move into entirely new buildings.

The newer, the better? Not in this case. If you move into a new building, let’s set the definition for new as constructed no earlier than two years ago, chances are a lot of small scale construction will be taking place as residents start individually fitting out their flats. Then of course there is countless furniture to be assembled upon arrival of new residents. Prepare for hammering, banging, clanking, drilling and any other construction related noise, giving you a rough start to your Sunday and every other morning of the week at around 7am.

2. Don’t move into non-secure compounds.

Flats that are not safely shaded from the public through gates and security guards are prone to street vendors walking right up to one’s window in the early morning hours screeching out their services; one of my personal favourite is the knife sharpening guy who used to wake me up at 6.30am.

3. Don’t live next to a big crossing.

Maybe not rocket science, but with the Chinese love for anything that honks, you generally want to remove yourself from any major crossings that turn into unrelenting traffic jams and result in a rendition of “Honk Your Heart Out” from 7am to 8.30am each morning and then again in the early evening.

4. Don’t live next to a large square or park.

Even international news outlets have reported on the dancing damas in China, pensioners and middle-aged ladies who meet up in the evenings to go through their daily dance routine to stay fit and healthy. The Bollywood, Canto-Pop or even Techno compositions emanating from their ghetto blaster though is anything but healthy. Visit any potential flat during the evening hours to assess the presence of the dancing threat to your eardrums.

5. Don’t live next to a car park.

Obviously the only way those e-bikes, mopeds and cars are safe from theft is if they make an absolute racket each time anyone so much as breathes in their vicinity. A large car park close to your window (a 200 m radius equals close) should set your alarm bells off, as you will spend your night being persistently dragged out of your sleep in a rather ungentle manner by the sirens howling across the lot.

6. Consider flat layout.

Depending on the size and layout of the flat you are looking to rent, the number of people above, below and on each side of the room you sleep in will vary and as a result so will the amount of noise from which you will suffer. Ideally find a flat with a bedroom in the corner of the building and rooms on either side.

7. Live high up.

The easiest way to avoid many of the issues mentioned above, dancing damas, howling alarms and screeching vendors, is to live as far-up as possible, so the noise cannot reach you anymore. From the 20th floor upwards is a good rule of thumb; you better not suffer from vertigo. Also, plan in an extra 10 minutes to work for the elevator wait.

8. Live less central.

Yepp, another rather obvious one, but if you decide to live in the Shanghai Lu downtown area, the Xinjiekou CBD or Gulou, the so-called hot spots of Nanjing, noise levels will rise accordingly. Look towards districts that are less populated such as Hexi New District, Jiangning or Xianlin, for a more tolerable audio environment.

9. Don’t EVER open your windows at night.

This is the be all and end all. If you open your windows, all of the above shall mercilessly burst into your flat and into your ears, plus the sound of an army of howling dogs of course. It’s not like the air is fresh anyway, so only open those glorious glassy noise dispersers unless you absolutely have to, for example if you thought an indoor barbie was a great idea and the flat is all smoked up and you are about to die from asphyxiation.

General Life

10. Don’t go to restaurants during rush hour. 

Aside from the fact that you will most likely have to queue up at more popular establishments before being admitted into the hustle and bustle of clanking cuttlery and screamersations, this is not the type of relaxing dining experience you were probably hoping for. Therefore, if you can stomach it, chose to go for food at an unusual hour such as late afternoon, to avoid the masses and have an altogether calmer meal.

11. Take-Out instead of Eating In 

If you just need to have your food at a certain hour, that unfortunately coincides with dining rush hour, or you just want to make sure you have more control over the noise levels you are being exposed to, go for the take-out or delivery options and have your food at home, where you can tell your partner off for talking too loudly.

12. Don’t go to Suguo unless you have to.

Of course it is next to impossible to never go to any large supermarket in China; at some point or other you will have to drag yourself along the isles of employees screaming angrily in your face that shower gel is BOGOF this week. However, Nanjing, as many other Chinese cities, is full of little convenience stores that sell your basic necessities and they generally neither need nor could afford any staff announcing the latest uninteresting offer into their microphones. Granted they might have the TV running, but because the shop is so much smaller, the whole process will be over a lot quicker and overall it will be a lot less painful.

13. Steer clear of street stalls and push carts.

If you see a vendor on the other side of the road with a push cart you can safely assume they have a megaphone hidden somewhere between those grapes or tools and they are just waiting for the right moment to pull them out and blast an audio affront towards your ear canals. Maybe stay on this side of the street.

14. Seek out quiet spaces.

On the weekend, instead of going shopping in the city centre or having dinner at the latest fashionable restaurant, actively seek out “calm locations” that give your eardrums a break. A walk in the Olympic Park or the Fishmouth Wetlands for example, places that are almost entirely deserted by human presence, natural scenic spots with few tourists such as Laoshan Mountain or such places where one is not allowed to talk such as public libraries.

15. Have noise-canceling headphones or earplugs on hand.

In any event, you might want to consider purchasing one of the above and carrying them with you for those times when the noise takes over. They might not look cool but they will save you from unnecessary pain. Especially during Chinese New Year, which could aptly be renamed “week-long racket”, they might come in handy to shield you from the worst effects of China’s noise pollution.

While an overtly noisy environment is something that needs to be taken seriously, there is no need to buy that plane ticket back home just yet. Consider your body’s ability to adapt to new environments. While upon your initial arrival in China things may seem awfully loud, after a while you will usually get used to most of the noises. You might even find yourself completely oblivious to certain sounds that were driving you crazy when you first set foot on the mainland. It is not until your visiting friends and family complain of all the different assaults on their ears that you begin to notice how many of them do not even faze you anymore. Welcome to China.

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