Every two minutes someone in China commits suicide. In Nanjing, on the country’s most famous bridge, one man tries to stop as many as possible from killing themselves.
Chen Si looks at Saturday’s newspaper. “Another One Jumped Off the Bridge,” reads the headline on page B9. Below the bold print, a photo shows the body of a 24-year old Chinese man who ended his life after his heart had been broken by a girl. He jumped off the bridge into the muddy waters of the Yangtze River.
Such news doesn’t even make the front page anymore in Nanjing, the ancient capital of the Chinese empire near Shanghai. Each year, 150 to 200 people come to this bridge to kill themselves.
On September 10, 2003, Chen Si (44) and his daughter walked across this imposing bridge. Almost 5 kilometres long, four traffic lanes share the top deck with two sidewalks for pedestrians and motorbikes. The lower deck has train tracks.
Construction of the bridge was completed in 1968, when China was still a country of impoverished peasants. It was the first bridge crossing the Yangtze, China’s longest river. Upon completion it was the longest combined bridge for vehicles and trains in the world. The Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge is still the most famous bridge in China.
Chen had been living in Nanjing since 1990, but until that day in 2003 he had never visited the bridge. “Walking there with my daughter I passed a girl. She was 18 or 19 years old. All of a sudden, she climbed over the side and jumped. In a flash I grabbed the collar of her coat. She was very light, so without much effort I was able to pull her back onto the bridge.”
Patrolling on wheels
The girl told him she wanted to kill herself because she had been cheated out of several thousand yuan (a few hundred euros). Chen: “I talked some sense into her, until her family came to pick her up. That’s when I realised how easy it can be to save someone. A week later, I heard on TV that a great number of Chinese people kill themselves every year. That’s when it hit me: what I had done for this girl I would have to do more often for other people as well.”
A lot more often. Chen decided to start patrolling the bridge every weekend. His first patrol was September 19, 2003. He hasn’t missed a weekend since. In 2005 he started using a motorcycle to move faster across the long bridge whenever he spotted someone who might jump.
Every year, 250,000 to 300,000 people commit suicide in China. That’s roughly 1 in 5,000 people. For the sake of comparison: in the Netherlands 1 in every 11,000 people ends his or her life.
Suicide is the most common cause of death among Chinese between the ages of 15 and 35. These are young people trying to escape the pressures of fast changing, contemporary China. The pressure to be number one in school and of being the only child in the family. The pressure of finding a good job, a suitable partner and the money to buy an apartment - which is unaffordable for the vast majority of twenty-somethings. The pressure to take care of their ageing parents. The pressure that has been part of Chinese culture for centuries, in which failure is not an option.
In September 2010 Chen ‘celebrated’ the seventh anniversary of his weekend job as a watchman on the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge. He celebrated by riding his motorcycle across the bridge, both Saturday and Sunday, from sunrise to sunset. Just like every weekend.
Over the years, he has saved 198 lives. Like the two on Sunday, November 7, 2010, when Chen spotted a pair of girls walking across the bridge.
The only way to reach the top deck of the bridge on foot is a dark staircase in the vast pillars of the bridge. There are 140 steps: each one a step closer to death for the many people who went before these girls to end their lives here.
“I spotted them at 10:50 a.m., standing on the East side of the bridge,” Chen says. “They had left their bags a bit further down the road and were just standing there, looking over the side, crying. On my motorcycle I was able to get to them in time to stop them from jumping.
“They were called Zhang and Wang, both from the poor province of Anhui in Eastern China and younger than 20 years old. They had been working for six months in a factory on the northern shore of the Yangtze River. Now they wanted to go home to help out with the rice harvest. The factory boss refused to pay their salaries, a combined total of 8,000 yuan (900 euros). Moreover, he refused to let them go. They were only allowed to leave after signing a statement in which they confessed that the boss didn’t owe them anything.
“With no money to their name, they were out on the street. That’s when they decided they might as well jump into the river.”
Chen had a hard time convincing the girls not to end their lives. “I wanted to take them to Xinling Yizhang. That’s an apartment I rent, where people I have saved can come to terms with themselves. It’s a beautiful place, with a view of a peach tree and a pond. I hope it relaxes people and shows them life is beautiful.” The girls, refusing to leave the bridge, were eventually taken away by the police. Alive.
Chen writes about all his experiences on his web log. It has earned him national fame in China. People with a heavy heart from all over the country now try to get in touch with him. Since 2003, Chen has given advice in person to over 7,000 people, not including his work on the bridge. He also spoke on the phone with over 16,000 people and even comforted 51,000 people via text message.
“I’m not a well-educated man,” Chen says. “I come from a backward region of China, so I can’t write very well. Moreover, I’m not qualified to advise others on how to save people. I just hope my blog inspires people who are feeling down.”
So far, his volunteer work has cost him 232,000 yuan (26,000 euros), mostly from renting the apartment and buying gas for his motorcycle. Only part of this money is covered by donations. His regular job at a transportation company earns him 2,600 yuan (293 euros) a month, which he also needs to take care of his wife and daughter.
Easy to recognize
A cold wind haunts the high bridge. Chen pulls his fur-lined coat over his blue New York Yankees cap. Even though the skies are grey, he wears sunglasses. “To protect my eyes from the sand that the wind blows up from the river,” he shouts, to make himself heard over the noise of the traffic and trains underneath. The Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge is no place you visit for fun every weekend.
A man on the other sidewalk across the bridge sits on his motorcycle, hunched down deeply in his coat. “I pay special attention to people like that,” Chen says. “People who hang around in one place for too long, who don’t seem to be doing anything and who seem to be ignoring all others around them. A sick bird sings differently than healthy birds. Similarly, you can instantly recognise a person who wants to commit suicide. You can see it in their eyes: they don’t seem to be looking at anything anymore. Sometimes, all they wear is pyjamas. Often they cry quietly, especially women.”
The man on the motorcycle turns out to be using his cell phone. No case for Chen.
His latest rescue occurred on a recent Saturday. “A 35-year old migrant worker who had lost all of his money. I didn’t spot him until he was hanging half over the side of the bridge. I chased over there and was able to get him fully back on the bridge.” It was a positive result Chen badly needed. “Not long ago I saw a man hanging around the public toilets on the bridge. I wasn’t able to get to him in time. I saw how he covered his face with his coat, scared to stare down in to the depths. That’s when he jumped.”
Chen says he learned not to care too much about these ‘misses’. “I’m all by myself doing this work. With my regular job I cannot be here all the time. I also have to be at home for my wife and daughter.”
Still, the missed rescues haunt him, he confesses over lunch in a small, windy restaurant underneath the bridge. He takes a sip of baijiu, strong Chinese liquor, against the cold. “Often enough I fail to save someone. Just when you think they’re not going to do it anymore, they jump. Every now and then those images return in my dreams. Some of them cry like wolves when they fall. That excruciating sound often haunts my head at night.”
Chen found a solution. “I’ll get drunk with some friends. Then, the next morning, I visit the temple. After that, everything in life looks perfect again.”
He will need a lot of boosts like that. Spring is coming. It’s the season when most people climb the bridge, intending only to jump.
Watch the video
Bridge Keeper Chen Si, by Bas Roetering (Metropolis TV)
Remko Tanis has worked as a correspondent in China since 2008 for various Dutch newspapers and broadcasters.
"From my office on the 23rd floor I look out on one of Shanghai’s central districts. Seven new skyscrapers have appeared in the past 3 years and number eight and nine are under construction. They’re a daily reminder of the speed and determination with which China is positioning itself as a global power.
What’s happening in this neighbourhood is happening throughout the country. And as dramatically as the landscape is being changed by asphalt and concrete, 1.3 billion flesh and blood Chinese are struggling with turbulent social changes. The transformation of their country offers new chances but also brings new problems.
The people I have pictured for One11 refuse to stand on the sidelines. They have the courage to challenge a still old-style authoritarian government. The courage to offer, sometimes literally, a helping hand to those who are in danger of going under in this brave new world. In an increasingly dog-eat-dog society they act for others. They undertake work that – in a healthy nation – would be the responsibility of government and civil society but which in China too often goes undone.”