Rain or shine, China is the 'Umbrella Kingdom'

Clara Marie Schultz
Umbrellas are not one of China's Four Great Inventions – paper, printing, gunpowder and the compass – but arguably it should be the fifth.
Clara Marie Schultz

For a Westerner in China, it’s striking how pervasive umbrellas are — come rain or shine. And in all sizes, colors and styles: from the small and dainty to those fitted to motor scooters.

It’s not one of China’s Four Great Inventions — paper, printing, gunpowder and the compass — but arguably it should be the fifth.

Few cultures consider umbrellas as essential to day-to-day life as the Chinese do.

In the West, people are typically sheltered from all types of weather in their cars. In most other countries, they are only for the rain and not as widely used even then.

But even on bright sunny days on the streets in Shanghai and across China, umbrellas are a common sight.

“I take an umbrella with me every time I leave the house,” said Qu Jiajie, a cheery middle-aged cafeteria employee in Shanghai.

Raincoats and rain ponchos are also often used in rainy weather, but rain or shine, in China the umbrella, or san, reigns supreme.

On a hot summer day, a doting grandfather in his mid-fifties who gave his surname as Li, pushes his 2-year-old granddaughter in a stroller, arm stretched over her so that she is completely in the shade of his yellow flower print umbrella.

But it is such a normal part of life, that asking about umbrellas often brings confused looks and a puzzled response. Most people don’t even think about the origin of the umbrella.

According to popular mythology, umbrellas were invented in the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) by Yun Shi, wife of legendary carpenter and engineer Lu Ban, commonly referred to as the “father” of Chinese architecture.

Yun drew inspiration from tents that her husband made to shelter people from the weather.

Upon revealing her invention to Lu, she bragged, “The tents you’ve created are not portable, my san on the other hand, can be brought anywhere to provide protection in all seasons.”

Nowadays, the san has new functions. Many Chinese — especially women — want one with UV protection to avoid tanning and skin damage.

Like Molly Hai, a young professional who often can be seen brandishing her bright blue and pink umbrella with an opaque black lining.

“In the summer I always carry a UV resistant umbrella to avoid getting tan,” she said. “It’s better than wearing long sleeves or pants because I can stay cool and still avoid the sun. It’s quite convenient.”

Businesswoman Amy Li, originally from Beijing, described her umbrella as an “important investment in both my comfort and fashion.

“A raincoat would be too hot, and besides I prefer umbrellas. I walk to work every day so it’s important that I remember my umbrella, especially when it is raining or in the summer. It improves my quality of life in a small but noticeable way,” she said.

The way people move from place to place in Shanghai actually makes an umbrella very useful.

Unlike Americans who remain sheltered in cars, traversing cities which are almost all designed exclusively for driving, Shanghainese have a great public transport system, which means they are on the streets more as they go to and from metro stations or bus stops. Many subway stations even offer umbrella rental.

When it rains, office buildings and shopping malls put out stands with plastic bags to cover wet umbrellas — practically unheard of in the West.

While many people in the West depend on their cars, people on the streets in China enjoy the outdoors during their daily commute underneath their own personal patch of portable shade.

The author is an intern at Shanghai Daily.

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