A delivery worker rides an electric scooter across a street ahead of Alibaba's Singles' Day shopping festival in Shanghai, 10 Nov 2022. Image: Aly Song/Reuters

The story was originally published in Mandarin by journalist Ping Du on the Chinese social media application – WeChat.

As of June 2023, there are an estimated 84 million delivery couriers in China, making it one of the biggest occupations in the country. Following the Chinese e-commerce industry boom in the past 15 years, the demand for express delivery has increased exponentially. Parcel couriers, also known as kuaidi xiaoge or “little courier brothers,” are responsible for delivering 300 million packages and parcels to customers every day. They have brought immense convenience to people’s lives, yet their hard work has often gone unnoticed and unappreciated. Parcel couriers work tirelessly—usually from 7 am to 9 pm on work days, regardless of harsh weather conditions or exhaustion. A large number of these couriers come from humble backgrounds, in county-level prefectures from all over the country, to the biggest cities to make a living for themselves and their families, and eventually try to settle down. 

Ping Du is a journalist and television commentator on China and international affairs at Phoenix TV in Hong Kong. Ping was formerly a reporter for China Radio International in Brussels on European integration and an editor for Lianhe Zaobao, Singapore’s largest Chinese-language newspaper. At the time of writing this story, Ping would take biweekly trips to Beijing to record a program for Phoenix TV. In this particular trip that serves as the backdrop to this story, Ping had brought several copies of his autobiography, which had been published in the summer of 2017.


The weather in Beijing today is pleasant again. As I draw open the curtains in my hotel room, the building across from me reflects the warm sunlight into my eyes. It feels cozy and fuzzy, yet the world outside remains cold, as it is only the beginning of spring. Swaddled in my thick winter garments, I head downstairs to find a courier to deliver a book to my friend.

Adjacent to the hotel, where I stayed, were several quiet backstreets. Braving the cold morning air, a few cleaners silently swept the streets. Every few dozen steps along the roadside, there was a delivery tricycle, and couriers were frantically sorting their parcels and distributing them to customers.

“Could you help me deliver a book?” I asked hopefully of one of the couriers, who was bending over the trunk of his delivery tricycle, arranging stacks of parcels of all different shapes and sizes. As he hears my question, the courier straightens himself up, turns around, and responds: “You said you wanted to send a book? Sure thing!” He took out a delivery slip from the tricycle for me to fill out. I didn’t have a pen, and neither did he, so he said, “Please fill it out inside; we can get a pen and it’s warm.”

The courier led me into the adjacent office building and borrowed a pen from the security guard. As I filled out the form, he suddenly asked me, “Are you Mr. Du Ping? Did you write this book?” Of course, I knew that he did not actually know who I was. It was only because he saw the cover of the book with my picture and name on it, that he realized I was the author. “Yes, I am the author,” I replied. Immediately, his eyes lit up with bewilderment, and his slightly flushed face, probably from the cold wind, revealed an innocence and shyness that I recalled from my youth.

Suddenly, I was struck by conflicting emotions. I had brought several copies of my book to Beijing for my work trip this time. Apart from the one I intended to courier, I had a few left in the hotel, ready to hand-deliver to friends. Being published in Singapore, the price of the book, converted to Chinese Yuan, would be around a hundred yuan. Should I sell it to him at the regular price? I couldn’t possibly do that. Should I just give it to him? Honestly, I hesitated. Bringing these books from afar for friends meant a lot; giving one so easily to a stranger seemed to undermine that heartfelt gesture.

The courier stood there, glaring, eagerly waiting for a response. I hesitantly replied, “You are so busy, where do you find the time to read? You work so hard to make a living, spending a hundred yuan on a book is too much.” An expression of disappointment flashed briefly on the courier’s face, but he persisted. “Mr. Du, I am from Hengshui, Hebei1. My family is poor, so I stopped studying after completing primary school. But I always loved reading, and I have a big shelf full of books at home. I bought all of them myself! I want to have your WeChat, mister. I will pay you there! Please, sell me your book at the regular price and write something for me on it and leave it at the front desk of your hotel. I will go pick it up in no time. Please?”

Those who make a living out of pen and paper are often tenderhearted. As for myself, the books that I have written to date are grossly out of touch with the mundane, and very few can relate. So whenever someone asks for a book, it feels like finding a kindred spirit. Just like that, we exchanged WeChat details, and I agreed to have him pick up the book at the hotel later. He quickly sent me a WeChat red packet2, with the words ‘Thank you, Mr. Du,’ followed by a text message that stated his full name.

Back in the hotel room, an inexplicable sense of emotion swelled within me, evoking memories of my youth. During one summer while in high school, I worked odd jobs for a month, blistering my hands to earn a few dozen yuan. I didn’t hand the earnings over to my parents but spent it all in a bookstore. Though I wasn’t reprimanded for it, I regretted it deeply for a long time afterward.

The courier’s name was Yang Hongfei, an employee of Yunda Express Delivery. On the first page of the book, I wrote his name and the words: “Enjoy the scent of books on your delivery journeys!” Just as I was ready to hand over the book to the front desk, I suddenly felt the urge to see Yang Hongfei again. I walked in the direction of where we had parted ways, and there Yang Hongfei was, still in the same posture that I first saw him— his head lowered and bowed over, sorting a new batch of mail. I got his attention once again and handed the book to him.

Yang Hongfei was overcome with delight. “Thank you so very much, Mr. Du! I am so incredibly fortunate today!” he exclaimed. He cradled the book against his chest, asking me to take a few pictures of him with it. In the evening, he messaged me on WeChat, informing me that the book I had entrusted him with in the morning was packed and would reach my friend by tomorrow. Finally, he insisted that I accept his WeChat red packet, which I hadn’t accepted until then.

As I arrive at this part of the story, the brilliant Beijing sun has completely set. I find myself drawn to the window once more, this time by an artificial glow that paints the purple Beijing sky. I shift my gaze below to the endless stream of cars and people, and the echoes of Yang Hongfei’s gratitude spring back into my mind. As I watch a living canvas unfold beneath me, I cannot help but see silhouettes of Yang Hongfei; diligent couriers tirelessly navigating the streets, even this late in the evening. Each figure represents a humble yet untold story of resilience, determination, and selflessness. They come from all corners of the country, speak different dialects, and enjoy different foods, yet they all share the same struggle.

Beijing’s remarkable progress owed itself as much to the architect and the engineer as to express couriers like Yang Hongfei, who continue to carry the city on their shoulders forward and upwards, mile by mile, delivery by delivery. Without knowing, they have already woven their stories into the ever-expanding tapestry of modern Beijing.

The original publication in Chinese can be read here.

  1. Hebei consistently ranks as one of the provinces with the lowest GDP per capita in China. In 2021, it was ranked 27 out of 31 provinces and regions in China, only in front of Guizhou, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Heilongjiang, and Gansu. Hengshui, the hometown of the courier, is one of the top 10 most polluted cities in China. ↩︎
  2. Red packets are common monetary gifts in Chinese culture during special occasions such as weddings and the Spring Festival. On WeChat, there is an option to send a virtual red packet to someone of up to 200 Yuan. Now used for all purposes, it is often preferred to regular money transfers due to its convenience. ↩︎

Shangbie Du

Shangbie is a Junior Fellow at The Hague Journal of Diplomacy and a researcher at Law and Research Network. He holds a master’s degree in international relations and diplomacy from Leiden University (2023).

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