Raymond Chen has an interesting post titled the cultural anthropology of getting on a bicycle. I left a comment there. It is fairly long so I decided to cross post it here.
There were no children’s bike when I was growing up in rural China in the 70’s. Since bike was such a valued possession of the household, and most families just had one, letting you learn to bike is a sort of milestone in your childhood. That means you are old enough and competent enough that your parents trust you can handle it with care.
The first step in the process is to learn to scoot on the bike, almost always on the left paddle. In Chinese, I call it 遛车子. At this point most likely you are not tall enough to even get on the seat by yourself yet. This step takes days or weeks, depending on the child.
The second step, as Geoffrey mentioned in his comment at Raymond’s site, is to stick your right foot through the frame, under the horizontal bar between the seat and the vertical bar below the handlebar in the front, and pedal away. This requires a lot of balancing skills and finesse, as your center of gravity is on the left side of the bike constantly, swinging up and down as you go forward. This is the only way to “ride” the bike at this point, as you are not tall enough to ride on the seat yet. We call it 掏腿骑. Remember there were no children’s bike then.
Usually when you are tall enough to be able to sit on the seat and still reach the pedal, your balancing skill is such that you can swing your right leg over the back to get on, or raise your right leg in front of your body and move it across the horizontal bar. In general, the later method is preferred by girls, as it can be considered ungraceful to spread and swing your leg over the back. That also depends on if you carry groceries or other things on the back storage rack. Sometimes people mount two baskets, one on each side, on the side of the back rack. That will force you to get on from the front.
A lot of times adult carry their small child on the bike. The child sits on the horizontal bar, holding his/her hands on the handlebar. You can buy an optional seat that can be mounted on the horizontal bar, close to the handle, to make the child feel more comfortable.
But that is not all. You can put a child in the front and still carry something or somebody in the back rack. If you carry a person in the back, the person has to run and hop on it after you are safely in motion. For a girl or woman on the back rack, she needs to sit sideways, as again it can be considered ungraceful to sit with your legs spread on each side. Woman rides on a donkey the same way.
As kids getting bigger, sometimes they get on the bike the American way, as it has a certain kind of rugged and manly aura to it.
I am sure things are different now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the traditional way is used in more remote or poor areas.