Party Time

image by imp kerr

Calendars and timezones are anything but standardized in China

“They don’t tell you what time it is; they tell you what kind of time it is.”
—Clifford Geertz

Where were you on August 8, 2008, 8:08 pm Beijing time (UTC+8)? That most auspicious moment — 8 is China’s luckiest number — saw the opening salvo of the Beijing Olympics, with a panoramic spectacle of Chinese civilization featuring over 15,000 performers. Superstition about numbers, opulent nationalism, a desperate desire to impress the world: no surprises there. But we missed the chronopolitics, the Party’s unmistakable mastery of time.

Like money, time is always absurd, customary, political: a tissue of conventions only loosely pegged to natural doings. 24 Western hours or 96 Chinese ke — either way, a day passes, appointments are made, clocks tick and bodies wither. Over time, the almost arbitrary choice acquires significance: cultural, cognitive, and otherwise. Did our seven-day week emerge from Genesis or the other way around? Ancient rulers busied themselves with calendars and astrological records, among the earliest writings of humanity. Whatever the system, time or place, any mandarin worth his seal cares about how time is segmented, marked, periodized, passed, and comprehended. Even so, Chinese time under communism is an extreme case: politicized to the max, ritualized beyond recognition.

China has 5000 years of history, say the cab drivers and the cadres, the coal miners and the calligraphers. Bronze drinking vessels, mythical emperors, divination inscriptions on turtle shells and ox scapulae — this is how things got started. The current Chinese year is 4650, if you start from the legendary emperor Huang Di ascending the throne, or else 4710 (the year the said Huang Di actually got around to inventing the calendar), or possibly even 4711 (throwing in an extra year for good measure — did Huang Di start from zero or one?). Like the Jewish calendar, the Chinese one affirms great antiquity with an arbitrary measurement of the time elapsed since something more or less forgotten did or didn’t happen.

There’s also a modern calendar, keyed to the founding of the Chinese Republic and today mostly used for official purposes in Taiwan: It’s the year 102. When Sun Yat-sen, China’s first President, sent the last emperor packing, he dispatched telegrams to all the relevant warlords, governors, and assorted power brokers, declaring that the calendar of the mythical Yellow Emperor had run out of days. On or about January 1, 1912 (the founding of the Republic of China), human character changed.

It was now the Year One, not Zero. (The Western calendar also steers clear of nullity, skipping right from 1 BC to AD 1.) Sun’s resetting of the clock drew partly on the French Revolution — Year 1 began on September 22, 1792, with each month thereafter exquisitely named, each saint day overlain with an animal, vegetable, mineral, or tool — but also on Chinese tradition. Across East Asia, newborns were always one year old at birth, and the Lunar New Year was a universal birthday when everyone’s age got +1’d all at once. And it was the rise and fall of dynasties, the give-and-take of reign years, the obscure, poetic “era names” proclaimed by emperors, that patterned Chinese history, not the metronome of centuries and decades, works of Western decimal-mania. Even today, “18th century China” doesn’t call much to mind, but “early Qing” is awash with meaning. The variable length of dynasties, from just a few years to several centuries, is a useful reminder: Periods are absurd.

In 1949, following the usual roll call of cataclysmic natural and astrological occurrences, Emperor Mao proclaimed the latest of China’s dynasties under the curious reign name “People’s Republic.” He instituted the Gregorian Calendar once and for all — though some rural folks hung onto the good old lunisolar, needed anyway for traditional holidays. Despite the Chairman’s attachment to classical verse, he devoted his superannuated years to smashing “the Four Olds”: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. Antiques meant nothing — or trouble. The fervent modernist destruction of the past foreshadowed (and inspired) our postmodern passion for preserving it.

After staring into the ahistorical abyss, China, the young-old country, now flaunts a fattened ritual calendar of Party-approved anniversaries. Enlivened by sentimental spectacles, the Communist canon of Great Men and Tall Deeds is wheeled out on an endless loop. In 2011, the 90th anniversary of the Party overshadowed the Republic’s 100th birthday, not to be confused with the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic two years earlier, itself bombastically feted. The 10th anniversary of “reunification” with Hong Kong (2007) was schmaltzy as hell, but at least it made the 10th anniversary of “reunification” with Macao (2009) go down a bit easier.

In 2013, we find ourselves in the third year of the 12th Five-Year Plan (or “Guideline”), rubber-stamped at the fifth plenary session of the 17th Central Committee. Late 2012 saw the epic, empty 18th Party Congress; a 19th, equally epic and empty, will be held in five years’ time. Plenums, plenaries, congresses, conventions, and so on: these seem to be the Circadian rhythms of the system, but mask a perpetual sleep.

For all the anniversaries honored with patriotic pomp, there are also dates in the calendar that resonate fearfully every year. Dissent itself is on a ritual calendar. March 10 means Tibetan protests, self-immolations, and travel restrictions. June 4 (the massacre near Tiananmen) means added surveillance, coded internet memes, rumblings in the dissident diaspora. September 18 — the day in 1931 when Japan invaded China — is usually good for a frenzied nationalistic flare-up over a few uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea. As with 9/11, dates serve as shorthand, bracketing barely fathomable events: June 4 stands in for the massacre and its aftermath; May 4 for a mass movement that arguably lasted years; August 1, the putative day of its establishment, represents the People’s Liberation Army.

China Standard Time is where the Party’s easy way with time is on full display. Daylight savings, observed from 1986 to 1991, was quickly abandoned, as elsewhere in Asia. Strictly geographic, the five time zones of the Nationalist era (1912-1949) are now a vanishing memory, their purged names suffused with nostalgia: the Kunlun Time Zone, the Sinkiang-Tibet Time Zone, Kansu-Szechuan, Chungyuan, Changpai. Today, in a country just about the size of the United States, both north-south and east-west, national unity dictates a single time zone: Beijing’s. And the world’s most populous time zone will soon get a lot bigger if the Association of Southeast Asian Nations adopts “ASEAN Common Time,” bringing a region four time zones wide fully onto Chinese time.

Along with the other hundred million people of far Western China, I lived a few years under the mild inconvenience of someone else’s clock. Not at all north, we saw the sun creep over the horizon at 8 a.m., while midwinter in Xinjiang, in the extreme northwest, it might not come till 10. Informal “Xinjiang time,” two hours behind Beijing, flourishes under wraps, the guerrilla time zone a mild reminder of the Uighur independence struggle. Cross the land border from Xinjiang to Pakistan on the stunning Karakoram Highway and you’ve gained three hours in an instant (you’ll need it for the customs formalities). Now that feels like travel.

For all its politics and particularisms, China Standard Time is not the “Timeless Orient” of colonial fantasy. That myth fed partly on rumors of Chinese as a magical “timeless” language. It is true that Chinese verbs have no tenses, only “aspects” — grammatical markers, less emphasized in English, that highlight how the action unfolds: whether it’s over already, is taking a long time, happens repeatedly, and so on.

In Chinese, you just need the context, as in such “simple present” English sentences as “I leave tomorrow” or “I finish next year.” A little uncertainty allowed, a bit of grammar not synced with Party Time. Tense is quietly implied, without boasts of will. Indirection, modesty, paraphrase: That’s how most languages address the future, when they do so at all.