China’s mystifying holiday system

Last week I arrived in Beijing after a few days in Hangzhou and met up with some old colleagues, at our old office. It was a Saturday, but they were all working – the price they had to pay for the three-day Mid-Autumn Festival holiday. Get three weekdays off, but pay back one of those days by working on the weekend. One Chinese colleague lashed out at the government for what she called the world’s most irrational holiday system.

I was delighted to see a piece in yesterday’s NY Times that captures just how strange a system it is.

Beyond the frustration of overloaded transportation and jam-packed tourist attractions, there is the problem of figuring out what has become a decidedly confusing rubric of work and vacation days.

According to a government-mandated holiday schedule that took effect in 2008, workers were given three consecutive days off last week for the Mid-Autumn Festival, but they were required to make up two of those by working the Saturday and Sunday on either end of the holiday.

This give-and-take arrangement is then repeated for the National Day holiday, with employees enjoying seven straight days off — Friday through Oct. 7 — except only three of those are official free days. (The four “gifted days” will be made up over the weekends before and after.)

If you have trouble with the math, you are in good company…. A cheat sheet that has been making the rounds on the Internet sums up the pattern as such, beginning Sept. 18: One day off, three days on, three days off, six days on, seven days off, two days on, one day off.

Confusion aside, many Chinese resent having to pay back some of their vacation days.

The article does a good job of explaining how China’s “Golden Weeks” got started and how they’re being changed, and why so many Chinese feel exasperated with such a complicated mess.

I first experienced Golden Week-induced culture shock back in October 2002, and it never really went away. Being forced to work on weekends to make up for mandatory holidays was something I’d never fully get used to.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 18 Comments

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October 3, 2010 @ 4:05 am | Pingback

Although it may not be advantageous to do so, is there any real option to ignore the schedule either partly or entirely?

October 3, 2010 @ 6:36 am | Comment

It’s not so bad when you have to work a weekend before one of the long holidays, because at least you get a week off to make up for it. I really despise the short holidays, though, when you end up working 12 straight days for a 3 day weekend. Doesn’t happen to often, but it does occasionally.

October 3, 2010 @ 6:45 am | Comment

The whole idea behind government-mandated week-long holidays has a significant flaw – the original “golden weeks” were brought in in Japan as a way of ensuring that people would take their holidays. Pathetically, even nowadays most Japanese people are expected to give up their voluntary holidays for the good of the company, and almost all do so. My boss in my old job in Osaka said that even though we were allowed to take voluntary paid leave, we should not because it was “a test of character”. Mandating holidays only ever made sense in the context of a working culture in which people would not take their voluntary holidays and therefore needed to be forced to take time off, but this is not the case in China where most people simply take the holidays that are given to them without the mock-heroic nonsense one finds in Japanese companies. Therefore, it would be much better for all if the government simply made sure that all companies give their workers the required amount of voluntary paid leave.

October 3, 2010 @ 5:43 pm | Comment

On Carnivorous Societies and Herbivorous Societies

The animal kingdom can be roughly divided into two families: Herbivores and Carnivores.

Herbivores are relatively speaking static and isolated, because they can survive and survive well just by eating grass. But for carnivores, they do not have the luxury of remaining static and isolated. In order to survive, they must prey on other animals. Without other animals, they will starve to death. This is just a biological certainty.

People are nothing but animals. And after millenia of evolution and development, the humans on this earth have formed into various types of civilizations and various types of cultures.

Human societies can be roughly divided into two categories: herbivorous societies and carnivorous societies.

The Western society is a carnivorous society, it’s a group of humans whose survival depends on preying on other humans. Its civilizational development and progress depends on the civilization and progress of others. This is true from literal sense as well: if you look at the traditional diet of the West and the East (note: traditional diet. Not the diet as practiced today under globalization and commercialization of agriculture), you’ll realize the amount of meat consumed in the West is several hundreds of times that of the East. When my parents visited me in America a few years ago and I took them to a steak restaurant to expose them to traditional Western cuisine, they looked at their slab of bloody half cooked half raw meat, and asked me: “Are we at the zoo?”

The Oriental society is a herbivorous society, it is a grass-eating society, and a relatively static and isolated civilization. The Chinese civilization, for example, was born alongside the banks of the Yellow and Long Rivers and their associated fertile lands. As a result, oriental collectivism started through centuries of dealing with flooding, tilling the fields and being self-sufficient. Chinese culture, at its core, is a land-based culture, farm-based culture, a static culture, an inward culture, a herbivorous culture. It is fundamentally different from the sea-based, meat-based, exploration based, conquest based, carnivorous culture of the West. Chinese scholars called Chinese civilization a Yellow Civilization, referring to the color of the earth, and called the Western civilization a Blue Civilization, referring to the color of the Ocean. And in the 80′s, there was a famous and controversial documentary made by a group of Chinese historians that basically urged the entire Chinese race to turn its civilization from Yellow to Blue, to go “out to sea”, to avoid being crushed by the aggressive and carnivorous civilization of the West. But that is the topic of another discussion.

What is Confucianism? Confuciniam, at its core, is the a set of institutions and principles managing an agricultural, herbivorous society. Its features are: orderly and stable social hierarchy as defined by the relationship between husband and wife, father and son, king and official. It seeks internal stability, long term staticness. There’s nothing in Confucianism, or any other traditional oriental thought that calls for competition, aggressiveness, conquests, exploration. These words are not in the nature of a herbivore. The highest ideal for an Oriental man, is not the fashionable modern Western concepts of “self-realization”, “achieving one’s own worth”, “be success in life”. But rather what he is able to give to his family, to his community, to his country. There’s an ancient saying in Chinese, “The affairs of the state is the burden of every common man”.

In contrast to herbivores, the ideal of a carnivore is to stay on top of the food chain, to maintain its optimum conditions for survival. Therefore, a carnivorous civilization is by nature aggressive, active, predatory. If you observe a lamb or a cow, you’ll see that it’ll basically stay at one place and eat the grass all the day long and doesn’t bother anyone. That’s not the way a lion and tiger spends its days.

Activeness, attack, occupation, control, exploration, expansion, competition. Those form the basic features of the modern Western society. The “free market” is just the modern manifestation of the Roman coliseum.

Of course, in the current period of human development, the Western carnivorous model is in fashion, and every society subordinated to the principles of competition, of free market, of expansion, of leadership, of innovation, of always seeking more and more. But then, the question is, if everyone becomes a carnivore, who is the herbivore? Without herbivores, how can carnivores survive?

October 4, 2010 @ 11:44 am | Comment

No one I know wants to travel within China during the various national holidays. It’s better, they say, to either hunker down at home and wait it all out or travel abroad (i.e., get out of China). Most of my friends are in a position to take a few days off here and there during the year, so staying home during the holidays is not a particular hardship. For less well-off people (e.g., migrant workers), however, there’s no alternative to the mass migration of the Spring Festival, which must be a tremendous hassle for everyone involved. Imagine standing for 20 hours on a train!

I picked up a pirated copy of “Last Train Home” (归途列车) this past week. It’s a documentary about a the misery of a migrant worker in Guangzhou who returns home for Spring Festival. Very, very good. (I purchased my copy at a store just opposite the east gate of 团结湖公园.)

http://www.zeitgeistfilms.com/lasttrainhome/

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1512201/

October 4, 2010 @ 11:49 am | Comment

LOL again, Math. You really are something. It seems you are on a bit of a dichotomy kick. Erect and flaccid. Herbivore and carnivore. What will you think of next. Hmmm, left and right? Black and white? Male and female? Gay and straight? Up and down? Gosh, the possibilities are seemingly endless, so you should have considerable material with which to continue to produce your entertaining pieces. Bravo!

Question for ya: if “The affairs of the state is the burden of every common man”, don’t you think the common man would like to be involved in the dispensation of said burden? Why do you think the CCP would choose to exclude the common man in the management of this burden? Doesn’t make much sense to me.

And how would you characterize China’s market system today? Do you think Chinese people yearn to go back to the days before 1980, when it started to move towards a “free market” economy? If China is garnering resources from places like Africa, and selling goods to places like the US to make money, don’t you think she’s becoming quite the meat-lover herself?

October 4, 2010 @ 12:48 pm | Comment

I Wish one of the big papers would do an article on how much better It is to have three weeks off instead of what we get here.

Since i moved back here I don’t get to travel much. I think it might say something that even more vacation time is portrayed as a sign of Chinas problems.

They don’t stop hatin!

October 5, 2010 @ 8:37 pm | Comment

Hey, October 2002 was my first Golden Week too.. I still remember the incredulous reaction that each of us (foreign teachers) had at learning we had to work 11 days straight or whatever it was. But I got used to it..

October 5, 2010 @ 9:39 pm | Comment

Oh my gosh thanks for this story!

I now work for a Chinese based company from the comfort of home in the USA and have been confounded by the vacation system. Nice to know I am not alone…

October 6, 2010 @ 6:51 am | Comment

Darren, I don’t think anyone is opposed to more vacation time. It’s the chaotic way these vacation weeks are administered. Those doing the complaining are Chinese people. Not about the length of the vacation, but the rearranging of the deck chairs. I think the main reason expats might complain is the burden the week-long holidays place on transportation, which can lead to huge inconveniences. That, and the zany policy of working on the weekends.

October 6, 2010 @ 7:31 am | Comment

Richard, look at the article again, it’s pretty loaded. The overall picture is that Chinese People are at a loss to deal with their vacation system, both the recent changes and the three vacation weeks overall.

The article notes, early on, the “frustration of overloaded transportation and jam-packed tourist attractions”.

Further on, it notes that the golden week policy was started with the hope of stimulating consumer spending but “,But penurious spending habits and low wages doomed any economic windfall, while those who did travel domestically returned to work less than refreshed.” In other words, the vacation policy failed.

I assume you think that the fact it’s Chinese People complaining grants the article some superseding legitimacy?

But the Chinese People in this article, except Professor Cai, all happen to agree that the new mixing up of holidays sucks, and going on vacation in China during these holidays sucks too. Is it then the case that all those people overloading and jam packing are, simultaneously, hoping for what Professor Cai hopes for? That when China reaches the level of Europe or America, that we can all take our vacation days whenever we want?

Every mainlander I know who has lived in this country misses those mandatory holidays. The article starts with the question: “Who doesn’t love a weeklong obligatory vacation?”

By the end we have the answer: The Chinese People, and by implication, the reader.

October 7, 2010 @ 3:44 am | Comment

I guess we read it in different ways. I should have realized it was brimming with loathing of China. (Not at all.)

October 7, 2010 @ 4:54 am | Comment

Richard, you’ve set a range between “loaded” (which I said), and “brimming with loathing.” (which you imply is more like I meant)

What I meant was “loaded”. The parenthetical “Not at all.” was not necessary, your sarcasm is evident in the hyperbole. Why do you feel “loaded” is in any way equivalent to “brimming with loathing”?

October 7, 2010 @ 5:51 am | Comment

Maybe I misunderstood your line, “They don’t stop hatin!” That’s what I was referring to when I wrote “brimming with loathing” – a direct reference to your assertion that the media “don’t stop hating” when it comes to China. Anyway, let’s move on.

October 7, 2010 @ 6:42 am | Comment

I’m hurriedly moving on. For future reference, though, there is currently a colloquial usage of “hating” or “hatin’” that has acquired a connotation other than the usual “hatred.” This colloquial usage has become somewhat ironic, and connotes consistent negativity towards a person, activity, etc. In this regard, I would like people to stop hatin’ on China. And stop hatin’ on Obama too. As for you, I’m not hatin’.

October 7, 2010 @ 7:50 am | Comment

Nothing here on LXB?? Wow…

October 10, 2010 @ 6:45 pm | Comment

Canrun, I’m just tired pf blogging at the moment. This could be a long-term thing.

October 10, 2010 @ 11:24 pm | Comment

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