This week is a celebration called 中秋节 (Mid-Autumn Festival) or Mooncake Festival. So today, Saturday, I was working as if it were Friday; yesterday, I worked as if it was Monday; and now I have three days off ahead of me (Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday). It’s no use calling me lucky, because I’ll be back to work from Wednesday to Saturday, but I’ll be off work the following six days in a row until the next holiday. Are you confused? So am I. For many years I was confused, until I finally understood a little better how the Chinese celebrate the holidays without losing so many working days.
Happy Mid-Autumn Festival
I’ve always heard how the Chinese worked tirelessly and for this reason they became so economically powerful in such a short time. After six years living in China and the opportunity to talk to many people who have lived in other cities and Asian countries, the reality is not as simple as it sounds.
In 2018, Forbes listed the countries with the longest working hours and the leader in this ranking was Turkey, followed by South Korea and Indonesia, China appeared in seventh place, and Brazil—for those who think we are lazy—was tenth. Of course, not everyone has a weekly workload of 60 hours per week or more, the survey made an estimate that also takes into consideration days worked in the year, and when we look at these numbers, we put aside another very important factor for the success of any country or company: productivity.
I agree that it is an exaggeration to have a long working day, but there is something that both I, in the field of education, and other foreigners who live here and who work in other areas agree on: we work long hours but with little quality.
Some companies have two-to-three-hour lunches, so that their employees have the opportunity to take a nap after lunch. It is believed that rest after a meal is very important for an efficient afternoon. Here many adults have two cell phones, one of which is just so they can play games, and usually they take both wherever they go. The bureaucracy and the amount of unnecessary paperwork that needs to be prepared in day-to-day operations is something I never thought possible.
Alibaba group founder Jack Ma, the 26th richest man in the world, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, made headlines in newspapers around the world in 2018 for advocating the “996 system.” This means working from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm, 6 days a week. “I believe it is a great blessing that we can work 996,” he said. In recent years, cases have been reported of employees (mainly linked to the technology sector) who developed mental and/or physical illnesses and, in extreme cases, died because they could no longer withstand the pressure that such workload brought.
Finally, this year, the 996 system was officially banned in China, the law very recently instated in September 2021. According to Chinese labor law the standard to be followed is eight hours a day and a maximum of 44 hours per week. It remains to be seen whether this law will be applied and what will be the punishment for companies that require their employees to work more than established.
But what good is it to spend so many hours at work if more than half of them are not dedicated to tasks that aren’t often relevant to personal, professional, or corporate growth?
As in many countries, China, contrary to what some imagine, has many holidays, and they love it when there is a chance to amend the additional days off. Every year the government publishes the list of holidays and amendments. It serves as a basis for various sectors and represents when schools and public bodies will be closed during the festivities.
China follows the lunar calendar to celebrate most of its oldest holidays, so every year some holidays are celebrated on different dates (like Carnival or Easter).
As you can see there aren`t holidays every month, but most holidays are at least three days long. The more traditional holidays for us (i.e. Christmas) are not considered holidays here, so it is a normal school period. But New Year is celebrated in a very simple way with no amendments to the work week.
The Chinese New Year (CNY) is like our carnival or winter break in some countries, everything happens before or after the CNY. For those who work at school and who have children, the school year here starts in September and the summer vacation lasts for two months, so there is no holiday in July or August, but there are also no classes. 🙂
One of the biggest difficulties I had when I first arrived here is the way they try to explain the holiday. They make something not-so-great look wonderful. For example, January 1st is an international holiday, it fell on Friday last year, but the Chinese count it as a three-day holiday. It’s as if Saturday and Sunday are part of the holiday too.
This week we have a holiday with an amendment. Sunday, Monday and Tuesday are considered a holiday; however, it is necessary to compensate for the Monday off which is not technically a holiday, so last week there were six consecutive days off work (Monday to Saturday).
The two biggest holidays here are important for different reasons. The first is Golden Week, also known as China Celebration Week (it’s like celebrating China the way it is today, I won’t get into political trouble trying to explain it more profoundly). Despite having to compensate a Sunday before and a Saturday after the holiday, the Chinese (whether they work in the public sector or in schools) have 6 days of rest. Usually, they use this week for tourist trips. It’s expensive for those who want to travel and who can go abroad. This year, due to the virus, once again the recommendation is to stay at home, or travel within the province.
The last two years have been a very unusual holiday; I live in the capital of a province and, normally, the city is empty, but because of the government’s recommendations, everyone ends up staying here and it’s like there’s no holiday.
The second and most important holiday is the Chinese New Year, this one is a big family celebration. China’s big cities have a huge migrant population, and the seven-day festival is the only opportunity for many to return home and visit relatives. The train stations and airports are overloaded, and it is even beautiful to see the expectation that many of them have to see their loved ones and enjoy the food from home.
The date is so important that purchases made online must be made in advance, the delivery service stops for at least 2 days; larger supermarkets close for at least 24 hours and smaller ones for three days; restaurants and small stores, depending on the owner, close for 10 days on average, but I’ve seen places close for the entire month. Nobody seems to mind. It’s like everyone understands that despite the crazy routine they go through all year, they can look forward to these days of rest with the whole family.
The intention of this article is to show a little of the routine in China and has no pretensions of establishing absolute truths. Much of the information is supported not only by my experience here but also by research I do. Dialogue is more than welcome, and while I share a little of what I know, I am aware that there is still a lot to learn. If you are interested in knowing something in particular about China, please write in the comments, email, or message/comment on WeChat, WhatsApp, Instagram or any other way you would like to get in touch.
Proofreader Liz C Jacquinot