Chinese Leisure Life: the two-day weekend revolution

Chinese leisure life has been greatly changed in two decades, from a day off per week to two-day weekend, from the week-long holiday system to the paid vacation system, and accordingly recreation and leisure have become hot topics among Chinese people.

Chinese leisure life

Confucius Institute Reporter,
Tu Yuanyuan
本刊记者 屠芫芫
From the formation of the two Chinese characters “休闲” (xiu xián recreation and leisure), we can see how ingenious Chinese ancient sages were when inventing them. “ ” is formed by two parts “” (rén a person) and “ ” (mù a tree), with the meaning that a person is resting by leaning on a tree. The original complex form of “” is formed by“ 门” (mén a door) and “ ” (yuè the moon), creating an image that a bright moon is shining over a house where a person is enjoying leisure time with the family or by thinking alone. But for the Chinese who lived a busy life making a living, the word “ 休闲” had remained to be just a word in the dictionary. It was not until a couple of years ago that Chinese people really started enjoying recreation and leisure, and the word “ 休闲” has been interpreted in a new way.

Chinese leisure life
Taichi quan is a traditional Chinese physical exercise to cultivate mind.

No rest days, no leisure time

In 1995 Chinese people ended the practice of having only one day off each week, and started enjoying a two-day weekend. In 1999 the Chinese government launched the system of having week-long holidays on Spring Festival, May Day, and National Day. In 2008 China made drastic changes in the “Golden Week” holiday system which has been carried out for about 10 years, including canceling May Day Holiday, and changing the holiday mode from formerly three week-long holidays to two week-long holidays plus five threeday holidays for Chinese traditional festivals. The paid vacation system came into effect from January 2008. Now in China, there are more than 110 legal public holidays a year, which means Chinese city residents now have one third of a year’s time for vacations.

If there are no rest days, there will be no leisure time. Chinese leisure life has been greatly changed, from a day off per week to two-day weekend, from the week-long holiday system to the paid vacation system, and accordingly recreation and leisure have become hot topics among Chinese people.

The paid vacation system came into effect from January 2008. Now in China, there are more than 110 legal public holidays a year, which means Chinese city residents now have one third of a year’s time for vacations.

When talking of public holidays in a year, Lao Zhang, a middle-aged man working in a government organization, said with emotion: “In the past, there was only one day off each week. My wife and I were too busy to sleep late. In the early morning we got up and started another day of busy life: washing clothes put aside for a week, cleaning the rooms, taking care of the child, going shopping, and visiting our parents and so on. Sunday were even tiring than weekdays. Now it is getting better, for we have two days a week off. In my leisure time, I can play chess with my friends, and my wife can go to the gym to do aerobics, or the three of us in my family drink some tea in the sun on our balcony. On the three-day or weeklong holidays like National Day holiday, we round up some friends to go by car for an outing in the suburbs.” Recollecting what he saw by air in China in the early 1990s, John, an American said: “When the plane was dipping down, through the porthole, I saw gleaming lights only in big cities like Guangzhou and Shanghai.” Now almost all the largesized and medium-sized cities in China are brilliantly illuminated like daytime. You can find 24-hour restaurants, supermarkets, bars or karaoke clubs in all the cities of China.

Without money, hard to enjoy recreation and leisure

At the early 1990s, there was a popular song in China “I want to go to Guilin”. The song goes like this: “I want to go to Guilin. But when I have money, I have no time. I want to go to Guilin. But when I have time, I have no money.” It indeed expressed people’s thoughts: money and time are the basis of enjoying recreation and leisure.

Nowadays, with the rapid development of China’s economy, Chinese people are earning better incomes, having more holidays and put aside more savings. As statistics show, by the end of 2009, China’s per-capita GDP averaged US$ 3,603, quadrupled that of 1999. As shown in some research, there will be recreation and leisure needs when per-capita GDP of a country reaches US$ 1,000. That is to say, Chinese people have already passed the years in which “ 你吃过了吗? (“Have you eaten?” Nǐ chīguòle mɑ?)” was the usual greeting between people. Now “ 到哪玩儿? (“Where do you plan to go traveling?” dào nà wán er )” has become people’s new concern.

Deng Hao is sales executive of a foreign-funded enterprise in Chengdu. He travels on business so extensively that he calls himself “a flying man”. But when the holidays come, he puts all business aside and takes his wife, son and parents to travel around the country or abroad. Traveling in different seasons offers them different enjoyment: appreciating scenery in Spring, bathing in summer breezes, picking fruit in Autumn, enjoying snow scenes in Winter. Deng Hao said, “Every time I travel with my family on holidays, I feel it is worthwhile to work hard on work days.”

Although only a minority of people like Deng Hao belongs to the elite class, the general public is showing increasing need for recreation and leisure which is no longer a privilege just for the minority. As is shown in the Green Paper on Recreation and Leisure in China issued in 2010, the total recreation consumption of Chinese residents in 2009 reached ¥1.7 trillion, accounting for 13.56% of the total volume of retail sales of consumer goods. $48 billion were spent on overseas tours. It is predicted that in 2010 there will be 54 million Chinese people traveling abroad.

Chinese leisure life
More urban “white collars” prefer to work out in gyms.

It is better to invite your friends to sweat with you than to take them to a restaurant

With the continuous development of the economy, people’s living standard has been transformed from subsistence to a “better-off” level. Accordingly, their view of recreation and leisure has changed from enjoying food and recreation to paying attention to health. In recent years, gyms have sprung up in all cities of China. Many white-collar professionals with better incomes prefer to go to the gym for a workout or on outings to the suburbs on weekends. Some “green” life styles have become increasingly popular in chinese leisure time, such as picking fruit on ecological “leisure” farms, fishing, taking free courses in Chinese traditional medicine, and so on.

He Qi is a secretary in a foreign-invested company in Shanghai. She is usually confined to her office writing reports on the computer all day long. For a long run, the hectic work has put her in a sub-healthy condition, though she has just turned 30. Recently she developed an interest in yoga; so, she often invites some friends to do yoga with her in her yoga club where they move their bodies to the sedate music and appreciate the essence of life while breathing slowly in and out. Just as people say, “It is better to invite your friends to sweat (do physical exercise) with you than to take them to a restaurant.”

In the years when people first started having week-long holidays, they all flooded into the supermarkets and department stores where a variety of sales promotional activities were held. At that time, people had no other good ideas for how to spend the holiday; so, they just spent money on shopping.

Like He Qi, Mrs. Xuan in Beijing is also fed up with city life in steel and concrete buildings. Every weekend, with buckets, shovels, and some seeds in hand, she and her husband go to Pear Tree Park to work on their “vegetable plot” just a 10-minute walk from their apartment. “We like working on a plot and planting a variety of vegetables on our vacation. By doing so, we get direct contact with nature and, at the same time, have the healthiest organic food” said Mrs. Xuan excitedly. “In a few days, we’ll harvest some vegetables we have planted ourselves, like pumpkin, lettuce, tomato ” She also plans to give some of the vegetables to her relatives and friends.

In addition, spiritual, cultural recreational activities play a greater role in people’s leisure time. In the years when people first started having week-long holidays, they all flooded into the supermarkets and department stores where a variety of sales promotional activities were held. At that time, people had no other good ideas for how to spend the holiday; so, they just spent money on shopping. Now it is different. A large number of libraries, museums, galleries, and public recreational places have sprung up. On weekends in Beijing, in the Xidan Book Mansion book store there are many people absorbed in the books they are reading; at the National Grand Theatre first-rate performances presented; at the gate of museums open for free there are long queues of people waiting for admission. The rapidly growing teahouses, pottery bars, and reading bars in cities are becoming havens for leisure for people. Every night, especially every weekend, these recreational places form a beautiful landscape in the cities.

Chinese leisure life

The Change in people’s leisure life is like a sketch in black and white turning into a colorful oil painting

In the early 1990s, Chinese leisure life on weekends was monotonous and dull. What people did then was watching TV, playing cards, and strolling around a park.

If people’s leisure life in 1990s is a sketch in black and white, then that of today’s new era is an oil painting with a brush of many colors. In Chinese cities, big and small, many forms of recreation and leisure are available such as recreational clubs, Karaoke bars, and board game bars of different levels. Chinese people’s leisure life has gone through three stages: in the first several years, people had no idea about recreation and leisure; then came the fad of traveling; now people sensible choose their own leisure styles. When people go traveling, they don’t have the hurried tour they used to, that is, dozing off on buses and taking photos on scenic spots. Instead, now there are many different kinds of tours, such as self-driving tours, self-service tours, motor-home tours and so on. People get joy and satisfaction from different kinds of leisure styles.

“Leisure planning is not simply a matter of traveling and economic condition.” said Prof. Xia Xueluan of the Department of Sociology in Peking University. “If people have more leisure time, but don’t’ know how to use it properly, they will experience a sharp drop in the sense of well being even though they are financially better off. The ultimate purpose of leisure is to improve people’s quality of life and happiness index. ”

When people go traveling, they don’t have the hurried tour they used to, that is, dozing off on buses and taking photos on scenic spots. Instead, now there are many different kinds of tours, such as self-driving tours, self-service tours, motor-home tours and so on.

Xiao Ya who was born in 1980s, moved to the outskirts of Beijing near the North 5th Ring after getting married. When the holiday comes, Xiao Ya and her husband usually go to visit their 80-year-old grandmother who lives in an old courtyard in the east of downtown, where the extended family of more than ten people get together — Xiao Ya’s father and mother, uncles, aunts, and cousins This is the happiest day for Xiao Ya’s grandmother. She even starts making some delicious food for them the day before: a big pot of pork trotter, red-cooked pork, beef tripe in brown sauce, etc. Before they leave, grandmother packs every household a box of her delicacies to take home. Although Xiao Ya has told grandmother many times that young people are faced with over eating and they are eating less meat and prefer a vegetarian diet, grandmother insists that young people are so busy that they must eat enough meat to keep healthy.

Although there are fewer extended families in Beijing these years, people always keep in mind the Chinese ancient precept: “Filial piety is the most important of all virtues” and get-togethers of the whole family have always been that for which people wish. No matter what changes are brought to people’s leisure styles, family get-togethers have been and will always be the most important part of Chinese people’s lives and of Chinese leisure life as well.

Chinese leisure life

The earliest chinese leisure ideal

From very early times, Chinese ancients pursued the harmony between human beings and nature. Tao Yuanming, the representative of the School of Hermits, advocated “plow by oneself and live self sufficiently” (i.e. to work on one’s own) for the sake of building up one’s body and lifting up one’s spirit, as is shown in his famous poem:

DRINKING WINE

In people’s haunt I build my cot; 
Wheel’s and hoof’s noise I hear not.
How can it leave on me no trace?
Secluded hearts make secluded places.
I pick fence-side asters at will;
Carefree, I see the southern hill.
Mountain air’s fresh day and night;
Together birds go home in flight.
What revelation at this view?
Words fail if I try to say.

The most common chinese leisure style

Currently, traveling is still the most common leisure time activity in many Chinese cities. On vacations, people usually go to a new place, sightseeing and having fun. In recent years, self-driving tours and self-service tours are popular. Without joining groups, these tourists arrange their own itineraries, transportation and accommodations. Some of them travel in their own cars or even walk all the way.

The most popular chinese leisure style

“Staying at home” has come to be regarded as a very popular and civilized leisure style in recent years. When long-expected vacations come, more and more city residents prefer to stay at home, drinking tea, reading books, enjoying a happy family time, rather than wasting time, money and energy in crowded scenic spots.


Confucius Institute Magazine 9

pdfPublished in Confucius Institute Magazine.
Number 9. Volume IV. July 2010.
View/Download the print issue in PDF

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