A Ku Indeed!

Chinese Punctuality

Posted in China by Chris on August 31, 2008

The first thing we discussed in my Asian Ethics course this week was general East-West cultural differences. Some of these are legendary: different notions of the self, respect for authority, drinking hot as opposed to cold water (I just can’t get myself to do that one), ways of viewing the elderly, and so on. To highlight some of these differences, I used the artwork of Yang Liu, a Beijing artist (click here to see it). In discussing Yang Liu’s work in an online discussion forum I use for my class, one of my students (who happens to be a Chinese national) noted that she disagreed with one of the “differences” the artwork purported to express.

My student claimed that she found no truth in the difference Yang Liu points to on “punctuality.” Here’s the art panel meant to express it:

The point here is obvious: Westerners and anal-retentive about punctuality, whereas Easterners are not, seen by the more generalized “red” streak that shows what it means to a Easterner for it to be “twelve o’clock” (it actually has a wider fifteen minute reference class). So being a bit early or a bit more late is fine, as it’s still “twelve” during that span.

Admittedly, I don’t have enough of a sense of current Chinese culture to take a position on my student’s argument here against the representation — ahe thinks that Easterners are very much like Westerners here – so that both are represented by the blue. I simply haven’t been to China for enough time to have a sense of this. I will admit, though, that in my dealings with the Chinese in general, the art seems to play out, but this is anecdotal and based on a very small sample.

Does anyone out there have any opinion on this? I realize that some of you who read regularly are in China, and some of you have been there many times, so I’d be interested in hearing your take on this. Of course, I’m also interested in hearing from anyone else out there without that experience but who just has something to add to this interesting question!


3 Responses

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  1. alexusmcleod said, on August 31, 2008 at 3:15 pm

    I don’t know as much about the Chinese case, but I’d say that the above is most certainly true for the difference between many western countries and India. In fact, in the Indian case I think I’d widen that range on the right hand side by about five or ten minutes in both directions 🙂
    I suspect that this may be changing both in China and India, however, with the greater infiltration of western culture (in specific, western business culture), in which “time is money” and all of that. I have a feeling that a Chinese person a bit older than your student (who I’m assuming is in her late teens) may find this picture more accurate than she does. An 18 or so year old so has seen a much different China in his or her lifetime than has a 50 year old, for example–after all, 18 years ago was only 1990, so such a person would not have even been born at the time of the Tiananmen Square incident in ’89!
    So I’m thinking there’s probably some element of generational difference here. I notice the same thing in Indian culture, by the way, with a younger generation that seems culturally, behaviorally, and in other ways much closer to myself than do their parents. Our cultures are coming closer together every day. Each time I go to India, for example, I recognize a place that is looking more and more like home, and recognize attitudes and cultural features that more and more resemble ones of my own land of origin. And perhaps it’s illusory, but it seems to me that I understand Indians of my own general age group (even those who have had little contact with the west, and I know some) better than my parents, for example, could understand Indians of their own age group.

    P.S.–I’m with you on the hot water. I’ve tried to get used to it, but it just won’t happen. It offends my western sensibilities too greatly. A similar phenomenon happens in India–people like to drink warm beer, especially in the winter (I think this happens in England as well, right?) All I have to say to that one is “over my dead body”….

  2. Manyul Im said, on September 1, 2008 at 7:46 am

    Excellent hat, Alexus. I think you’re right about the influence of corporate culture on younger generation, but that’s still probably fighting against some other force(s). In Taiwan, for example, despite the large-scale emphasis on economic success and capitalist work ethic (e.g. 6-day work week for most urbanites), there’s a pretty prolonged lunch-and-nap break at midday and no guarantee that an office or bank will be back up and running again at full-speed at, say, 1:00.

    I don’t know what to think about the identity of the forces at work, here. “Culture” is of course too easy because it pinpoints nothing. Similar things are often said about the differences in punctiliousness more generally between modern northern Europe and southern. (“That’s why the Swiss and Germans make such nice clocks and watches.” Maybe; but of course Italians make such nice engines for their Ferraris.)

    So, I guess I don’t trust the generalizations. How would an empirical investigation into these phenomena go?

  3. Chris said, on September 1, 2008 at 8:39 am


    That is a cool hat. I would have suspected that similar forces were at work, though Manyul’s Taiwan example throws it off again. You’re right to add India, by the way; when I think “East” I don’t know why, but I always think of East _Asia_.


    I tend to agree about the caution we need to take when we point to cultural similarities/differences, but I’d hate for us to wind up on the other extreme, claiming that these generalizations are utterly useless, because it’s clear that we sense these distinctions when we experience them, even if we can’t classify easily what the heck is going on. It’s tough to say “who the East is” and “who the West is” in these discussions, because the number of defeaters is so large no matter how we slice up the pie.

    I remember when I went to northern Vermont for the first time, after basically never being out of NYC. I was blown away by the differences in punctiliousness. I thought I had landed on another planet. I remember thinking (after delay after delay) “don’t these people have things they need to do?” So the large sweeping generalizations always have problems (is Vermont in the West?).

    But still, don’t they exist on some statistical level across larger populations? A lot of social psychological work has been done on this sort of thing (not sure about punctuality), and that research does seem to suggest that many of these differences do indeed hold up, at least statistically speaking.

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