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The Invention of Time, Part III

It is the middle of July, and the sun rose just before 8 A.M. today, which might seem like a pretty late arrival time for sunlight in the summer, provided you are not standing in Antarctica. It will not set until after 10 P.M., which might make getting a full night’s rest somewhat difficult, unless you are used to it because you live above the Arctic Circle. Of course, things were quite a bit different back in January—when the sun did not rise until after 10 A.M., and set just after 8 P.M.

These odd times for sunrise and sunset seem like just the type of things that time zones and daylight savings concepts were designed to eliminate—and yet, they are the daily reality in parts of the globe. Human rhythms are biologically linked to the position of the sun—which accounts for why most humans arise in the morning, work during daylight hours, and sleep after the sun sets. It also accounts for why families typically eat their last meal of the day later in the summertime, and earlier in the winter—it’s not necessarily intentional, it just seems to feel “right” to most humans. Having the solar cycle seemingly so out of synch with what we perceive as normal can have far-reaching health effects, and can also significantly influence the behavior of an entire society.

Like the rest of the world, China had no real need for time zones prior to the development of high-speed communications and travel capabilities. But, following the practices established elsewhere, by the end of World War I in 1918, the Chinese government had divided China into five time zones. Not every region observed those zones in quite the same fashion, creating a certain degree of chaos—but the areas most likely to diverge from the standardized zones were also the least industrialized portions of the country—and thus the practical effect was relatively minimal. In 1939, participants at the Standard Time Conference in Chongqing agreed to adopt a formal system of five time zones—but, given that World War II had commenced, and that China had been invaded by the Japanese, the conference participants agreed to utilize a single time zone for the duration of the war. They assumed that such a uniform approach would allow for easier planning and communications, as well as a greater coordination of the nations’ defenses.

After World War II, China resumed the use of five time zones following the norms established elsewhere in the world. However, as more regions came under the control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), those areas began using Beijing Standard Time regardless of local conditions. By 1950, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) had instituted a single time zone throughout the nation—despite the fact that Chinese territory spans more than 3,000 miles from east to west. The result is that Beijing and other locations close to its longitude have a local time that follows the norms of the rest of the world, while the more distant regions become increasingly inconvenienced by the national official timekeeping.

Time, in China, is a mechanism of displaying national unity—but it is also a means of reminding local populations that have not proven as committed to the PRC that they are subject to the power of a government that is willing to control even the concept of time. In particular, the Uyghurs of Xinjiang Province, who are of Turkic ethnicity and have never been shy about their opposition to being under the control of the PRC, are directly affected by the adoption of Chinese Standard Time. The PRC has always been wary of the possibility of a Uighur revolt—and has undertaken extreme measures to prevent such an uprising, including efforts to prohibit Uyghurs from following Islamic beliefs, the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs into “reeducation camps,” and extremely harsh crackdowns upon any expression of opposition to the PRC government. The imposition of a single time zone is merely one facet of PRC attempts to suppress Uighur independence—but in many ways, it is one of the most pernicious means of doing so. Locals in Xinjiang Province often follow a separate clock than the official Chinese Standard Time, two hours behind Beijing Time. And, when that has provoked the ire of the PRC, local Xinjiang businesses simply adapted their opening and closing times to reflect the local conditions—typically shifting the workday from 10 A.M. until 7 P.M. to follow the solar reality.

The idea of time zones is something that we, as Americans, typically take for granted. But, for those of us living outside of the Eastern Time Zone (home of Washington, D.C. and New York City), the idea of following the time most convenient to those locales sounds like a ludicrous proposition. We might not all be at the point of following our own personal times (at least if we want to remain employed), but at least we are not subjected to following the rhythms of a capital a few thousand miles away.

Next week, I will present a discussion of the future of time—specifically, how will we keep time when we are no longer on the Earth—or possibly not even within the solar system? Will it even be possible to maintain a common time standard for astronauts on the moon, on Mars, or beyond? Or will the concept of a universal time prove to be less-than-useful in an era of expansion and exploration?


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