Today was the most dreaded day of the American calendar year. Spring forward day—the one Sunday per year which lives for only 23 hours. This leads to a frequent question. “What’s the time difference between China and the US? “ It’s not an uncommon question to get asked by Chinese friends who live a metaphorical dig through the center of the earth away from us. However, for a Chinese asking an American about the 2 countries time difference, he will get an answer similarly complicated from the one an American would receive after asking a Chinese his age.
The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, there is no daylight savings time in China. If Fuzhou is 14 hours ahead of Chicago in December, then it would stand beyond all possible explanations that Fuzhou should be 14 hours ahead of Chicago in July as well. Time in China doesn’t change. The idea of daylight savings time is totally foreign to the Chinese. You never spring forward nor fall back.
The other difference is that China is on a single time zone, unlike the continental US which is on 4. Since the vast majority of China’s population lives along the east coast, which would presumably be, if China had one, the Eastern Standard Time Zone, China’s lack of time zones doesn’t bear much effect on most of the country.
A quiet alley in Kashgar’s Old City. 9:45 PM.
Where it is most noticeable is Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in China’s Northwest. Going to Xinjiang in and of itself is a unique experience. With it’s rich Uighur/Muslim traditions, and Han Chinese minority (outside of the capital), it is easy to forget you are still in the Middle Kingdom.
But one of Xinjiang’s most unique features may be its time, nowhere more so than China’s westernmost city, Kashgar, which just miles from the borders of Tajikistan and Krygistan, is over 2000 miles due west of Beijing. During summer nights in Kashgar, the sky doesn’t get completely dark until nearly 11 pm. Sunrise occurs predictably late as well. This extended evening daylight, combined with the arid climate, makes Kashgar an excellent summer travel destination. You can do your sightseeing for the day, stop for meal of 抓饭 and 烤肉, (Xinjiang rice and shish-kebob), and then still have 5 hours of daylight to explore the sites.
But what about those who have more business in Xinjiang than backpacking around the region’s tourist attractions and tasting its Hallel culinary delights? What about those who live in work in Kashgar, and must keep some semblance of a reasonable time schedule?…enter Xinjiang Unofficial Time.
Since China does have only one official time, all government related operations (i.e. banks, post office, courts, etc.) run on Beijing Standard Time. To compensate for this time difference, work hours for most Xinjiang government employees begin around 9:30 or 10, rather than 8.
But for residents of Kashgar, they prefer to use “Xinjiang time,” which is 2 hours behind Beijing time. So 8 p.m. Beijing time would be 6 p.m. Xinjiang time. Since most people prefer to use Xinjiang time, but the government runs everything on Beijing time, this creates a potentially confusing situation, as “6 pm” to one person may refer to an entirely different time to another. Therefore, when making plans in Xinjiang, locals will not only agree on what time they will meet, but also what time they are using.
Person A: “What time do you want to get dinner?
Person B: “How about 6 pm?”
Person A: “Will that be Xinjiang time or Beijing time?”
Person B” “6 pm Xinjiang time.”
To me both countries’ respective systems make sense. It is quite complicated having a single country on 4 different time zones, (and I’m sure millions of other people in the Central Time Zone who have at one time set their VCR’s to 8:00, to record a program which was on at 7:00 would concur). Yet, with our population spread out along both coasts, there really isn’t much choice but to break up the time zones. With China having roughly 90% of its population fitting into an area which could conceivably fit into a single time zone, it would almost be more trouble than its worth to break it up, regardless of other subtle inferences could be drawn by breaking up the country into another regional divide. So instead they keep the country on a single time zone, and let the locals make up their own time if they so desire. As for the laowai travelers, it’s another great reason to go to Xinjiang.