Explaining crazy Chinese holiday schedules

At first glance (heck, at tenth glance!) the Chinese holiday schedule can seem, well, completely insane. Tomorrow is the start of the National Holiday, the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1st, 1949. Sunday 29th and Monday 30th of September were work days, Tuesday 1st to Monday 7th of October are holidays, Tuesday 8th to Saturday 12th of October are work days, Sunday 13th of October is, well, a regular Sunday, then everything goes back to normal on Monday 14th of October.

Confused? Don’t worry, you aren’t the only one.

As with many Chinese head-scratchers, to understand the holiday schedule we have to understand more of the history and culture behind the system.

When I first arrived here in 2004, China was operating on a holiday system of three Golden Weeks – Chinese New Year, May Holiday (for Labour Day on May 1st) and National Holiday (October 1st anniversary of the PRC). There were 9 official public holiday days split between these three Golden Week holidays. But 3 days doesn’t really get you far – especially when many people travel a full day (or more) on trains/buses to get home to visit family.

Patriotic displays of red and yellow flowers are common during National Holiday (these are from my first October, in 2004).

Patriotic displays of red and yellow flowers are common during National Holiday (these are from my first, in October 2004).

This is where the holiday schedule comes in! The idea is to “borrow” two weekend days and add them to the 3 public holiday days and a regular weekend to create a block of 7 days off in a row. This makes a long journey worthwhile. The “borrowed” days are paid back by taking only a 1 day weekend both the weekend before and the weekend after the Golden Week. The vacation days and the “payback” days are mandated by the government so that everyone is at work/school at the same time. Usually the make up work days are the Sunday before and the Saturday after a Golden Week.

Every year, the 7 day block of days off for National holiday falls on October 1st-October 7th, regardless of which days of the week these are. This year, that’s Tuesday-Monday. Add a make-up day to each of the weekends either side, and Sunday Sept 29th and Saturday October 12th become work days.

It might seem crazy at first, but once you understand the underlying logic, the system makes sense. Those two one-day weekends are a small price to pay for getting enough time to visit your family in another part of the country. And for a long time, the only public holidays were those three Golden Weeks, all operating in the same manner.

China changed its holiday schedule a few years after I arrived, so starting in 2008 things got more complicated. They increased the total general public holidays from 9 to 11 days a year, keeping two of the Golden Weeks (Chinese new year and the National holiday in October) , downgrading the Labour holiday in May to a 1-day holiday and adding an additional four 1-day holidays. There’s now a day off on January 1st for the solar new year, and for each of three traditional Chinese holidays that most of the country continued celebrating through years without official holidays for them: Tomb-Sweeping Day (qing ming jie), Dragon Boat festival (duan wu jie) and Mid-Autumn festival (zhong qiu jie).

To add another layer of confusion, the same holiday scheduling used to turn 3-day holidays into 7-day Golden Weeks are used to turn 1-day holidays into 3- or even 5-day holiday blocks. Or sometimes nothing extra if the holiday happens to naturally fall on or adjacent to a weekend. At any rate, the Chinese government puts out a holiday schedule every year with the official dates for all holidays, including make-up work days. All Chinese companies and schools follow this schedule. This past Sunday (September 29th) all Chinese schools and business were open and running as on a regular weekday.

When I worked in Langfang one of my HR jobs was keeping track of the holidays and when the staff were supposed to be at work/on holiday. Generally speaking, it came very naturally to the Chinese staff – they knew almost instinctively when the make up work days would be even before looking at the official calendar of public holidays released by the government. And, of course, they knew when the traditional Chinese holidays would be celebrated without the calculations I needed (those holidays are marked according to the traditional yinli calendar).

What gets REALLY confusing is that not all the international schools follow the Chinese holiday schedule. The idea of working (or going to school) on a weekend is anathema to most expats, so some schools don’t try. But if they don’t work the weekend make-up work days, and they DO take the non-holiday days those weekend work days are supposed to make up for, they end up giving 3 days off instead of 1 for each of the public holidays. Some do that – losing days from their summer holiday to make up for it. But now some international schools take only the 1 day off – no extra days, no make up weekend work days. For example, the recent Mid-Autumn festival day fell on a Thursday. Some international schools took both Thursday and Friday off; others took only Thursday off and had regular classes on Friday.

Clear as mud? Right. Welcome to the world of Chinese public holidays.

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4 thoughts on “Explaining crazy Chinese holiday schedules

  1. Pingback: 清明节 – Tomb Sweeping Day | Tanya's Stories

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  3. Pingback: Another year of writing | Tanya's Stories

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