Monday, 28 January 2013

Love, Romance, Duty: Marriage in Chinese Culture

Yesterday I stumbled upon an interesting blog. A girl asked for advice on whether she should stay together with the man she loved, or break up with him because he wasn't  well off. It was the same dilemma I talked about in one of my earlier posts: Is bread more important than love? 

Someone replied to her question, saying: "結婚是兩個家庭的事,不是兩個人的事", which translates as follows: "Marriage is a matter between two families, not between two people."

Although this person's opinion cannot be considered as universally accepted by all Chinese, it nevertheless shows one of the most distinctive traits of Chinese culture. To Westerners who are not familiar with China or Taiwan, it is very hard to understand this point, because our own concept of love and marriage is exactly the opposite. We see marriage as a union of two individuals who decide that they want to spend their lives together. 

I decided to write this blog post to share with you my experience on this issue and to give Westerners who  live in East Asia and/or who have a relationship with an Asian man or woman some basic tools to understand situations which may appear to them confusing.  

Traditional Marriage In Chinese Civilization Until 1949

In Chinese culture, marriage was not based on love or romance, but it was a transaction between two families in which a woman was transferred to her husband's family. For women, the maximum marriage age was 30, while that of the man varied depending on his financial status. Buying and selling women into marriage and forcing widows into marriage were common practices, as well as match-making. Arranged marriages where bride and bridegroom did not meet until the wedding ceremony were also widespread. (Zang 2012, Chapter 4) Before 1949, around half of all marriages were arranged by parents. 

Adult men and women were initiated into adulthood at the age of respectively 20 and 15, with ceremonies called guanli (冠禮) for males and jili (笄禮) for females, after which they were considered eligible for marriage. (ibid., Chapter 3/ and source). 

The marriage ceremonies, the dowry and the exchange of gifts as well as gatherings for family and friends, often held in public places, were of great importance. These rituals show the desire of Chinese people to exhibit their social status, giving them more "face" and esteem in the community.

One important criterion in the choice of the partners was the principle of ‘one door matches another door’, i.e. that the future husband and wife needed to have similar social status. If the social status of the partners was too different, a marriage was thought to be bound to failure.

Marriage In Contemporary Chinese Society

Traditional social structures have in the past decades eroded due to economic transformation and the contact with Western ideas. Nevertheless, a great deal of the notions I described above, albeit in a new and often mitigated form, can be still found today.

The most important one is the phenomenon which I would call "shared decision-making". Although parents don't arrange marriages for their children any longer, nevertheless parental influence has remained very strong, and the approval of the family is a major factor in the choice of a partner. However, shared decision-making is a broader phenomenon that goes beyond parental authority. For instance, a survey has showed that Chinese people are likely to ask both their parents and their friends for advice and that their opinion has a great impact in the decision-making process of individuals. I would like to point out that the concept of shared decision-making has nothing to do - as it is often erroneously assumed - with ideas such as "group altruism" or "thinking about others". I will explain in a future post why shared decision-making is not a consequence of altruism or of self-sacrifice for the sake of others, but rather the product of social pressure, status expectations and external reference standards. As a matter of fact, the misconception that group thinking is morally motivated has been a great source of misunderstandings among East and West.

Shared decision-making might be rather puzzling for Westerners. As far as I am concerned, it took me quite a long time - and a lot of exhausting quarrels - to realize why my girlfriend seemed unwilling to spend much time alone with me and instead kept on introducing me to her friends. While to me the beginning of a relationship was basically a period in which we should have known each other better, in which we should have talked, shared thoughts and done things together, for her it was a period in which her social environment had to accept me and evaluate if I was as a good partner for her. Being together was not only a matter between me and her, in which our mutual understanding was the necessary precondition. What other people thought meant to her at least as much, and probably even more, than what she herself thought and felt. 

To me, on the contrary, the opinion of parents and friends is definitely less important than my own. I would never let my parents decide on whether I should be with the woman I love. But this idea is far away from Chinese understanding of marriage.

In fact, in Chinese culture love and romance are still minor factors in the choice of a partner. Truth be told, I have never been to a place where love and marriage are so disconnected from each other, and where love is looked down upon with a certain degree of contempt, as something acceptable in adolescence, but dangerous as the age of marriage approaches. Parents inculcate in their children the need to take into account a range of material concerns, such as social status, job, flat etc. For instance, it is believed fundamental for the man to have a flat and to earn more than the woman. Parents warn their daughters not to marry a man who earns less than them. Appearance, family background, education, and even origin (for example, foreign men are seen by some as a good match), are all important criteria. 

External conditions are therefore more important than the feelings between the partners. An interesting phenomenon which derives from these premises is that partners don't focus so much on knowing the individual they have in front of them, but on whether he or she matches these criteria. There is often no transition from acquaintance to friendship and then to partnership. Getting together can be a very quick and straightforward process. For instance, if a girl has no boyfriend, she might start looking for one. Given that East Asians have long working hours and a tight social environment, meeting new people of the opposite sex is not as easy as for their Western counterparts. They will therefore decide rather quickly, after considering their and their environment's expectations, if someone is suitable or not. 

If the criteria don't match, the partnership may be dissolved. I often heard of girls who broke up with their boyfriends because they didn't have a flat, or because they didn't want to get married soon. I also heard from men who did the same, either because the girl didn't want to get married soon, or because she wanted to go travelling etc. 

It is thus not surprising that match-making is a widespread way of finding marriage candidates. To Western people, it might seem strange to find a marriage partner through match-making, because this presupposed that getting married is a purpose per se and the partner is rather subordinated to the main target. We usually tend to think that one should first find a partner and afterwards begin to think about marriage. Again, in Chinese culture it's the objective and the criteria which are more important than mutual understanding, dialogue, or love.

"One study (Jackson, Chen, Guo, and Gao 2006) found that fairytale ideals were a major theme for young American adults but not for young Chinese adults. Another study (Buss et al. 1990) examined thirty-seven countries and found that the Chinese sample differed from other international samples in paying more attention to health, chastity, and domestic skills but giving less value to traits such as mutual attraction, dependability, and sociability." (Ibid., Chapter 4)

Love and romance are confined to the pre-marital age in which they are viewed as acceptable. It is also common for people to go abroad and experience love and romance in a foreign context. On the other hand, it is rare that this love and romance will turn into a marriage if the preconditions set by parents and society are not at least partly met. 

Questioning Duty

In Chinese civilization, marriage is one of the duties associated with the notion of filial piety. A good son has to get married and preferably give the family a male heir that can continue the family lineage. 

Since I was born is a rather poor part of Europe where traditional values are still quite strong, I had the chance to live in a society where family bonds are still very important. The relationship between my father and my grandfather, for example, reminds me of that between parents and children in China. My grand-father had great authority in the family. He wanted a male heir to continue the family surname, and he wanted me - his grandson- to have the same given name as him. My father could have said no, of course, but not only didn't he dare, but he didn't even think of questioning social rules. The authority of my grandfather and the widespread - almost totalitarian - customs of the society made it unthinkable for a young male to remain single and childless. It would have been considered a great disgrace to him and his family. 

When my father was young, however, the erosion of old religious and social values that had begun long ago in other parts of the Western world was already under way. I happen to belong to a generation that has already experienced this erosion to the full.  

It is quite interesting to read today what French historian and political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville wrote two centuries ago. Tocqueville was an aristocrat by birth, but he lived in a time of transition from aristocracy to democracy. He visited the United States of America in 1831 and in 1835 he published "Democracy in America", in which he expounded his observations on the American political system and society. In chapter VIII of Book III Tocqueville explains:

"It has been universally remarked, that in our time the several members of a family stand upon an entirely new footing towards each other; that the distance which formerly separated a father from his sons has been lessened; and that paternal authority, if not destroyed, is at least impaired. Something analogous to this, but even more striking, may be observed in the United States. In America the family, in the Roman and aristocratic signification of the word, does not exist. All that remains of it are a few vestiges in the first years of childhood, when the father exercises, without opposition, that absolute domestic authority, which the feebleness of his children renders necessary, and which their interest, as well as his own incontestable superiority, warrants. But as soon as the young American approaches manhood, the ties of filial obedience are relaxed day by day: master of his thoughts, he is soon master of his conduct. In America there is, strictly speaking, no adolescence: at the close of boyhood the man appears, and begins to trace out his own path. It would be an error to suppose that this is preceded by a domestic struggle, in which the son has obtained by a sort of moral violence the liberty that his father refused him. The same habits, the same principles which impel the one to assert his independence, predispose the other to consider the use of that independence as an incontestable right. The former does not exhibit any of those rancorous or irregular passions which disturb men long after they have shaken off an established authority; the latter feels none of that bitter and angry regret which is apt to survive a bygone power. The father foresees the limits of his authority long beforehand, and when the time arrives he surrenders it without a struggle: the son looks forward to the exact period at which he will be his own master; and he enters upon his freedom without precipitation and without effort, as a possession which is his own and which no one seeks to wrest from him." (Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America - Volume 2, p. 155)

Though I do not completely agree that the crisis of parental authority is only a consequence of the political system, it can be seen that the pattern of development which Tocqueville "photographed" in 1835 has steadily progressed until today. The right to be independent and to make one's own decisions have been part of my own education. I believe that most Western parents accept the principle that they must let their children decide for themselves.

Children would not accept the parental imperative anyway. Whatever principles parents may regard as true, children would question the authority of a duty that cannot be explained in universal terms.

Here lies the major difference between the notion of marriage in East and West. The influence of social standards, upon which the authority of parents is based, are not (generally speaking) questioned by children. Social standards permeate education and expectations so much, that it is truly hard to challenge them without getting the feeling of being alone and risking to be seen as a loser. The power of tradition resides in the fact that its guidance offers an apparently certain way of dealing with important decisions. It is therefore the attempt to avoid the risk of responsibility and failure, and let external influence relieve from this burden. Yet it gives people another burden: that of the constant fight between mind and heart, between the wisdom of common practices and opinions which appeal to the mind, and the voice coming from the heart. 

In my view, the idea that parents' and friends' guidance helps make right decisions is highly illusionary. How are they supposed to know better? I often saw people in Asia misled by wrong advice. Imagine that a woman breaks up with the man she loves and marries a man who her parents and friends think will be a good partner. What if after getting married the two of them are unhappy? What if they don't get along, or even hate each other? Are the ones who gave bad advice going to take responsibility and say sorry? Probably not. 

Neither marriages based on love and romance, nor marriages based on material considerations are free from the risk of failure. In Chinese culture, job, flat and status, and even fortune-telling, which is often used by couples before marriage, aim at excluding any kind of risk, to make sure that marriage will work. But I have my doubts whether in human life there are means to prevent families to fall apart. It is true that high divorce rates in the West suggest that the institution of marriage has become very unstable and the West is thus not a good example. Yet a marriage whose appearance is kept by pretending that everything is all right is hardly any better, especially if the sacrifice of happiness is its price.


Zang Xiaofei: Understanding Chinese Society

Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Snow In Europe

Snow looks poetic. White, quiet landscapes, Christmas feeling and children playing on it - that's what we associate with the idea of snow. Some people love snow. Others - like me - love it only when they see it through the closed window of their home.

A few weeks ago, a heavy snowstorm raged in large parts of Europe. One morning, I opened the door of my house and there I saw the whole street covered in white. My feet sank into the snow up to my knees, so deeply that I could not walk.

Except for the cold, which may or may not bother you as much as it bothers me, snow can cause a range of problems. Even after the snow was removed, salt and sand had been strewn on the pavement, iced spots remained, which were extremely slippery. And in the morning electricity went out, so that I couldn't heat my room. At least, I didn't need to get worried about the food in my fridge; I could simply put it on the balcony.

Now that I've come back to Taiwan I have to cope with a completely different kind of nuisance: mosquitoes!

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

The Myth of the Busy Asian: Time, Money and Social Life

“I hate my job”, “I want to be my own boss” - these are sentences you're likely to hear often in Taiwan. Though I met several people who liked their job, I think that the great majority were extremely dissatisfied with their current occupation. Long working hours, despotic bosses, low wages or unfavourable working conditions are among the main reasons. 

One of the things that shocked me during my first stay in Taiwan was that people don't have nearly as much spare time as Europeans. When I was in Europe, I used to meet my friends on different days of the week or on the weekends. In Taiwan, I became acquainted with a completely different concept of time. People are simply too busy. As I explained in a previous post, life in Taiwan revolves around social circles. For most adult people, these circles are represented by family, friends and work. Taiwanese usually have longer working hours than Europeans, but they also have a more strict social hierarchy, with family and work at the top, followed by close friends and then by friends (which for the sake of clarity I will call acquaintances). The way people learn to make use of their time is therefore affected by the structure of social life.

“How Can I Keep a Foreign Friend?”

From time to time I stumbled upon Taiwanese blogs in which people asked how they could maintain friendships with foreigners. At the beginning I didn't really give much attention to this topic. Until I found out the reason why they may ask such questions. Let me tell you a few anecdotes to explain this point.

Before going to Taiwan I thought I would be able to make at least a few good friends. Taiwanese had told me that they are nice to foreigners, try to help them and want to make friends with them. Indeed, I met a lot of people there, and for some time, I believed my initial wish was coming true. However, I seldom managed to go beyond simple acquaintance. The reason is – I assume - that most people didn't have enough time. 

When I recall my year in Taiwan, a lot of faces appear before my eyes, faces of people I went out, talked, shared experiences and thoughts with. Many of them I believed to have become close friends of mine. I still don't know if I was right or wrong. Why is it so hard to make good friends? I believe the reason lies in the contrasting value of time in Europe and in Asia.

When I was in Europe, friendship and leisure were extremely important parts of the lives of people in my environment. I had a group of friends I'd spend time with, either on weekdays or weekends. I've always been willing to invest my time in friendships, though we were all busy with our studies, work and so on. I think that in Europe we separate work time and leisure time quite distinctly. I will explain later why this might be due to the history and economic development of Europe.

Taiwanese see things differently. For them, “being busy” is a normal condition of life. They have to work, have family and close friends. It is considered normal to say to a friend bluntly “I am busy”, without even apologizing. This is not something that happened to me just because I'm a foreigner. A Taiwanese friend of mine told me that she once asked a couple of friends to go out on the weekend, and all of them but one said they were busy. And even this one eventually cancelled. So my friend began deleting a few people from her Facebook list, because these were only the last of many rejections she'd got from them. "Why should I keep people I never meet?" - she wondered

As far as I've seen, few people feel guilty for wasting other people's time. And they don't feel guilty for rejecting you, even many times, on the ground that they are busy. It is not rare that friends don't meet each other even for months. I've never been to a country where it is more difficult to arrange an appointment. You may ask someone to go out and they might tell you: "I think I have a free day next month." It may take days, weeks or even months. Something inconceivable in Europe among close friends. 

The same thing happened to me dozens of times, even with people who actively sought my company and seemed to see me as a good friend. And the reason in my view is that Taiwanese don't have much spare time, and that they are accustomed from an early age to economize it. Therefore they are not familiar with the concept of investing or giving time to others. They usually ask you to meet when they want to – if they are bored, or have a lot of spare time (due to temporary unemployment, holidays, if a meeting was cancelled and they look for somebody else, and so forth). I rarely met people who thought that it was important to invest time to deepen a friendship. If they're busy, they're busy. Work and family come first. 

Let me give you an example. Before going to Taiwan I'd been looking for some language exchange partners in order to know at least a few more people in that foreign country. One of them was a very nice girl who had lived in Italy and could speak some Italian. During the two months prior to leaving Europe I used to chat with her very often on MSN or Facebook. We had a lot of common interests and topics to talk about. I thought we would become good friends. 

But after I moved to Taiwan, we met only four times in more than a year. She was busy with her work, sometimes she didn't want to go out because she needed to take a rest after a long and stressful week. So basically we chatted more online than face to face. Of course, from my viewpoint we could not have become real friends. How can you call someone you see four times in a year a friend? What upset me, however, was that she used to tell me that Taiwanese help foreigners and are nicer than Italians. 

This is something that I experienced many times. People were too busy to meet new friends, and they were not very helpful, although they said they would help. My impression was that people try to do something at the beginning to show they are nice, but when you really need some help, they're usually just too busy or tired to do anything. I don't mind, because I like to be independent and do things on my own. Yet I don't like when people pretend to be very nice with words, but they don't let facts follow. To be fair, I definitely don't mean to say I didn't meet helpful or nice people, on the contrary. I just want to point out that the majority of the I met people were busy with their own things. 

Now you might make the objection: “This is only because you were a foreigner. When people go to other countries it's always like that. It's hard to make friends with locals because they have their own lives, friends and work.” This is absolutely true. Many Taiwanese abroad suffer from loneliness, even much more than I did. Indeed I overall enjoyed my life in Taiwan. Furthermore, I experienced similar difficulties both in England and Germany. So it's a normal phenomenon. But there is an essential difference.  

When I was in Germany, for instance, it wasn't easy to make friends with local people. In many ways much harder than in Taiwan. In my opinion, Taiwanese are easy-going and it's simple to have a chat and ask them out, at least at the beginning. However, when Germans don't show interest in you, it means they don't want to be your friend. Or we can meet sometimes but not often, which clearly means that in their life you don't play a big role. But Taiwanese send you mixed signals. On the one hand they treat you as a friend and go out with you and talk with you about anything – as long as they have time. But then they might disappear for weeks or months, they might not have enough time to meet. Besides that, even close friends in Taiwan don't seem willing to invest time in deepening and nurturing a friendship. An example: I had a Taiwanese friend in Germany. We were quite close, hung out together on weekends etc. She often asked me to help her with her homework. She studied in Germany and it was hard for her at the beginning. I thought that since we were friends, and that on top of that she was a non-European with less experience in Germany than me, I should help her. So, although I was busy myself, I tried to do for her what I could: I read and explained her difficult texts, corrected her seminar papers etc. But when I was in Taiwan, though she came to Taipei for almost two months, she didn't tell me she was there. She didn't even ask me how I was doing in Taiwan. When I found out that she had come to Taipei I asked her why she had not contacted me. And her response was that she was busy. 

The attitude underlying this behaviour is: “If I have time or need your help I'll ask you, if I'm busy I don't have time for you.” To me, this appears selfish. But in Taiwan it's normal. 

Indeed, by Taiwanese standards this is not a big deal. Many people have a different understanding of respect and friendship than I do. To them, not having time and not seeing you for a long time has nothing to do with respect. Even if you sacrificed your own time for them, they won't think much about it and won't do the same for you. When I say “them”, of course, I mean the majority of the people I met. If somebody disagrees with my perspective, I'd be happy to read your comments. 

Moreover, I have to say that in the short time I spent in Hong Kong my experiences were totally different from those in Taiwan. I haven't lived in Hong Kong long enough to draw any conclusion from that.

In January last year I went back to Germany for fifteen days. Since I would leave Europe for Taiwan at the end of the month, I seized the opportunity to meet my friends in Berlin to say good-bye (and until now I haven't met any of them again). One of these friends is an Italian guy who was, at that time, writing his master thesis. I went to the library of our university to have a talk with him. After a while, he said that he had to go back to studying because he had to hand in his thesis next week. “I'm really sorry,” he explained. “I don't like when people make themselves important, but I must go."

His expression of sorry was a nice and friendly gesture. He simply tried to make me understand that I, as his friend, was also important to him. I would also apologize if I didn't have time for a friend and at least briefly explain why I'm busy. I might not do so if we meet quite often, but not if we don't. In Taiwan, I noticed that most friends won't apologize if they're busy. That's because they think: “Since we're friends, I don't need to say sorry. They have to understand I'm busy." That's it. They don't think: "I should try to make my friends feel that I think about them, too, but it's just that I must get my work done." In my opinion, it is exactly because we're friends that I try to make them feel I value the time we share or could share. 

I am, however, far from blaming this kind of Taiwanese people. It's just that they have different priorities than I have. I believe friendship is important in life, and that in order to be friends with someone, time is essential. Sharing experiences, having common memories, knowing each other deeply – this is the core of every friendship. Meeting a person once a month or a couple of times a year isn't enough to create a special bond. That is why, in the end, I decided to give up and not invest much time for others, because very few people ever did the same for me. 

I am not sure if Taiwanese themselves suffer from the conditions of their social life. Yet I know that some of the people I've met are very isolated. They have few really close friends and often feel lonely. Some people go out with friends only on some weekends, but mostly go to work, go back home, eat and watch TV. A look at the statistics will clearly show why working life in Taiwan can be alienating:

The annual working hours for Taiwanese employees eclipses many industrialized nations, according to figures from the Council of Labor Affairs (CLA) and the OECD. On average, the Taiwanese work 2,200 hours annually; 20% more than their counterparts in the United States or Japan and more than 35% longer than those in Germany. [source: CNN]

However heterogeneous working hours and social life of every individual might be, I think that, generally speaking, the burden of strenuous jobs, the relative lack of spare time and the underestimation of time in keeping friendships made social life in Taiwan much less pleasant than I'd hoped. That's a reason why so many Taiwanese dream of going abroad and enjoy (and, strangely enough, at the same time seem to despise) the relaxed life of Europe.

I shall argue that one of the main reasons for the evaluation of time in regard to work and social life is the peculiar economic and development history of Taiwan.  

Laziness vs Hard Work, or 

Why Economic Development Makes Us See Time Differently

After her tour of Asia in 1911– 1912, Beatrice Webb, the famous leader of British Fabian socialism, described the Japanese as having ‘objectionable notions of leisure and a quite intolerable personal independence’. She said that, in Japan, ‘there is evidently no desire to teach people to think’. She was even more scathing about my ancestors. She described the Koreans as ‘12 millions of dirty, degraded, sullen, lazy and religionless savages who slouch about in dirty white garments of the most inept kind and who live in filthy mudhuts’. No wonder she thought that ‘[ i]f anyone can raise the Koreans out of their present state of barbarism I think the Japanese will’, despite her rather low opinion of the Japanese. [Chang 2008, p. 183] 

In this excerpt from the book “Bad Samaritans”, economist Chang Ha-Joon makes clear that cultural development theories are but a myth. Korea, a country whose people were once considered lazy and backward, and whose per capita income used to be less than half that of Ghana, is now one of the richest, most innovative and industrialized countries in the world. As to Japan, it is the third largest economy, with a population often praised for its diligence and team work spirit. 

From Western racism to Max Weber's theory of Protestant Ethics as a reason for the development of Northern Europe, culturalism fails to appreciate the impact of economic policy on the habits and behaviour of the people. 

In the course of my life I've heard many “culturalist” opinions that allegedly explain why a certain country is rich or poor. I even remember watching a documentary about Singapore in which the journalist came to the conclusion that the economic miracle of the city-state is due mainly to its “hard-working” people. In reality, the idea that the economic performance of countries is caused by culture is highly speculative and hard to prove. Italy or France, for instance, were – and still are – among the richest countries in the world, and in the 1960's they were far wealthier and more industrialized than Korea, Taiwan or Singapore. The culture itself can't have changed that much in such a short period of time. Germany became, from a poor rural country, an industrial giant in less than a century. The same regarding China – when my father was born, China was a backward country marred by civil war and poverty, and now it is a rising industrial powerhouse.

It is therefore not the laziness or the cultural heritage of a country which is responsible for its poor economic performance, but the other way round. Economic policies have a deep impact on culture and habits. 

To put it plainly: people naturally react to the economic structure of their environment. If a country has a strong welfare system, people don't fear extreme poverty and can therefore have a more relaxed way of life. In a poor country, on the contrary, the struggle for survival makes life hard and affects their choices regarding marriage, career, time planning and so on. 

In the same way, laziness and industriousness are often consequences of the economic condition of a country. In fact, the modern forms of time and discipline are closely related to the industrial society and its division of labour. 

Time, for example, is a product of human society, and changes in the concept of time can be attributed to changes of the organization of society. [Elias 1988].

In pre-industrial societies, leisure (gr. scholé, lat. Otium) was a privilege of the upper classes [Immerfall /Wasner 2011, p. 18-19]. Traditionally, peasants – the class that by far outnumbered all the others – followed natural working rhythms. Peasant life was hard, marred by high taxation, natural calamities and illnesses. Given that peasants produced the food they needed, hard work to them was not a matter of choice, but of survival. In this sense, some segments of the upper classes in societies like ancient Greece, the Roman Empire or Imperial Russia could be “lazier” than peasants.  

As a matter of fact, laziness or hard work are not related – or not exclusively related – to culture, but to the economic system of a society. For instance, a few years ago I met a middle-aged German man in a library in Berlin. One day he talked to me, and I found out that he had been unemployed since 1982. If he's still unemployed, then it's been more than 20 years now. In this respect, laziness can be a result of unemployment or of a job market with widespread part-time work. Underdeveloped countries may give the impression that its people are lazy. In reality, it's mostly because they cannot find a full time job and because they have not internalized what we can call the “industrial sense of time”. [Chang 2008, p. 196]  

Let's consider the German example again. In the 18th century, German states began to organize their “human capital” more efficiently. The disciplining of the work force was an important element of the subsequent industrial revolution. Industrialists demanded from factory workers discipline and efficiency. They set clocks and pretended the exact observance of time schedule, therefore instilling in the workers the “industrial sense of time”. This subsequently influenced the whole feeling for the value of time in the entire society. 

Around 1800, in certain German states working, hours could be as high as 90 per week. In the following decades, they were slowly reduced to 78 (1870), 66 (1890) and 59 (1910) [Immerfall / Wasner 2011, p. 20]. And now, little by little, we arrive to the point. From the 1950's onward, the influence of left-wing parties, the policy of wage increases and the decrease of working hours paved the ground for the emergence of the consumption society. People had more money to spend, and they had more time, so they became consumers. In 1990, for the first time average working hours were less than free time in Germany.

With some differences, this pattern of development is common to the whole of Western Europe after 1945. Consequently, I was born in a “leisure society”, a society where work and leisure are balanced, and where people value their free time as a fundamental part of their lives, a time to have fun and spend with friends.  

In East Asia, work is decisively predominant. The weakness of trade unions, the focus on exporting, the lack of a comprehensive welfare system as well as the increasingly neoliberal policies of the last decade give the employees less contractual power. On the other hand, in Asia it's easier to find a job and easier to get fired, because legislation doesn't protect workers. In Asia – I believe – one can see the disruptive consequences of neoliberal policies that consider job security, welfare and good working conditions as a hindrance to capitalism. What certain people call “hard work” appears to me as a veiled form of irrational neoliberalism which often undermines the happiness and future of many people by causing high levels of stress and constant fears of being sacked when too old to find a new job, leaving one without a pension. 

The habits and the concept of time of Taiwanese have been influenced by the economic system of their country. Due to the long working hours, the time spent for work and other “essential” social activities is more than the time invested in friendships. Besides, for many people spare time is the time to get a good rest after a very stressful week at work, and they just want to relax at home, watch TV and sleep. Therefore, social life is less important than in Europe. Moreover, given the lack of a welfare system, family planning is often determined by material considerations rather than simple love or pleasure.  

A few weeks ago I watched a documentary about Japan which shows a quite extreme case of precarious working conditions and the hardships of reconciling material concerns and social life. I think that this extreme case can at least show, even though in an exaggerated form, some of the points I've made in this post.

BBC: A Story of Love and Hatred


Chang Ha-joon: Bad Samaritans - The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism

Stefan Immerfall / Barbara Wasner: Freizeit