The World of Chinese - - Contents - )

Leisure or 闲 ( xi1n) is in­creas­ingly a lux­ury in mod­ern China, es­pe­cially for those trapped in the rat race of the first and sec­ond-tier cties. The coun­try’s rapid growth, com­bined with as­pi­ra­tion to do bet­ter than the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion, has left peo­ple lit­tle time to breathe. To many, in be­tween buy­ing apart­ments, and ed­u­cat­ing their chil­dren, free time is wasted time; just the thought in­duces anx­i­ety and guilt.

In late July, an ar­ti­cle ti­tled “20 Mil­lion Peo­ple in Bei­jing Live a Pre­tend Life” by the Wechat ac­count Zhangx­i­an­sheng­shuo hit a nerve on­line by claim­ing that the sprawl­ing me­trop­o­lis crushes all re­la­tion­ships, di­ver­sity, and lo­cal cul­ture in its ex­pand­ing or­bit; that “there’s no life in this city, only dreams of a few and jobs of many.” The ar­ti­cle was re­posted so many times that Peo­ple’ Daily was com­pelled to a re­but­tal, ti­tled “Not a Fake Life, Just a New Life.”

Long for­got­ten and worth bring­ing back, per­haps, is the no­tion of leisure, en­shrined in the char­ac­ter 闲. The cre­ation of the char­ac­ter was some­what ro­man­tic. The an­cients caught a glimpse of moon­light shin­ing through the gaps of the wooden pan­els of a door at night and cre­ated , which orig­i­nally re­ferred to phys­i­cal gaps, given that the out­side rad­i­cal stands for “door” while the in­side rad­i­cal 月s­tands for the moon. Later, the char­ac­ter evolved into 闲, its mod­ern form, and took on the mean­ing of “gaps be­tween time pe­ri­ods or events.”

To­gether with 空 ( k7ng, empty, free), the two char­ac­ters formed the phrase 空闲, which means “leisure time” or “free time,” as in­等你空闲下来,我们一起去钓鱼。( D0ng n@ k7ngx­i1n xi3lai, w6­men y#q@ q& di3oy%. When you are free, let’s go fish­ing to­gether.)

More col­lo­qui­ally, peo­ple say 闲工夫( xi1n g4ngfu) to mean a short pe­riod of free time. Snatch­ing a mo­ment of leisure from one’s busy sched­ule is忙里偷闲( m1ng l@ t4u xi1n)— but this is an un­af­ford­able lux­ury for many liv­ing in the fast-paced city.

Back when the world moved at a much slower speed, Chi­nese literati de­vel­oped the no­tion of the “leisurely and care­free mood,” or 闲情逸致( xi1n q!ng y# zh#), which be­came the theme of many lit­er­ary and artis­tic cre­ations, such as po­etry and cal­lig­ra­phy.

Even or­di­nary Chi­nese were known for their mas­tery of this art of liv­ing, as il­lus­trated by au­thor Lin Yu­tang’s clas­sic My Coun­try and My Peo­ple, writ­ten in the 1930s: “Whereas the Chi­nese in pol­i­tics are ridicu­lous and so­ci­ety is child­ish, at leisure they are at their best. They have so much leisure and so much leisurely jovi­al­ity.”

There are a series of phrases as­so­ci­ated with the pas­time: 清闲 ( q~ngx­i1n) means “leisure with peace and quiet;” 闲适 ( xi1nsh#) means “leisurely and com­fort­able.” Some­one liv­ing in leisure, un­bound by worldly af­fairs, can be re­ferred to as “float­ing clouds and wild cranes” or 闲云野鹤( xi1ny%n y0h-), which was used to de­scribe her­mits and Daoist priests in the past. For in­stance, 退休之后,他如闲云野鹤,无拘无束。( Tu#xi$ zh~h7u, t` r% xi1ny%n y0h-, w%j$ w% sh&. Af­ter re­tire­ment, he lives a leisurely life, free from worldly cares and obli­ga­tions.)

The char­ac­ter 闲 can also mean “idle,” but pure idle­ness is dis­cour­aged. The phrase 吃闲饭 ( ch~ xi1n­f3n), “con­sum­ing idle food,” refers to a loafer or slacker. An­other phrase,游手好闲( y5u sh6u h3o xi1n) also means “to idle about.”

An­other mean­ing of 闲 is “un­oc­cu­pied,” as in 闲置 ( xi1nzh#), mean­ing “to leave un­used,” or in 闲钱 ( xi1n­qi1n), mean­ing “money left over.” This is why Alibaba’s sec­ond-hand sales plat­form is named 闲鱼 ( xi1ny%, Idle Fish). So if you have items you don’t use, you can sell it on Idle Fish to make some sur­plus cash.

Ir­rel­e­vant or mean­ing­less ac­tiv­i­ties that one does to kill time is also called 闲, such as 闲逛 ( xi1n­gu3ng), mean­ing “loaf, stroll, or gad about,” and 闲聊 ( xi1n­li1o) means “idle small talk.” 闲话 ( xi1nhu3, lit­er­ally “idle words”) can ei­ther mean “di­gres­sion,” “gos­sip,” or “com­plaint.” A fun phrase that’s used to de­scribe busy­bod­ies is狗拿耗子,多管闲事( g6u n1 h3ozi, du4 gu2n xi1nsh#), which means “med­dling in other peo­ple’s busi­ness like a dog try­ing to catch mice.”

When it comes to the im­por­tance of leisure, per­haps it was Lin who put it best: “It is when the re­pres­sions of so­ci­ety and busi­ness are gone, and when the goads of money and fame and am­bi­tion are lifted, and man’s spirit wan­ders where it lis­teth, that we see the in­ner man, his real self.” Though so­ci­ety the pres­sure on ev­ery­one to bet­ter them­selves, it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber not leave be­hind the true, in­ner self. So take a break.

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