Sunday, November 27, 2011


I’ve lived in Beijing for six years. I feel I know a fair bit about the local culture. But I’m still dogged by one burning question: When the hell is Chinese bedtime?
In fact I’m not sure there is such a thing. Sometimes I swear these kids, most of whom are only-children thanks to China’s one-child policy, are so indulged they get to decide themselves when they feel like hitting the sack. Perhaps their parents offer a cursory “Not too late now” as they shuffle off to get their rest.
For a foreign stay-at-home parent it’s galling, perplexing, and a bit humiliating.
All afternoon, one of my eyes is kept on my watch as I calculate the countdown to dinner and the evening shambles. The aim is to get food on the table around six, get the kids into the bath by seven, and lights out by 7.30.
That’s the aim anyway.
During the meal that eye keeps returning to the clock. I hate to sound like a Swiss engineer’s accountant son, but if 20 minutes becomes 25 minutes becomes 40 minutes, I’m already worrying about waking my drowsy six and four-year-olds for school next morning.
Finally our girls are sent into dreamland. Then sometimes I’ll go out. And as I go, I’ll usually pass some local kids my daughters’ age playing on our compound’s playground, provided it’s not winter. If I stay in I’ll still know they are there because my kids complain about their noise.
Then sometimes I’ll come home about 10.30pm. I’ll walk past that playground again and THERE ARE STILL CHINESE KIDS PLAYING ON IT!
I feel like barking: “For heaven’s sake do you mind?”
I can hear them laughing in my face: “Ha ha you big dope! Your kids asleep are they? You went to all that trouble again, huh?”
I imagine their parents shaking their heads, not in fear that their kids lack rest, but in bemusement over these foreigners and all their early evening stress.

Chinese bedtime was first turned on its head during
the country's decade of upheaval known as the
Cultural Revolution (1966-76). The banner behind
this group of Red Guards reads: "Denounce your
 parents and their stupid bedtime".
As a result of such campaigns, however, leading human rights
group What Are The Bloody Chinese Up To Now? estimates
 around 95 per cent of the country's children are forced
into "grabbing some shut-eye" wherever they can,
 including this boy in Hefei, Anhui province, yesterday.

I often go to our compound pool to swim in the evening. I’m also often seen there with my girls in the afternoons. I went the other night at 9.30pm and my Chinese friend on the front desk said in bewilderment: “Hey Mr Ma – where are the kids?”
“Where do you think they’d be?” I say. “They’re down the pub watching football!”
“Oh. Fair enough then.”
“No - they’re asleep man! Like they were two hours ago!”
I then got to the pool to be met not by the sight of adults splashing through laps in much appreciated grown-up time, but by a two-year-old boy. There he was in his floatation ring in the water - which was cold if you weren’t actually swimming - with a gaggle of old relatives around him. They cooed and smiled and took photos. He looked back at them, screaming and crying his eyes out. Really, really loudly.
And if my translation of baby Mandarin is any good, he was saying: “THIS IS FREAKING FREEZING! FOR THE LOVE OF THE PARTY WILL YOU NOT PUT ME TO BED?!”
I couldn’t help myself. I wandered over and in my fairly good Chinese said: “Boy baby small. Clock there nine half? He bed you insert and not after. Jesus Christ.”
I got more of those bemused looks that seem to say: “This foreigner seems to not feel this situation is completely normal and sensible. Let’s hope he goes away.”
So I went away. But I did wonder. You know when a toddler is over-tired, when their cry has that persistent tone of “I … WANT … TO … DIE!” That’s bad enough when they’re sitting on the loungeroom floor exhibiting their tired signs, let alone in some frighteningly large reservoir of cold water surrounded by crazed old relatives insisting this is great fun, but who aren’t going anywhere near the water themselves.
My wife the doctor and early childhood specialist gives seminars here in Beijing on how to get babies and toddlers to sleep. They always attract lots of people. None of them are ever Chinese. For why would you worry about getting your children to sleep if you quite clearly are not worried about getting your children to sleep?

At the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games in
Beijing, these children provided colour, pageantry and
thoughtful recognition of China's 55 ethnic minorities.
But they should have been in bed ages ago.

Maybe there are reasons. Maybe because the beds in China are so hard noone can find it in their hearts to order a child into one. Perhaps it’s Beijing’s air pollution, which means the children are still buzzing on carbon dioxide late at night. Maybe it’s because they are told Chinese folk stories, some of which are slightly odd. They often involve some sort of creature, let’s say a crane, which morphs into something else and does something funny – let’s say a rabbit with knives for fingers that slices children to bits in their beds.
Here’s an example I found on a website called Chinese Folk Stories, Myths and Legends. It’s called The Tale of Hok Lee and the Dwarfs. It’s too long to reproduce fully, but here’s the bit where the story takes a chilling twist as Hok Lee is addressed by his arch rival, the Doctor.
"’And listen you dance your rattling unsurpassed,’ another the Doctor. ‘If you recreation shaft and satisfy them, they give appropriate you to verbalise a asking and you can then beg to be recovered; but if you saltation badly they will most liable do you whatsoever roguery out of spite.’ With that he took his depart and departed.”
Perhaps a little was lost in the translation, but you get the gist right?
Neither do I, but it’s not looking good for old Hok Lee. At the very least the kids will go to bed with a headache.

Uh-oh. China could be in a bit of trouble in a few years.
This item found on

No, I know the logic behind why Chinese children stay up later than foreign models. Many have two working parents and are cared for by grandparents, so evenings are the main chance mum and dad have to see their offspring. I would say mornings too, but I imagine when most parents go to work, the kids are still sleeping off their big night.
Also, most Chinese schools still enforce naptime up until what we loawais (foreigners) would consider an inordinately late age. Obviously a few hours’ sleep in the afternoons is great for rest and recharging. But it’s not all about the teachers - the kids get to rest too.
Still, the whole thing just seems to confront the natural order. Kids are supposed to go to bed and maybe sneak out for a glass of water late on. Adults stay up late. I, for one, don’t want to have to argue with my four-year-old over whether we watch Pulp Fiction, the Blair Witch Project, or Tellytubbies.
In China there are rules for everything. Every time you go to a park, for example, you have to observe a big sign illustrating "The 83 Don'ts". So why hasn’t the Chinese Government instituted an official Chinese bedtime? We don’t have to be draconian about it. Maybe 8.30pm?

Some of the Don'ts seen here relaxing at a
Beijing park. They seem to outlaw everything
except drilling your own head.

Granted, one problem would be that China doesn’t have timezones, despite having the width for four of them. The whole country is on Beijing time. So perhaps children way out west in Xinjiang, just north of Pakistan, would grumble about being packed off to bed in the middle of the afternoon.
Still, this way I could swim laps without colliding with an inflatable lobster. And when I stumble home from a late night, I wouldn’t be hounded by hordes of jeering seven-year-olds on the swings.

One Beijing reveller exploiting a loophole in
regulations, yesterday.


  1. This is SO true. I encounter this problem regularly with my Chinese husband, who is of the belief children will come over and tell you when they are tired. He wonders why I get stressed about getting them to bed at a reasonable hour - "let them play if they're happy". Our ayi as well can't seem to enforce bedtime before 10 or 10:30.

  2. He he. They might not be so happy the next morning! The other thing I like is for Chinese kids, staying up also often means watching what the hell they like on TV. Visited a friend the other night, and there was their 3yo enjoying Terminator 3! No joke.

  3. Wait. I'm confused, the kid was in the pool? But wouldn't he be cold without a gazillion layers of clothing?

    My son is hurtling towards 13 and I am mourning the loss of my time without offspring, damn it. I love me a child sleeping.

  4. Wait, but doesn't the "3" mean rated for 3 year olds?

  5. Knowing how kids start studying hard at an early age, I am not at all surprise at their parents/ayis/caretakers not setting up their routine and sleep time. They let them be because later they'll be worn out by long consistent hours or studying 7 days a week.
    If the parents are ok with kids not sleeping, why would it bother anyone else? :-)

    1. True, but then again, if someone wants to stick their nose in and tell people how to run their lives, who are we to stop them?