Start the holidays with the Chinese character for leisure

Leisure or 闲 (xián) is increasingly a luxury in modern China, especially for those trapped in the rat race of the first and second-tier cities. 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.”

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On the Character: 闲 is a story from our issue, “Down to Earth.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.


author Huang Weijia (黄伟嘉)

Dr. Huang Weijia is a senior lecturer in Chinese language at Boston University and a distinguished research fellow at Shaanxi Normal University. He has taught courses in modern and classical Chinese and Chinese culture at Harvard University, Brown University, and the Middlebury College Summer Program. Dr. Huang has authored a series of successful textbooks and reference books in the US, Chinese mainland, and Hong Kong, including the Readings in Chinese Culture series. He has also written numerous articles on cross-cultural and Chinese studies for newspapers and magazines in the US and China.