Catch 40 winks with China’s public sleepers

Snoozing; dozing; getting some shut-eye; catching 40 winks. The English language may have more words for an afternoon nap, but it’s the Chinese who have the habit of drifting off during midday siestas—often in the most unexpected places.

Napping was traditionally frowned upon in Chinese culture. In The Analects, Confucius compared a dozing disciple to “decayed wood” for wasting precious study hours. Ancient poems also described the siesta as a luxury of the leisured and idle: “A nap after eating, two cups of tea upon waking/Looking up to find the shadow of the setting sun…Time is of no consequence for those with neither worries nor joy,” wrote Tang dynasty poet Bai Juyi in “After a Meal.”

Chinese mei tuan delivery drivers take an afternoon nap on their scooters.

In the early 20th century, China began importing Western education models, which touted afternoon naps as restorative for one’s health. The right for workers to take breaks is enshrined in China’s constitution, and most Chinese employers and schools have two-hour lunch breaks that incorporate a nap (午睡) or “noon rest” (午休), often to be enjoyed at one’s desk.

A Chinese man napping after a hard day's work while squatting on a bus.

Napping often implies hardship and overwork

Since 2015, Chongqing photographer Xin Ting has been documenting people who nap in public places. At first, he was simply amused by the sleepers’ odd choice of position and location. “Over time, though, I realized that the people who nap in the open tend to be menial laborers who need to rest after a morning of hard work, but have nowhere to sleep,” he says. “This photo series is joyful, yet it has a touch of sadness.”

A Chinese family napping on some bench seats outside a palace entrance.

“Public napping is a metaphor for China’s development,” says Xin

In the future, perhaps naps will once more become the luxurious escape as they were in Confucius’ time. “Given China’s current wealth gap, many people are like public nappers—smart, hardworking, and optimistic, but living in uncomfortable surroundings,” Xin muses. “As our lives improve, I hope fewer and fewer people have to nap outside.”

A Chines man taking a nap on a woman's lap as she takes browses on her phone.

“I hope my photos won’t put people to sleep,” Xin jokes

A young child takes a siesta on her grandmother's lap while riding a bus.

Siestas remain a habit for all ages

A Chinese man taking an afternoon nap in an egg-shaped dome at a mall.

Many nappers make odd choices of bed and sleeping position

Photography by Xin Ting (辛挺)

Nap Snaps is a story from our issue, “The Good Life.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine.


author Hatty Liu

Hatty Liu is the former managing editor of The World of Chinese, and an award-winning communications researcher. Born in China, and raised in China, Canada, and the US, she leverages her cross-cultural identity to create more empathetic knowledge across national boundaries.

Related Articles