It is safe to assert the few Chinese have insomnia. On the contrary, the ability to sleep anywhere, at any time, is downright stunning. Recently I saw four workmen lying down in the middle of the sidewalk on a Sunday afternoon completely out cold. Men routinely sleep in the carts on the backs of their bikes, and even in stores employees often put their heads down and nod off for a moment. Or twenty.
Of course the absolute funniest is the sight of Party officials completely asleep as leaders stand at the podium talking away. How is this acceptable? It seems like they would want to have a different procedure if the current system leads to mass napping.
So what is it about Chinese culture that enables people to sleep in almost any circumstance? There are a few theories, so let me present them:
THE SOE THEORY: In a traditionally communist system there is little incentive to have high production. Since wages are guaranteed, additional output has no reward. In China and Eastern Europe this led to poor service and lackadaisical effort. Essentially when you work for a state owned enterprise (SOE) that will never fire you, you learn to sleep whenever you want to.
ETERNAL PEACE THEORY: This idea draws on the peaceful nature of Chinese people based in the Buddhist tradition. Traditionally it is a culture that looks inward, where a man comes to terms with himself, and understands his deeper meaning. This means that Chinese do not get too stressed and can relax easily. Alternately some call this the “BS Theory.”
PASSIVE LEARNING THEORY: If you have ever been in a Chinese classroom—and if you’re a foreigner living in China there is an 80% chance you have—then you know that the country relies on the lecturing/passive learning approach. Classes tend to reward students for regurgitating information without really processing it in any way. Lectures are often more for the benefit of the teacher than the students who like to doze off. This clearly lends itself to sleeping through Party conferences. Not sure how it works for the people napping in the street, but it covers part of the phenomenon.
COMMUNAL LIVING THEORY: Sure kids of the latest generation rarely have siblings, but that is partly because the last few generations had a zillion per family. In fact Mao encouraged parents to spawn children on the idea that it would make the country stronger (it didn’t). If you had seven brothers and lived in a two-room apartment, you’d be able to fall asleep anywhere too!
I am not social scientist, and certainly do not know which theory is correct, but when you see people sleeping everywhere, you need an explanation. We yearn for rationales for the curious and peculiar. One of the most amazing things is walking through hutongs at night in the summer. Whole communities carry out there cots and sleep in the alleys. It is both stunning and charming.
I may not now how they do it, but the Chinese knack for sleeping anywhere will continue to amaze me.