The history of standard time began in the mid-1800s, when train companies in Britain began to adopt a time standard based on the sun position at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, called Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Before this, every town would have its own time standard. With the advent of rail networks, most countries had adopted standard time based on GMT by the end of the 1800s, thus establishing time zones. There are 24 times zones, which are 15 degrees longitude each, or approximately 1,036 miles. The GMT system remained unchanged until 1972, when the world adopted Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which is based off atomic clocks. The seconds that these atomic clocks are measuring is based on the length of the rotation in 1820. Yet the earth’s rotation has slowed rather significantly since 1820, when GMT was established, resulting in a 0.6 second difference between solar time and atomic time annually. In order to maintain the accuracy of UTC, it is necessary to introduce a leap second every few years. Unbeknownst to many, between December 31st, 2008 at 11:59:59 PM and January 1st, 2009 at 12:00:00 AM an extra second was added, commonly notated as 11:59:60. The logic goes that we have to somehow stay tied to the sun.
Compared to the meticulous efforts towards maintaining the accuracy of UTC, the world time zone map is rather haphazard. There is a basis of order as the meridian line, UTC +0, cuts cleanly through London. But just a few miles to the South, the time zone is forced to veer far to the West to encompass Portugal, the only country within its jurisdiction to accept it. France, much of which is to the West of London even, sets its clocks one hour later, as do all of the neighboring countries. China’s situation is even more drastic. In fact, the whole UT +8 time zone is particularly out of whack. Starting at the North Pole, it quickly veers sharply to the East to include the Krasnoyarsk region of Russia. (Inexplicably, all Russian time zones are about two hours ahead of what they should be, leading to such anomalies as 11:00 AM sunrises in St. Petersburg during the winter.) Heading further South, UT +8 veers to the West into Mongolia, before expanding its breadth to include all of China. Entering the South China Sea, it narrows to include the Philippines and covers Western Australia before it descends without interruption into Antarctica.
China’s territory lies between 73 and 135 degrees East, or 4,280 miles, from the province of Harbin bordering Korea all the way to the mountainous West adjacent to Central Asia. Yet today, all of China adheres to the same time zone, UTC +8. China previously only had a brief taste of time zones. They had been instituted in 1912 under the republican government, which divided the country into five time zones, with a range from UT +5.5 in the West to UT +8.5 in the East. But 37 years later in 1949, with the introduction of the People’s Republic, the whole country was set to UTC +8, commonly known as Beijing time. There has been little speculation as to why. Perhaps once the urbanites were forcibly transferred to an agrarian lifestyle in China’s West, where life went by the sun, standardized time was only needed in Beijing—the governmental and commercial capital. On the other hand, in a planned economy, it might have arisen out of a desire for a more coordinated nation. Certainly train schedules are much more straightforward when there are not time zones to reckon with.
If China, which spans more than 4,000 miles, functions properly with one time zone, maybe the whole world would as well. The idea behind time zones is to coordinate the solar noon approximately with UTC 12:00. In China, substantial deviations from noon-coordination have a large effect on the relationship between sun and time. On April 14th, 2011, the sun will rise in Shenyang, in China’s East, at 5:11 in the morning. In Kaxgar, in China’s far West, the sun will rise at 8:22. In Shenyang, the sun will set at 6:27 PM, and in Kaxgar, at 9:32 PM. This is still relatively within the understanding of day and night, but towards winter the difference becomes rather stark. On December 21st, the sun will rise in Shenyang at 7:12 AM, and set at 16:19, similar to the times for a North American city in the winter. But in Kaxgar, the sun does not rise until 10:11 AM, and sets at 19:37 PM. Two workers in Kaxgar and Shenyang might work the same shift from 8:00 to 5:00, but the Kaxgar has the disadvantage of having to waking up in the middle of the night to get to work.
China’s unilateral time zone is a symptom of its top-down approach to authority. But this policy has too been met with resistance. Ürümqi is primarily known for the riots that took place there in the summer of 2009, during which Uyghurs, a Muslim-Turkic group indigenous to the region clashed with Han Chinese migrants from the East. A total of 197 people died in the ensuing violence. But for years now there has been a more subtle form of resistance has taken shape in Ürümqi the informal “Ürümqi Time,” which is set at UST +6, two hours behind Beijing. This time is not officially recognized by the Beijing government, but is used by some local government offices and stores. According to some sources, the Uyghurs are more likely to use the local time zone, whereas Han Chinese prefer to set their watches to Beijing. The origins of Ürümqi time is unclear, but in any case it certainly was not an intervention of the Party authorities in Beijing. So far, they have turned a blind eye to the new time zone. The introduction of Ürümqi time is a rare case in China of a minority successfully asserting its rights, even if a right so small as being able to commute to work in the sunlight.
Turning to recent developments in the Chinese government’s position on time, the authorities decided last week to issue a statement discouraging films and TV shows that feature time travel from being aired. The government was able to handle a non-fictional time adjustment of two hours in the case of Ürümqi, but time travel of more than a thousand years was not acceptable, even in the fictional medium of television and films. In the productions that the statement is clearly targeting, people from modern-day China would travel back to China’s ancient dynasties to interact with historical figures. The State Administration for Radio, Film & Television that the productions lack “positive thoughts and meaning” and “casually make up myths, have monstrous and weird plots, use absurd tactics, and even promote feudalism, superstition, fatalism and reincarnation.” Some Western commentators have argued that the authorities are afraid of these productions because they represent a yearning for an escape from Communist China to ancient times where one was able to pursue love and happiness freely. Richard Brody from the New Yorker writes that time travel “serves … simply as a cry for freedom, from precisely this kind of idiotic and despotic regulation.”
But to focus on freedom ignores more fundamental questions inherent in the implication of time. With the implementation of Beijing Time throughout the whole country, the intent was to bring people closer by making them share the same now. Time differences render distances more concrete. It is much easier to grasp that it is night in one part of the earth and morning in another than to try to make sense of a random figure of miles or kilometers. Under a uniform time zone, the distance is less readily felt; everyone is aware that they go to school and watch the news at the same time, whether neighbors or thousands of miles apart. By setting their watches to Beijing, the Chinese accepted that their lives and their present were inextricably tied to the distant governmental authority. Just like a stockbroker in California might set their watch three hours ahead, the Chinese citizen endeavors to use time to frame what is a central institution in their life. Ürümqi Time asserts that life in its region is somewhat autonomous; the two hour difference is a statement that the region operates, at least on some level, within its own delicate sphere. A time-journey of a thousand years though, even if experienced vicariously through TV, challenges the authorities more blatantly by going back not only to a time when there was no People’s Republic, but no such thing as standard time at all. Then, everyone was their own time zone, based on the Greenwich that mattered to them most. The subtle assertion of time zone autonomy is one small way to realize what these time-travel series insinuate: that the power of Beijing is only temporal.