Chinese concept of time offers cure to modern ‘time aliments’

By FU ANGUO and TU GANGPENG / 01-11-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Chinese civilization’s insights on time may provide a remedy for the ailments of modern time. Photo: TUCHONG

Time is the great equalizer, granting each person the same opportunities. Yet, time also is cruelly biased—people vary greatly in how they are able to use it. The different ways in which time is utilized provokes varied emotional responses. The passage of time can sometimes induce feelings of anxiety and unrest, but at other times, it can bring joy and satisfaction. These differences appear to elude fixed patterns, but psychological studies reveal that individuals exhibit consistent characteristics in their everyday use of time. The human capacity for psychological time travel connects the past, present, and future, allowing each person to form a unique perspective of time. This marks the primary distinction between psychological time and objective time.

Among the various understandings of psychological time, the term “time insight,” proposed by psychologist Huang Xiting, is both accurate and broad in meaning. It also aligns with the Chinese perspective of interpreting psychological time as a form of time travel.

Anthropologists have also found that each culture holds fundamental assumptions about the nature of time, and different cultures have distinct preferences in their orientation towards time. The Chinese perspective on the flow of time is entirely different from the Western linear view of time. The Chinese perception of time is immersed in a foundational scale of experiences, with profound insights into concepts like “timing,” “opportunity,” “fate,” and “fortune,” forming the basis of Chinese insights on time. 

In the Chinese framework, “time” is viewed through the lens of humanism. Within humanistic time, the distance between ancient and present is shortened, allowing the “self” to be positioned in the flow of time, making time transcendent. This, in turn, expands the density and depth of modern life. In this sense, Chinese time insight cultivates character and determines an individual’s time patterns as they respond to various situations in life.

Humanistic time

Chinese historical consciousness is highly developed, with history guiding the direction for each life, providing a foundation for existence. Confucianism posits that over time, human history progresses along a rational trajectory. One of the foundations for Confucian historical optimism is the belief that time is reversible. Standing at the intersection of space and time, people can reflect on the past or historical experiences. By attaching great significance to the historical past one can accurately position oneself in a historic era — within the framework of historical contemplation.

The reversibility of Chinese “time” is often constructed through contemplation of the exemplary words and deeds of ancient sages. This understanding differs fundamentally from how other cultures create reversibility in “time,” through certain rituals or natural phenomena. Chinese people often create meaning by comparing the “ancient” (representing a philosophical ideal) with the “future.”  

Idealizing the past serves as a lever to uplift and improve the less-than-ideal realities of the present, prompting efforts to bridge and surpass these imperfections in the future. The “reversibility of time” is a crucial tool Chinese people use to narrow the gap between the past and the present and resolve contradictions between the ideal and reality. Chinese “time insight,” does not set the past, present, and future in opposition, instead, they organically interact and permeate one another. Through repeated review and examination of these three temporal points, the past or the future can serve as a baseline for observing current events or represent an ideal present. 

Despite significant differences between traditional Chinese time insight and modern Western perspectives, psychological research reveals that individuals who adopt a long-term approach to viewing time develop strong holistic perceptions, place greater emphasis on the meaning of behavioral goals, and observe the rules behind phenomena, thus gaining self-control and a foundation for success. This indirectly validates the positive significance of Chinese time insight.

‘Time aliments’

The cultural concept of modern time follows the evolution from a Judeo-Christian redemptive history to Enlightenment’s historical philosophy. Labor time is exchanged in the global market, and this time-value based economy forms the basis of social existence, while the core of modernity is a belief in unlimited progress towards the future in the linear vector of modern time. Therefore, life is measured with modern labor time, and this is one of the most profound shaping influences of modern history on the human psychological structure, but it constitutes the deepest contradiction of modernity—the irreconcilable conflict between labor time and the biological lifetime of the human body.

The human body has a “biological clock,” and its natural life follows a unique time pattern. The apoptosis of living cells also follow a constant pattern. These phenomena will not alter regardless of the linear vector time measured by modern “mechanical clocks.” For example, during labor, the rhythm of life accelerates, and after time, the body needs rest to restore its natural state. Time seems to slow during sleep. If we look at a person’s entire life, the speed of life follows a parabolic curve, slower during infancy and adolescence, reaching its peak during adulthood, and gradually slowing down with age until that lifetime comes to an end. As we can see, a lifetime is not an infinitely uniform straight line but a finite, variable concept with individualized characteristics.

Lifetimes demand adaptation as their timescales are diverse. Forcing violations to the natural laws of human lifetimes, such as asking middle-aged and older individuals to maintain an abnormally fast work pace or using stimulants for an extended period to accelerate life processes can lead to diseases and even premature death.

However, a lifetime is also the foundation of labor time, naturally aligning with labor life processes centered on production and use value. In modern society, dominated by the exchange value of production, only the socially necessary time absorbed in the production of use value is calculated, and uncalculated time is sacrificed to competition. In other words, use value must be transformed into exchange value through socially necessary time, while life-time must also be converted into modern time through socially necessary time.

The negative effects of socially necessary time on lifetimes are evident in two aspects. First, it subjects the natural work-rest rhythm of laborers to exploitation and harm under capitalism’s profit mechanism, diminishing the importance of leisure time. Second, the singular efficiency scale of socially necessary labor time flattens the uniqueness and diversity of lifetimes.

The fundamental obstacle inherent in modernization lies in the fact that labor time provides the economic foundation for modern equality, liberating individuals from traditional identity-based societies and generating modern individual time. However, it also objectifies individuals as standardized production machines, causing an unnaturally artificial approach towards time. Modernization simultaneously rules and transforms the life and time of humans as natural beings. This leads to a division between modern labor time and private leisure time, creating a false binary. The former, though rational, constant, and abstract, is tedious and boring. The latter, though sensory and varied in speed, is free, comfortable, and stimulating. The more monotonous and tedious daytime work is, the more often primitive and stimulating nighttime entertainment is pursued as compensation, giving rise to new forms of sensory stimulation in modern culture.

A future that disdains the process, abandons the present, and devalues the past empties the foundation of modern human existence, breeding the unique nihilism and anxiety of modernity, and undermining our future. This modern ailment morphs into an intractable problem when Western time insights are applied to modern civilization.

‘Transcendence of time’

The time insight grounded in Chinese civilization may provide a remedy for the ailments of modern time. When understanding the concept of time, Western civilization focuses on the present, the immediate moment, while Chinese culture observes a continuous extension of the past, present, and future without a definite beginning or end. Chinese people have a strong sense of time, and their lives are deeply immersed in long cultural traditions. They inherit the aspirations of ancient sages and work for the well-being of future generations. Traditional Chinese philosophies often intertwine their personal lives with the Chinese collective life through participation in historical and cultural traditions. Within this context, individual values and meanings are highlighted. Life and death are seen as continuous, and only by connecting the lives of multiple generations can one properly respect the past and look into the distant future, integrating individual lives into the collective life and transcending individual existence. 

Therefore, Chinese people rarely experience the kind of loneliness depicted by existentialist writers in the West, except when they are isolated from collective endeavors and “exiled” by time. In those moments, the Chinese will feel a sense of loneliness as expressed by Tang poet Chen Ziang in “Thinking of the endless universe, I weep, and I alone with Nature converse.” (Tr. Wu Juntao)

Historical figures and their deeds form the foundation of the Chinese concept and understanding of “time.” In this concrete understanding of time, moral principles are often extracted, permeating the universal idea of “transcendence of time.” This “transcendence of time” is refuted, confirmed, or embodied by various historical figures in history, allowing later generations to deeply contemplate and integrate history into the practice of their personal life timelines.

In summary, the wise value of traditional Chinese culture is increasingly evident as we face the dilemmas of modern civilization, offering at least two inspirational approaches to modern individuals. First, modern people suffer tragedies under the tyranny of linear time. Modern capitalist culture erases humanity, treating individuals as machines competing against the flow of time as tradable commodities, leading to a loss of the sense of value and meaning of life. In contrast, Chinese traditional culture leaps back and forth between the past, present, and future with profound time insight, extracting the meaning of historical events or individuals’ actions from similar incidents in the past to create a transcendent timeline. This can soothe the alienation felt by modern individuals subjected to the dominance of linear time, and expand the meaning and depth of modern life.

Second, the natural lifetimes of modern individuals are often occupied by social labor time, positioning individuals as anonymous components of social production machinery. Moreover, modern society overly emphasizes individual rights and interests, leading to rampant individualism that severs ties between people and disrupts communities, resulting in increased isolation and loneliness. In time insights provided by Chinese culture, the relationship between “individuals” and “society” is one of mutual permeation rather than confrontation. Though an individual’s lifetime is limited, it can transcend time, allowing the individual to integrate into the collective life, coexist, resonate, and prosper, thus creating eternal and enduring value. For ancient Chinese, people often maintained an open and broad-minded attitude, even in the final stages of life. They believed that while each individual’s life is finite, their life within the national collective is infinite, long-lasting, and immortal. Therefore, they had no fear of the ravages of time. 

Going forward, to escape the modern torment of time, we might revisit the spiritual world of ancient philosophies, to draw inspiration and nourishment, and thereby rebuild a new harmonious relationship between individuals and society in the future. 

Fu Anguo is a professor from the School of International Business at Hainan University; Tu Gangpeng is a professor from the School of Marxism at Hainan University.

Edited by YANG XUE