Today was probably the best example yet of just what a peculiar creature the Chinese bureaucracy is.
Last Monday a couple of students raised their hands at the end of class to ask if there was still lecture next week. A little confused, I said that of course there was–next Monday is in fact the last lecture of the semester, where I will attempt to make it to World War One and triumphantly tie off the nineteenth century for my students–I had scheduled a lecture next Monday on the syllabus and had no intention of cancelling it. Only the next morning did I find out from friends that next Monday through Wednesday are apparently an official government holiday: Duanwujie 端午节, the Dragon Boat Festival, and that all classes were cancelled for all three of those days. This set off a flurry of frantic phone calls between me and the other Harvard student currently team teaching my class this semester–as I was off campus all day today my poor colleague was sent on a wild goose chase from one office to another, trying to find out exactly what the schedule change was and if we could still reserve a classroom for that day. My classroom had apparently already been snapped up by an English class that had rescheduled for that day, and the teaching building staff refused to book another classroom for her directly–that could only be done with the clearance of a higher up office on another part of campus. Instead she was given a slip of paper which described her request, which she would have to take to the higher-up office, but which unfortunately closed before she could make it today.
We were saved from another frantic visit to the department office tomorrow by an email from the History Department office late this afternoon, informing us (for the first time) of the national holiday and also that Monday and Tuesday classes had been moved later in the week. The first official notification of this change, then, arrived only five days before the actual change, giving us less than a week to arrange with our students. While it would be easy to write this laxity of communication off to our second-class foreigner status in the department, and to our ignorance of Chinese holidays, we were in fact not much worse informed than the rest of the university of the change. An undergrad friend told me that she had no knowledge of an official university calendar, published or online, which included all of the holidays for the year. My fellow Harvard teacher and I had been given a calendar way back in September, which had included the dates for the holidays in 2009–but with a note that the exact dates of holidays for 2010 would not be available for publication until after the new year, because the university had to wait until the government made final decisions about holiday dates for that year. Not even the Chinese government decides official holiday dates more than a year in advance.
Lacking an official centralized calendar, my friend informed me that arrangements and schedule changes for holidays were simply announced ad-hoc by each of her different professors, and that nobody knew the holiday dates for certain more than a few weeks in advance. Nonetheless, one would assume that this doesn’t leave that much room for variation, and that most people should roughly know when holidays will come up because they will be roughly the same as last year. But students and faculty don’t even have the regularity of tradition to rely upon. Though the Dragon Boat festival is a well-known traditional Chinese holiday, this year is apparently the first year that the government has designated it as an official holiday–a symptom of the recent re-acceptance of Chinese tradition as the country slowly heals from the militant anti-traditionalism of the Cultural Revolution. So anyone attempting to plan their schedule in advance and accommodate vacations and holidays has little that they can rely on for certain. 太不靠谱.