The Countdown of Time and the Practice of Everyday Life

Hai Ren

[1] For about two weeks, Xi Guojin, the vice editor-in-chief of China Top Brands (a magazine published by China News Agency) had been looking for "a form of concrete expression showing the strong desire of the Chinese people in longing for the return of Hong Kong to the motherland" [1]. In the evening of September 11, 1993, Xi Guojin picked up Guangming Daily (an official newspaper of the Communist Party) to scan through the day's news. When turning to Page 7, he saw a photo taken by Li Guoqing, showing the year 2000 countdown clock at the Pompidou Center (Center Beaubourg) in Paris. As the photo's caption tells the reader, "If you come to take a photo in front of the entrance of the Pompidou Cultural Center before the year 2000, you are surely able to record accurately the time of the photo — a countdown clock located at the south end of the main entrance of the Center will tell you how many seconds left before the coming of the year 2000. More than 200 million digits remained on the countdown clock are reducing second by second; eventually they will reach to zero at 0:00 of the year 2000" [2]. "The countdown clock, this is it!" Xi Guojin told himself. By the early 1994, Xi Guojin completed the design and got the final approval of the Chinese Government. Meanwhile, Zhengzhou-based Zhongyuan Display Technology Corporation made the clock. Xi and his employer, China Top Brands magazine, selected Tiananmen Square as the site for setting up the clock because of the place's magnificent historical meaning: "On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong declared at the Gate of Tiananmen that the Chinese people had stood up from then on. After forty years, the Chinese people who have stood up declared to the whole world that they will be sending the remains of colonialism to the museum of history by the end of the century!" [3]

[2] On December 19, 1994, the tenth anniversary of the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration regarding the Hong Kong question, the countdown clock officially began to operate. The clock, below Chinese national flags and signs, was placed between two pillars in front of the museum building jointly occupied by the National Museum of Chinese History and the National Museum of Chinese Revolution. It was a 16-meter high and 9.6-meter wide metal panel. On the top of the panel were five golden-colored stars taken from the national flag. Below the stars were four lines of Chinese characters. From the top line to the fourth line read: "The Chinese Government" (Zhongguo zhengfu), "Resumes the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong" (dui Xianggang huifu xingshi zhuquan), "Counting-down time" (daojishi), and "to July 1, 1997" (ju 1997 nian 7 yue 1 ri). The next section below this included two lines indicating the days (tian) and seconds (miao) respectively. At the bottom were listed, in small size characters, sponsors, including the magazine China Top Brands, China's Southern Aviation Engineering Company, Linghua Food-Flavoring Group, Ji'ning, Shangdong, and the National Museum of Chinese Revolution. Below these sponsors, the panel indicated the first operational date of the clock: December 19, 1994. From 11:10 on December 19, 1994 (the official inauguration) to 0:00 on July 1, 1997, the countdown clock had counted 925 days or 79.8798 million seconds. On July 8, 1997, the clock was removed from Tiananmen Square and put on display at the Cultural Square under the Badaling section of the Great Wall. Meanwhile, a model replicated at a reduced size (16:1) was collected and displayed at the National Museum of Chinese Revolution [4].

[3] The countdown of time, as shown by the development and use of the Hong Kong countdown clock at Tiananmen Square, is related to a range of important issues such as integration of multimedia into time-telling, temporal consciousness of the public, historical narration of the nation, and mode of accumulation inseparable from transnational capitalism. In this paper, I examine the relationship between time-telling and the practice of everyday life in contemporary China by focusing on the incorporation of multimedia into time-telling and its implications, as shown in the historical process of the Hong Kong countdown in 1990s. My objective is twofold. I will extend the previous studies on the history of time-telling in imperial China and traditional China [5] to encompass contemporary China by focusing on uses of countdown clocks in public culture. Moreover, I will theorize a new notion of time entailed by the Hong Kong countdown clock's use of multimedia in time-telling, a significant departure from the conventional clock's use of the mechanical media. This new notion of time regards time as not only objective and precise but also subjective and reflective. The former quality of time, which does not reject the traditional notion of clock time, allows time to become practical and manageable, while the latter quality of time, which is experiential and cultural, makes possible for creative use of time in social action. I will show that this multiplicity-based time has implications in our understanding of the practice of everyday life.

[4] Because of the fact that time-telling is based on the use of media, a history of public time-telling in China can be written from the perspective of media [6]. Let me first discuss public time-telling before the use of the Hong Kong countdown clock. Three major themes prevailed the history of public time-telling in imperial China (prior to 1912). First, primitive clocks such as sundials, clepsydraes (water clocks), and incense sticks were primarily used in private homes rather than in public places. Second, mechanical clocks (that is, clocks with escapement and pendulum) were used primarily as gifts, toys, and decorative pieces from 1583 to 1912. They performed the function of time-telling to a small audience when used by churches and banks. Finally, drums and bells were used as the common media for public time-telling in cities. In the Republican Period (1912-1949), the Nationalist Government established a national standard time and began to use a range of media to tell time to the public, including drums and bells, cannons, mechanical clocks, and other emerging media such as telephone and radio. In the People's Republic of China, the Chinese Government named the national standard time as "Beijing Time" (Beijing shijian) and has used mass media (radio and television) to broadcast time to the whole country. From 1947 (which marked the first use of radio to tell time to the whole country) to the 1980s, radio was the most important medium for public time-telling. Since the 1980s, television has been the most influential. By the 1980s, time-consciousness based on the hour and the minute had existed across the county because of the use of mass media in time-telling. The concept of "real time" had also been widely accepted.

[5] The Hong Kong countdown clock represents a new era in the history of China's public time-telling. As a device for telling time, for the first time, the clock used the second in public time-telling. It was designed to direct the public's attention to the precision of clock time. Any photo taken in front of the clock, for example, was marked by a precise moment of time. Moreover, the clock was a hybrid form incorporating all major types of media — mechanical, electric and digital. As a result, the clock maintained such values as the linearity of the traditional mechanical clock, the precision and calculability of the computer used by the digital clock, and the allure of the visual representation. In addition, the clock was not merely a time-telling device like the traditional clock, and more importantly, it was also a device for counting time.

[6] My following discussion includes two parts. First, I will explore the technical and aesthetic aspects of the Hong Kong countdown clock in comparison with the traditional mechanical clock and the use of images in cinematic movement. Particularly, I focus on the way in which the shift from the mechanical to the digital clock changes how we look at time, and the counting and telling of time by the computer used in the digital clock. Then, I will examine the implications of the convergence of media (mechanical, electric and digital) in public time-telling. Rather than viewing the countdown clock as a postmodern clock as suggested by Hung Wu who has done an important study of the clock, I will show that the countdown clock entails both counting or measuring as a new political rationality and its practices not merely at the most mundane level of the everyday but also at the most broad scale of the global [7]. I will address the following questions: How do we understand the digitalization of public time-telling? If the hands of a traditional mechanical clock change spatially, how do the numbers of a digital clock change? Does the countdown clock completely negate the notion of linear and continuous time? If a digit is an image, how precisely is it related to electric and digital media? And because the clock is used in a public place, how do we understand it as a spectacle? Moreover, how is this digitized time-telling device incorporated into the mundane level of the everyday not merely in China but also in other places?

[7] To understand digitalization as a qualitative change in public time-telling, it is first necessary to understand how a clock's essential components have changed. A clock, according to Marshall Brain's How Stuff Works, includes four essential elements: a source of power to run the clock, an accurate time-base that acts as the clock's heartbeat, a way to gear down the time-base to extract different components of time such as hours, minutes and seconds, and a way to display the time. Let me compare the differences between a pendulum clock and a digital clock. First, while a pendulum clock uses the weights or the springs as the source of power, a digital clock uses electrical power supply. Second, while a pendulum clock uses the pendulum and escapement to act as the clock's heartbeat, a digital clock uses an electronic time-base that "ticks" at some known and accurate rate. Next, a pendulum clock use gears to extract time components (hours, minutes, and seconds) whereas a digital clock uses an electronic "counter" to serve this role. Finally, a pendulum clock displays time through the hands and face whereas the display of a digital clock is either LED (light emitting diodes) or LCD (liquid crystal display). Therefore, compared with a pendulum clock that functions mechanically, a digital clock functions electronically.

[8] It is obvious that time display from the mechanical to the digital clock shifts from the mechanical movement of the hands (hour, minute and second) to the change of digits. It is less obvious that this shift of time display also changes the way in which we perceive time. Looking at a traditional clock, we can see the hands, their spatial positions, and the divisions on the face of the clock, but we do not see what time it is unless we already bring an understanding of time to bear on our looking. "Looking at the clock," as Martin Heidegger points out, "is grounded in and guided by a taking-time-for-oneself...Looking at the clock and orienting oneself toward time is essentially a now-saying. Here the now is always already understood and interpreted in its complete structural content of datability, spannedness, publicness, and worldliness" [8]. The intelligibility of the traditional clock (that is, a clock with hands) is situated in the context of spatial measuring. The movement of a hand is visually presented as a spatial change. It is the spatial change of a hand that provides a sense of temporal movement, that is, from one "now" to another; and the continuous spatial changes of the hands constitute the continuous temporal movement of nows, that is, linear time in motion.

[9] Compared with the traditional mechanical clock, the digital clock eliminates spatial measuring and thus abolishes the necessity of understanding linear time as a precondition for making sense of the time told by the digital clock. The digital clock already translates each now into a number; and the continuous movement of numbers forms a series that is not merely an indication of time but also of an image. How do we understand the status of this time-image in comparison with the time-image formed by cinema? If photographic images and their cinematic presentation form a film as an image continuum, numbers and their display form a digital clock also as an image continuum. The photographic-cinematic image continuum is based on the mechanical movement of images at the speed of 24 frames per second. The process of showing cinematic images is a mechanical one. The narrative time of images, as a result, may be different from the narration time of cinema. Alfred Hitchcock's 1957 film Four O'clock, for example, included a scene of a countdown time bomb. The last minute before the explosion (narrative time or the time of the images) lasts for 72 seconds of the time of the film (narration time or the real time of cinema) [9]. He made use of cinema as a technology for representing time as fragmentary and contingent precisely because he recognized a discrepancy between narrative time and narration time [10]. Compared with the photographic-cinematic image continuum, the digital clock image continuum is based on the movement of digits at the speed of real time, that is, one digit per second. The digital clock image continuum performs the role of time-telling in two ways. First, the continuous movement of digits forms a narrative time that coincides with clock time. It is in this way that the narrative time of numbers becomes the narration time of the digital clock. Thus, the digital clock's representation of time, compared with cinema's, does not contain a temporal gap between narrative and narration time. Second, the movement of digits also creates a predictability of time-telling based on the teleology of numbers (that is, in addition to the use of regular clock time). When the digit/number "1," for example, appears on the screen, the viewer is able to predict the next number/digit must be "2."

[10] The countdown digital clock combines both a time-telling function developed on the basis of the normal digital clock and a counting or measuring function that the traditional mechanical clock lacks. The use of computer is critical to the operation of a digital clock. The logic of digital display is the binary number system of 0 and 1. The display of a digital clock (either 12 or 24 hours) is based on the translation of the binary system. The translation work is usually carried out by a computer chip that integrates all the functions of the clock: It first counts accurately a frequency of a crystal oscillator, then generates a binary number as output, and finally translates that binary number into a decimal number. 12:15:23, for example, is based on a translation of the three different numbers that indicate hour, minute, and second. The hour 12 represents the binary number "1100;" the minute 15 the number "1111;" and the second 23 the number "10111." A normal digital clock tells time continuously either in a 12-hour or 24-hour cycle. In comparison, a countdown digital clock has only one preset cycle within which the clock functions both as a time-telling device and as a counter. In the case of the Hong Kong countdown clock at Tiananmen, it displayed and counted a total of 925 days or 79.8798 million seconds.

[11] The Hong Kong countdown clock abolished the movement of the mechanical clock and thus the understanding of linear time as a precondition for looking at the digital clock. In this way, time became an opportunity rather than a restraint. At the same time, the countdown clock incorporated the logic of numbers as a teleology of its operation in a way in which the telling of time became more predictable while the counting of time more accountable. Let me compare this argument with Hung Wu's. In assessing the significance of the Hong Kong countdown clock, Wu states:

The Clock fuses both precolonial and postcolonial techniques of time-telling into an anti-colonial discourse to serve a nationalist polity. On the one hand, the Clock rejects the concept of universal time by resuming the logic of an imperial Drum Tower: it again presents an official schedule to an internal audience (i.e., to the people of Hong Kong as subjects of the People's Republic of China). On the other hand, the Clock negates the notion of linear and continuous time by abolishing the movement of a mechanical clock. Its liquid crystal display of days and seconds are strictly momentary and self-sustaining. These flashing numbers dissociate the Clock from a durable mechanical or architectonic construction, but link it to a large family of computer screens, terminals, consoles, and other electronic signboards, which many theorists have related to the intensifying fragmentation and compression of time and space in the postmodern era. [11]

Both of Wu's argument and my own share the view that the countdown clock represents a significant departure from the traditional mechanical clock, whether in terms of its relation to the notion of linear and continuous time or in terms of its position in the history of public time in China. However, our interpretations of the countdown clock are different. I disagree with his arguments that the countdown clock negated the notion of linear and continuous time and that the people of Hong Kong were the audience of the clock.

[12] No doubt that the sense of time represented by the countdown clock was related to the transformation of the meaning of Tiananmen Square as a public space. Wu argues that the clock as a "soft monument" of the present (the 1990s) was "deliberately short-sighted and goal-specific, prepared only for a particular, current event" and "its temporary but extravagant existence reflect[ed] a more specific, practical and fluid sense of time" [12]. The sense of time of this "soft monument" was strikingly different from that of "hard monuments" of the past (before the 1990s) — such as the Monument to the People's Heroes, Mao's Memorial Hall, and the Gate of Heaven — that commemorated historical traditions and demanded faith [13].

[13] The time told and counted by the countdown clock, however, was neither a fragmented time nor an indication of the postmodern era, as discussed by the quoted work of David Harvey [14]. Instead, I argue that the notion of time entailed by the clock represented a political rationality on the basis of a new relation of counting to infinity. Consider the sequence of natural numbers: 1, 2, 3, ..., etc. we could imagine counting this sequence indefinitely. However, the operation could not lead to the infinite, arriving there at some point in the future, because for every point reached there is always an infinite distance between where one is and the destination of infinity. Natural numbers are ordinal, i.e., denote rank only. This relation of counting to infinity is a matter of pure repetition. Natural numbers exhibit the ultimate stability [15]. When the traditional clock tells time on the basis of the sequence of natural numbers, clock time becomes stabilized through and as repetition. The counting of the Hong Kong countdown clock, however, was an operation of setting limits on natural numbers (not giving up the notion of linear and continuous time). Instead of counting the infinite sequence of 1, 2, 3, ..., etc. and sustaining stability, the Hong Kong countdown counted a finite sequence of numbers to initiate changes. Thus, the countdown itself as an operation not merely kept the ordinal nature of numbers (the ranking function of numbers), but it also assigned value relative to every number in the sequence. In this way, while order was maintained, the possibility of change was created within the counted period of time.

[14] To understand the practice of the countdown as a political rationality, we must differentiate between the time counted by the clock and the time in which the clock operates. On the one hand, the countdown clock counted time by annihilating a preset amount of time. In counting down 79.8798 million seconds, the clock reduced the temporal space in real time. When the countdown reached zero, China took Hong Kong back and the nation began a new temporality. Thus, the meaning of "zero" was preset; and it was related both to the end of a present time and to the beginning of a future time. On the other hand, the temporality of the countdown was historical; it was inseparable from social uses of the evaporating time. The historical time in which the countdown clock operated was clearly indexed by the clock's relation to a range of social, historical and economic factors.

[15] Since the Hong Kong countdown clock was located at Tiananmen Square, it is necessary to discuss the representation of the countdown at the public place of Tiananmen, as shown by the work of Hung Wu. The presentation of the digital countdown clock as a scene-like image at Tiananmen Square was both technical and social. To unveil the digital clock as a scene-like image attracting the attention of the public, the clarity and sharpness of the image were carefully considered, because the illumination of the image was determined by the number of colors [16]. The digital illumination of the clock enhanced both the role of the clock as an attraction at public place and the effect of the clock's function as a government document that publicly announced the Chinese Government's resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong on July 1, 1997.

[16] Tourists, both overseas and domestic, treated the clock as a scenic object. They took photos in front of it. One out of every four photos taken at Tiananmen was of the clock. Chinese media even viewed the clock as a distinctive "cultural spectacle" (renwen jingguan) at Tiananmen. A total of eight couples were reported to hold their wedding ceremonies in front of the clock [17]. In the last few days before July 1, 1997, the clock emerged as the focus of the public and the mass media around the world. Celebration activities took place around the operating clock. During the final hours of the countdown, a "100,000 people" party was held at Tiananmen. The performance stage was located directly under the clock. During the final moments before midnight, all the people gathered in front of the clock and counted the seconds from 10 to 0 [18]. Not only was the party televised live across the country, but it was also broadcasted to audiences around the world [19]. At the final seconds, international mass media dominated the representation of the image (of the clock). Under this condition, the clock's public image, as Paul Virilio may put it, was on its way to substitute for public spaces through the deployment of perceptible appearances by means of satellites, Hertzian networks and optical fiber cables [20].

[17] Although the Hong Kong countdown clock was used in public time-telling and was highly visible, it did not make any sound — unlike the ringing of a church bell, the announcing of time during a radio or television broadcast, or the ticking of a mechanical clock — all these forms of time-telling could be observed in the past. The physical silence of the clock does not mean it is voiceless. It is clear that the "silent" clock could be heard thousands of miles away, across the country, in Hong Kong, and around the world. The clock's audience was global; it covered more than just Chinese nationals and Hong Kong residents. The Hong Kong art critic Oscar Ho said in 1993: "Time is running out: people in Hong Kong need to find their cultural heritage and to reassure their sense of identity, for in four years' time they might have lost it" [21]. The Cultural Studies scholar Li Siu-leung viewed the passing seconds of the countdown clock as a virtual clock time in Hong Kong that "controls in distance the progressive steps of Hong Kong history" [22]. Thus, Hung Wu argues that the Hong Kong clock recapitulates the logic of an imperial drum tower by presenting an official schedule to an internal audience, that is, "the people of Hong Kong as subjects of the People's Republic of China" [23].

[18] However, it is a mistake to argue that the clock was used to announce the official schedule only to the people of Hong Kong. In fact, the countdown clock also functioned to tell time in China. How do we understand the effectiveness of the clock in the context of everyday life in a city like Beijing? Wu writes: "I was struck by the fact that Beijing's residents seem quite indifferent toward the Clock located right in their neighborhood, but individuals thousands of miles away in Hong Kong seem to hear its ticking even in their dreams" [24]. While recognizing the extent of its global effect, Wu underestimated the importance of the clock in Beijing residents' everyday life. So did other writers. A reporter quoted the words of a young office worker who passed the clock each day to and from work: "It has been there so long now, I hardly notice it anymore... At first it was a novelty, a bit of fun, but now no one pays attention to it, except tourists" (South China Morning Post, July 5, 1996, p. 21). Such a comment led the journalist to conclude: "Despite its unmistakable presence, the passing of the seconds until July 1, 1997 does not give many of the passing cyclists and drivers much pause for thought." I disagree because the effectiveness of the clock must be understood in the context of everyday life. The everydayness of the clock for Beijing residents does not mean that the clock was less effective. In fact, when the clock was treated naturally as part of the everyday, it was taken for granted or accepted as an unproblematic daily reality [25]. That is, as the clock enters into the realm of the everyday, its nuances replace its novelty.

[19] Moreover, the efficiency of the countdown clock at the mundane level of the everyday was based on a notion of time as multi-dimensional. The clock spoke in a language of mass-manufactured and -circulated images instead of words. That is, the clock spoke through a mass culture of countdown images. The Tiananmen countdown clock had become the standard for producing all other countdown clocks by the mass culture industry. By July 1, 1997, not only a large number, but also many different forms of countdown clocks were produced based on the Hong Kong countdown clock at Tiananmen. Initially, at the design stage, the designer of the Hong Kong countdown clock intended to set up two clocks, one in Beijing and another in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong site was dropped in consideration of the fact that Hong Kong was still under British control. In Beijing, the first three sites considered were: the Beijing Train Station where there were always lots of people, the west gate of the Xinhua News Agency, and Qianmen, before its final location in Tiananmen was determined [26]. On July 1, 1995, the Tiananmen clock designer and the Shenzhen Branch of the Xinhua News Agency inaugurated another countdown clock — same design but smaller (11 meter in height and 11 meter in width) at Shenzhen's Luohu Bridge, just across the border from Hong Kong [27]. Compared with the Tiananmen clock counting 925 days left until "the Chinese Government resumes sovereignty over Hong Kong" [28], other countdown clocks also preset zero as the ending point of the countdown, but they did not count the same period of time and for the same reason. In Shangshui, a northern district of the New Territories in Hong Kong, for example, the District Government set up a countdown clock on June 30, 1996 to count the remaining 366 days before Hong Kong's "return to the motherland" [29].

[20] By July 1, 1997, countdown clocks could be seen everywhere in Beijing. In addition to the Tiananmen clock, one could find countdown clocks on streets (neighborhood announcement boards), and in schools and colleges (black boards in classrooms), as well as supermarkets and department stores (e.g. Yansha). Moreover, the countdown clock was also expressed in many forms of mass media such as newspaper and television. Many newspapers had a countdown clock counting days, for example, the Beijing Youth Daily, Beijing Evening News, Dagong Daily, and Wenhui Daily. Each newspaper started to count days at a different time. For example, Beijing Youth Daily started its clock on March 23, 1997 with 100 days before July 1, 1997. Each countdown clock, published on the front page, announced "X days left before the Chinese Government resumes its sovereignty over Hong Kong." "X" as a number from 100 to 1 changed daily. Included in each countdown clock were the image of an important place related to Hong Kong, for example, Victoria Harbor of Hong Kong (with 100 days left), prepared Tiananmen Square (2 days left), or the place where the handover ceremony took place (1 day left).

[21] The mass production, transmission, and consumption of the countdown clock enabled or provided material supports for the organization of everyday life as a time-sharing practice through purposeful, repetitive, programmable sequences of exchange and interaction among different social actors [30]. In Daliubukou in the Western District of Beijing, for example, Aunt Wang, the vice director of the Daliubukou Neighborhood Committee, wrote how many days were left before "Hong Kong's Return" on a black board each day. She wrote the numbers of days in previous evenings so that people in the neighborhood would be able to see them the next morning [31]. The writing of the countdown clock repeatedly connected the residents on daily basis, regardless whether or not a resident would recognize the existence of the clock.

[22] The time told by the countdown clock also echoed within the context of the everyday. Some readers of Beijing Youth Daily even collected a set of clocks published on the paper. For example, Li Jiming, a worker at an insurance company in Beijing, collected the whole set of 100-day clocks published in Beijing Youth Daily. Li said that he liked the fact that the newspaper published countdown clocks relating to a series of historical places [32]. Li was not alone. Hu Yufang, a parachute coach, had also collected all the countdown clocks published on the paper. She said: "As soon as I saw the first Hong Kong-return countdown clock published in Beijing Youth Daily, I was attracted by its creativity and began to collect. In the ninety-nine days, I asked my child to go to buy the newspaper when I was out of town. A couple of times, I could not buy the paper from a newsstand, and I had to go to the printing factory to buy it. After I collect all 100 clocks, I will use them to make a Chinese character hui (return) and possess them permanently" [33]. The Chinese character "hui" here was both a picture and a monument commemorating "Hong Kong's return." The artifact contextualized the one hundred images as a whole set, in which each image was connected to a date in the countdown period. Moreover, the making of this artifact was also a process of producing and managing a sense of the self, not only because the production was based on collecting as a daily activity but also because the work's organization was disciplined by the countdown clock, that was integrated by mass media into the realm of the everyday.


[23] I have examined the sociocultural implication of the Hong Kong countdown clock in terms of a historical relation of public time-telling to media. Broadly speaking, I have shown that the countdown clock as a technology of time-telling is related to the convergence of media (mechanical, electric, and digital). The voice of the Hong Kong countdown clock is based on a mass culture of countdown images. The meaning of the end of time, the second-based time consciousness, and the economy of manufacturing and representing the countdown clock are inseparable from mass media. As a result, the countdown clock as a time-telling device maintained such values as the linearity of the traditional mechanical clock and the precision and calculability of the digital clock. At the same time, the countdown clock as a counting instrument, made possible the operation of a new political rationality inseparable from the political meaning of Hong Kong's "return" to China and from a mass culture industry flourished during the countdown.

[24] The Hong Kong countdown clock thus represents a notion of time, not merely objective and precision-oriented but also subjective and reflective. This new notion of clock time allows us to rethink the commonly accepted notion of clock time only as objective and precision-oriented. The latter notion of clock time has been theorized on the basis of two historical factors. First, the precision-orientation of the technical development of the mechanical clock in Western Europe and North America since the fifteenth century is maintained as the norm of clock time [34]. Second, clock time must be viewed as objective so that it can be managed independently of the subjective quality of time in temporal experience. This idea has been the foundation for the sociological and historical understanding of the uses of time in social organization since the late nineteenth century [35]. No doubt that the precision-oriented mechanical clock first developed in Western Europe not only has functioned as a dominant medium in the history of time-telling but also has been the most important source of innovation in and for capitalism, as shown by Fordism and Taylorism. My theorization of multiplicity-based time allows us not only to rethink and expand this common understanding under the condition of global capitalism but also to consider the objective and subjective qualities of time as inseparable in the practice of everyday life [36]. This new notion of time opens up (rather than fragments) the conventional notion of clock time for innovative uses in social organization [37].

[25] The new multiplicity-based time, materially supported and mediated by the countdown clock, connected the symbolic economy of the countdown to Hong Kong's return to China (or the economy of 1997) to the economy of the everyday. When capital accumulation was incorporated into the practice of everyday life, a new relationship was formed among value, capital accumulation, and the technologies of the self. The potency of this relationship is exemplified in the story of Wang Zheng, a resident and entrepreneur in Shenyang, who systematically incorporated the 1997 theme into his business and personal life [38]. Wang first conceptualized the meaning of 1997 when he encountered Hong Kong businessmen while working in a hotel in Shenyang a few years after graduating from a vocational school specializing in tourism. He began to read books on Hong Kong history and decided to develop a business based on the theme of "1997." In September 1994, Wang finally established the "Ronglida - 1997 Supermarket Chain" in Shenyang. Soon after its opening, many customers — sometimes, as many as 100 customers each day — asked him about the meaning of the number, Wang told them that the number referred to Hong Kong's return to China. In May 1995, Wang decided to explore many other ways of using the number "1997." He brought a Dafa, a minivan made in Tianjin, and chose "LiaoA51997" as the plate number because the reading of "51997" in Chinese sounded like "fortunate (fu) 1997." He also tried very hard to acquire a telephone number containing the number "1997." In March 1997, he bought the number "482-1997" after a series of negotiations with a trading company, the number's previous owner. In addition to linking the number "1997" to his business, Wang also incorporated the 1997 theme into his personal life. In the summer of 1995, Wang met Li Yue, a graduate of the College of the Light Industries in Shenyang. After a period of courtship, Wang and his fiancée Li Yue decided to drive to Hong Kong to have the wedding ceremony there on July 1, 1997. Their plan was fully supported by the Shenyang Municipal Government, which assisted them to get entry permissions to Hong Kong. Meanwhile, the minivan maker, Tianjin Dafa Automobile Company, replaced their old van with a new one. To commemorate their wedding, the couple donated RMB¥ 1997.71 to the "Hope Project" on June 6, 1997 before their trip to Hong Kong. Wang Zheng's story was remarkable because Wang had actively appropriated the 1997 theme not only as a strategy for developing his business that was related to daily consumption, but also as a rational for organizing his own daily life, allowing him to measure the success of this life and thus making his personal life more accountable. This example shows that the practice of everyday life under the guidance of the Hong Kong countdown clock constructed a sense of the self as an entrepreneurial individual [39].


The research for this paper was part of a larger project funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research in New York, the Institute for Collaborative Research and Public Humanities at the Ohio State University, and the Graduate College at the Bowling Green State University in Ohio. The paper was drafted during a fellowship at the Institute for Collaborative Research and Public Humanities at the Ohio State University; and revised during a residential fellowship at the Institute for the Study of Culture and Society at the Bowling Green State University. I thank these institutions for their generous supports. Earlier versions were presented to colleagues at University of California at Berkeley, Ohio State University, University of Michigan, University of Oregon, and Bowling Green State University. Many thanks to Xin Liu, Lydia H. Liu, Tze-Lan D. Sang, and Chris Reed for providing me with opportunities to share my work at these universities. Special thanks to Eithne Luibheid and Lydia H. Liu for their helpful comments. I also thank Davin Heckman for his editorial suggestions.

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[1] Beijing Youth Weekly, 1997, no. 14.

[2] Guangming ribao (Guangming daily), September 11, 1993, p. 7.

[3] Li, Guo, and Zhu 1995, p. 81.

[4] Beijing Evening News, July 10, 1997, p. 19.

[5] See Needham, Wang and Price 1960; Bedini 1994; Fraser, Lawrence, and Haber 1986; Huang and Zürcher 1995.

[6] For a detailed examination of the history of public time-telling from the perspective of media, see Ren forthcoming.

[7] Hung Wu's work to date is the only other major study of the Hong Kong countdown clock (Wu 1997). He has convincingly shown that public time-telling at Tiananmen has served to regulate the political definition of the place as a public space (p. 339). In comparison with his interest in the meaning of Tiananmen Square as a public space, my concern is broader. My following discussion will critically examine and further expand three specific points made by Wu: the audience of the clock as the people of Hong Kong, the departure of the clock from the traditional mechanical clock, and the relation of the clock to the monumental space of Tiananmen Square.

[8] Heidegger 1996, p. 382. Original emphasis.

[9] Stiegler 1998, pp. 84—90.

[10] Gilles Deleuze (1989) has referred to such a cinematic representation of time that focuses on discontinuity, contingency, and interruption as "the time—image." For excellent elaborations of Deleuze's work on cinema, see Rodowick (1997; 2001) and Bogue (2003).

[11] Wu 1997, p. 348. Original emphasis.

[12] Ibid., p. 335.

[13] Ibid., p. 336. Also see Wu 1991.

[14] Harvey 1990.

[15] I draw on Jason Barker's discussion of Alain Badiou's mathematical ontology (Barker 2002, p. 87).

[16] The larger the size of the display panel is, the higher resolution it requires, the greater the number of colors are, and the higher number of pixels the display panel needs. At a popular place like New York's Times Square, where hundreds of commercial signs are set up, the size of a sign and its resolution would have important implications for attracting the viewer's attention. The 55—by—55—foot "Discover" sign (containing a total of 1,140 sections) installed in the early 1990s, which used 77,000 six—watt incandescent light bulbs, was replaced in 2000 by light—emitting diodes capable of shooting millions of colors. See Wilkes 2000, p. 71. The information is also available at «—timessquare.html».

[17] Cheng 1997, p. 19.

[18] For a detailed study of this event, see Ren forthcoming.

[19] In New York's Times Square, by comparison, the coming of a New Year is usually highlighted by the drop of the New Year ball. See Starr and Hayman 1998, pp. 256—276.

[20] Virilio 2000, p. 65.

[21] Ho 1993, p. 14. Also cited in Wu 1997, p. 352.

[22] Li 1997, p. 137.

[23] Wu 1997, p. 348.

[24] Ibid., p. 353.

[25] The meaning of everyday life is structured by the dialectical relationship between the modern (the significant) and the ordinary (the insignificant). The significant becomes mundane as a result of its normalization in daily repetitive practices. See Lefebvre 1984.

[26] Beijing Youth Weekly, 1997, no. 14.

[27] China Top Brands, August issue, 1995, p. 53.

[28] At the initial stage, the designer considered the phase "Hong Kong's return to the motherland" (Beijing Youth Weekly, 1997, no. 14).

[29] Beijing Youth Daily, July 2, 1996, p. 4.

[30] My idea of the organization of everyday life as a time—sharing practice that works through flows draws on Manuel Castells' concept of "the space of flows," referring to "the material organization of time—sharing social practices that work through flows" (2000: 442).

[31] Beijing Youth Daily, May 22, 1997.

[32] Beijing Youth Daily, July 2, 1997, p. 8.

[33] Beijing Youth Daily, June 30, 1997, p. 1.

[34] Landes 2000. For a discussion of the wide influence of precision in Europe since the Enlightenment, see Wise 1995.

[35] Weber 1958; 1964; Landes 2000; Thompson 1991.

[36] In Europe and North America, philosophical understanding of time tends to be divided along objective and subjective lines of thoughts. See Fraser 1975, pp. 11—71; Ricoeur 1988.

[37] For an in-depth discussion of this notion of time, see Ren forthcoming.

[38] My discussion draws on the information published by Beijing Youth Daily on June 30, 1997.

[39] For a further examination of the relationship among time, capitalism, and politics, see Ren forthcoming.