Chinese Spring Festival Travel: 春运, Chunyun. The most marvelous population move in the world every year

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We have received many concerns and questions from Acadsoc teachers especially: why Chinese take Spring Festival as the most important holiday in a year? Well, different people will give you a different answer for that.  Thereafter, we will introduce the Spring Festival from a different angle: Chinese Spring Festival Travel, from which you shall be able to feel the life of ‘migrant birds’ flying across China every year. And by the way, do you know any other Chinese holidays?

15 days ahead of the Lunar Chinese New Year’s Day, which can be on a different date every year in the Gregorian calendar, Chinese will gradually set off to return to their hometown and reunite with their family. However, the ‘war’ of getting a flight/train/bus ticket back home would start earlier, usually 30 days before New Year’s Eve due to ticket reservation policy in China. When it is getting closer to Chinese New Year, the burden and challenges of Chinese public transportation system would get incredibly larger and larger to transfer almost the entire Chinese population once to another place, roughly a total passenger flow of more than 1 billion.

It is too early to take a breath even after Spring Festival because

1. Chinese people are willing to pay a visit to some nearby sightseeing points with their family during the Spring Festival Public holiday (From the 1st day in the Lunar month of a new year until the 7th day), which may bring high pressure to short-distance highways and railways.

2. Usually, people will have to return to work in cities after this public holiday. Same routine, same passenger flow, different direction (this time it will be hometown—workplace), there will be another challenge for Chinese transportation to transfer the entire Chinese population to different direction once again.

Ministry of Railway, other transportation providers, security department, local governments…and many other Chinese governmental/private parties will have to tightly cooperate together and guarantee that millions of people returning to hometown and returning to work in time.


春运(Chunyun) was a word invented by media to describe such extraordinary and unique phenomena in China. Literally, it means 春节客运, passenger transport during the Spring Festival in a 15-20 days’ duration before and after New Year’s Day, totally 30-40 days in length. However, Chunyun has made itself different meanings for every Chinese. For passengers, they care about if they can reunite with families, travel to some sightseeing places and return to work in time, safely and comfortably. For governors, they have to work harder to solve the problem of shortage in transport capacity, imbalance urbanization and how to most effectively and efficiently assign the limited transportation resources. For cities and rural areas, it is like blood circulation and a loop, every year after the Spring Festival someone may decide to stay in hometown after returning from cities while another one may pack their bag to leave the village he/she has lived for long and take a chance in big cities. For sociologists, Chunyun is a window to view and research the change in Chinese traditional culture, population migration, urbanization, etc. For foreigners, they may never comprehend why all Chinese will be so crazy and irrational just for a ticket to go home.

In Ancient China, the date of Spring Festival, or more precisely, when a new Chinese Year starts was firstly set by Hanwudi, an emperor of the Han Dynasty (156 BC-87 BC). From then on, the celebration of New Year’s Day will be held officially, officials sending their new year’s greeting and blessing to the emperor, to show and strengthen the extreme authority and power of the monarchy. As of commoners, the very first ceremony of New Year can be traced back from the era of Shang (1600 BC-1046BC) when people will memorize their ancestor and gods in certain rituals. Later, along with the development of agriculture, New Year’s day become a time for people to thank a good harvest of corps and the generous of gods. However, before Hanwudi, the date of New Year’s Day was different here and there. Besides the sacrifice and rites to ancestors, good harvest and gods, influenced by Chinese Patriarchal System[i], Chinese New Year gradually turn into a time of family reunion as well, particularly for those who spend most of a year out of their hometown, i.e. businesspersons, prisoners, executives, students and soldiers.

However, due to the inconvenience of transportation back then, not everyone, or actually very few of them can successfully make their way home in time. One of the most famous poets in Tang Dynasty and governer of Suizhou (in Hubei Province today), called Liu Changqing, expressed his pain and loneliness in his poem after hearing the news that he has been demoted to be the governor of Nanba (in Guangdong Province today, where was highly undeveloped and far from central government then) and failed to reunited with his family in New Year’s Day.

新年作: New Year’s Day at Changsha (the capital city of Human Province today)

乡心新岁切, 天畔独潸然。

老至居人下, 春归在客先。

岭猿同旦暮, 江柳共风烟。

已似长沙傅, 从今又几年。

New Year only deepens my longing,

adds to the lonely tears of an exile

who, growing old and still in harness,

is left here by the coming spring…

monkeys come down from the mountains to haunt me.

I bend like a willow when it rains on the river.

I think of Jia Yi, who taught here and died here-

and I wonder what my term shall be.[ii]

Jia Yi: A famous poet, literature, scholar, and official in Han Dynasty, who was once demoted by the emperor to Changsha for 3 years.

And by then, unlike the official mailing and delivery system which can send goods and messages in the quickest way as possible, commoners can only move like snails on their way. The poorest may only rely on their foot whilst the richer people can try coach, but both of them have to carry many daily necessities. No matter what kind of transportation they select, the average distance they can make every day is only 30-40 Li (equally 15-20 km today). And the distance, from Guangzhou to Beijing is roughly 2300 km, which will take almost 4 months if traveling on the ground, or 2 months by boat.

Trains in China under Kuomintang's ruleIn the era of ROC (Republic of China) ruled by Kuo Ming Tang, the government regulated that Chinese New Year was not a public holiday, but only the New Year’s Day set by the Gregorian calendar, January 1st as you can see on your calendar. Hence, only very few people will be back to hometown during Chinese New Year. What’s worse, the terrible situation of infrastructure especially rails and roads largely limited the possible passenger movement. The total mileage of railway by 1918 was only 10918 km in China, much fewer than 58,928 km in British Raj[iii] while the dimension of China is approximately 3 times of that of India.

After the establishment of People’s Republic of China (RPC) in 1949, the government re-set Chinese New Year as a public holiday lasting for 3 days. And in 1953, the address‘春节客运(Chunjie Keyun)’, Spring Festival Passenger Transport/Traffic, firstly appeared in Remin Ribao, People’s Daily, as the most authorized governmental media back then[iv]. Nevertheless, it was not that challenging for Chinese public transportation system to handle such flow because there was no liberal employment law, liberal movement/migration, and large-scale urbanization. For instance, in 1954, as recorded, the nationwide average passenger flow (Please note: If an individual travels 3 times during 30 days’ record of Spring Festival, it will be recorded as 3 passenger flows, not 1 passenger flow) per day during Spring Festival was merely 730 thousand, equally as 15% of daily passenger flow nowadays in Beijing subway system.

Some others claim that 1954 was actually the beginning year of ‘春运(Chunyun)’, because of the first success and completed statistics record of the passenger flow in a period of 30 days, including 15 days before Lunar Chinese New Year’s Day and 15 days afterwards by Chinese Railway Corporation (CRC) in 1954. What’s more, the guiding principle of Chunyun was set in 1954 by the government as well: Ministry of Railways (MR) will be in charge of the planning, leading and operation of Chunyun, and may ask assistance from local governments and PLA if necessary[v].

As discussed before, due to strict restrictions on population movement and job choosing as well as difficulty in economic growth, the total passenger flow in Spring Festival increased slowly before 1979.

In 1979, as a turning point, the total passenger flow of Chunyun reached 100 million. As more and more rural areas applied the household contract responsibility system[vi] proposed by the communist party and Economic Zones set up in Fujian and Guangdong Province, numerous surplus rural labors poured into cities and the front line of rapid urbanization.  Concurrently, the government encouraged people to get employed at will and gradually abandoned the old job-assignment policy. Hence, there was a booming rise in the scale of Chunyun by then, and in 1985, the number of Chunyun passenger flow reached 700 million.In 1980, Renmin Ribao firstly used ‘Chunyun春运’ to replace ‘Chunjie Keyun春节客运’, which implied a huge increase in capacity and scale of public transport during Spring Festival after Reform and Open. From 1980 till now, Chunyun will definitely become the hottest topic in every media every year in the 30-40 days’ period around Chinese New Year.

Guangzhou Railway Station during Chunyun

As predicted, the entire passenger flow of Chunyun 2018 will reach about 3 billion. The next peak of Chunyun will arrive on February 20th and 21st because most employees will have to start working on 22










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