Spring Festival, or Chunjie as it is called here, is a great time of year!
It starts with Chinese New Year’s Eve (actually it technically doesn’t start until New Year’s Day). Then over the following two weeks, people take extended holidays to celebrate. There are fireworks, firecrackers, reunion dinners, visits to family and friend, lucky money, the New Year’s Eve TV gala, etc.
Spring Festival ends with the Lantern Festival on January 15 (on the Chinese calendar)
Dates for Chinese New Year Day:
- 2012 date: 23 January
- 2013 date: 10 February
Spring Festival Customs
Bear in mind that different parts of China have different customs, but some of the common elements that are part of Spring Festival are:
Fire Crackers: People set fire crackers off to frighten away evil spirits. They set off fireworks as well, for fun, but a long string of fire crackers is used to keep the evil spirits away for the next year. If you live in China, expect to hear whooshes and bangs for a week or so, either side of New Year’s Eve.
Eating: A big family reunion dinner is normally held on New Years Eve. Fish is commonly eaten, as are dumplings (Jiaozi). This meal is normally held at the family home. As well as this meal, there will be many others on the days leading up to, and after, New Year’s Eve.
Visiting Friends and Relatives: People will visit their friends and relatives, taking gifts such as tea, alchohol, breakfast cereal, fruit, etc, done up in gift packages. The host will normally have tea, fruit and nuts ready for the visitors and basically they will sit around and chat for hours. Various people will pop in, seemingly at random, then it’s your turn to go visiting.
Lucky Money: People who are not yet married can expect to receive little red envelopes filled with lucky money. The amount of money can range from 10 yuan to 1000 yuan or more, depending on the closeness of the relationship and the affluence of the giver. Once you’re married, it’s your turn to do the giving, although your children will then receive lucky money from other people.
Cleansing: In the days leading up to New Year’s Eve, people will clean their houses thoroughly, so they can start the new year fresh and clean. People decorate their homes with posters and phrases which are thought to bring good luck. New clothes are bought for children. Basically, all of this is to ensure a fresh start to the new year, which is thought to be lucky.
New Year’s Eve TV: On New Year’s Eve, CCTV broadcasts a TV program which is watched by hundreds of millions of people. It is basically a variety act, with singing and dancing, comedy acts, etc. Expect acts representing all 56 of China’s ethnic nationalities. This will be on in most households.
What really fascinates me is Chunyun, the time around Spring Festival when everyone travels home to their hometown. It’s the largest movement of people in the world. Here are some facts about Chunyun from 2009:
Chunyun 2009 In Numbers
- Total number of travellers: 2.32 billion
- Number of travellers by bus: 2.07 billion
- Number of travellers by train: 188 million
- Number of travellers by boat: 31 million
- Number of travellers by air: 23.2 million
Figures courtesy of the China Daily.
I guess they must count people on return trips twice when calculating the total numbers of travellers, because this figure is 1 billion higher than the population of China!
It’s no surprise that by far the most popular mode of transport is bus. The network of long distance buses throughout China is quite impressive (until you have to travel on one). It’s cheaper than train, which in turn is cheaper than air travel. It’s also easier to book tickets on a bus than on a train (see below).
The Timing Of Chunyun
As with Chunjie (Spring Festival), the timing of Chunyun changes from year to year, because the date of the Chinese New Year is based on the lunar calendar, not the Western calendar. According to Wikipedia, Chunyun usually begins 15 days before Chinese New Year’s day and lasts for around 40 days.
Getting Train Tickets During Chunyun
Every year it seems that it is a real problem to get train tickets during Chunyun. Although it’s difficult to arrange any travel during Chunyun, train travel is by far the most difficult to arrange. Being able to book your tickets more than a day or two ahead of travel is rare and the train station (or scalpers) is usually the only source of tickets.
The booking systems often seem to have problems and there is often controversy and hard luck stories. In 2009, according to the China Daily, Chen Baoshan queued at Guangzhou station for two days to get tickets, while his wife tried calling the hotlines from home to no avail.
In that case, it was just a matter of waiting to finally be able to buy the tickets. In other cases, the all available tickets are snapped up quickly. For example, tickets from Shanghai to Chengdu for the next six days were sold out in 20 minutes.
Due to the frustration, many people turn to the ticket scalpers – but if you do that, you have to worry about whether the ticket is genuine. According to the China Daily, police in Guangzhou busted a gang of fake ticket makers on January 7 and seized about 60,000 fake train tickets.
If you’re travelling during Chunyun, I’d give trains a miss if at all possible!
Bad weather during Chunyun
As if that was enough trouble for travellers, there is often bad weather during Chunyun. In 2008 there was exceptionally bad weather which wreaked havoc with Chunyun travel: Around 6 million people were stranded at train stations around the country – 800,000 at Guangzhou alone.
We were affected by this – we were supposed to spend Spring Festival with family, but the terrible weather meant we couldn’t travel. Luckily we ended up having a quiet one in front of the TV, eating lots of food and watching fireworks out the window, rather than being stranded as many others were.
This is just Spring Festival, from my point of view. If you want to find out more about Spring Festival, there are hundreds of sites on the Internet. Wikipedia’s Chinese New Year page is probably a good place to start.
Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing when Spring Festival comes around, Happy Chinese New Year! Or as they say here, Xin nian kuai le (新年快乐)!