Returning home for the Spring Festival, refers to going back to the home of your parents or grandparents, the most important Chinese tradition for the past 4,000 years. In the period of just half a month, Chinese people logged up nearly 3 billion trips. This has been referred to as the biggest annual migration in human history.
On a national highway in Guangdong Province, a fleet of motorcycles were speeding along. The motorcycles were so numerous that they resembled the spectacular wildebeest migration on the Serengeti. Wang had been on his motorbike for over ten hours, but his journey home was far from over. Wearing heavy protective clothing, he and his wife were carrying gifts for their parents and children on their motorcycle. Having worked in Guangdong for over a year, Wang chose to ride home like many of his coworkers, as they had failed to get train tickets.
Carrying his luggage, Mr. Zhang strode through the snow. Starting in Cameroon in Africa, it took him two days, flying for over 10 hours on three connecting flights and riding the bus for yet another hour to return to his home in Harbin in China. As he nears his home, he gets a phone call from his parents and hears their excited voice; 20 more minutes and he will finally be home.
The experiences of Liu, Wang and Zhang are common among the huge number of people rushing home for the Spring Festival. In the period of just half a month, Chinese people logged up nearly 3 billion trips. This has been referred to as the biggest annual migration in human history. Despite overcrowding, fatigue and the freezing weather, people travel long distances just to spend the Spring Festival with their families.
To celebrate the Spring Festival is to return home to one’s family
Going home for the Spring Festival, to be precise, refers to going back to the home of your parents or grandparents. Celebrating the Spring Festival by having a family reunion has been the most important Chinese tradition for the past 4,000 years.
The Spring Festival falls on the first day of the first lunar month, representing the start of a new year. According to tradition, people hold all types of celebrations during the festival in expression of their hopes for the new year. It is said that the Spring Festival originated as a ritual performed by rulers in ancient China to worship the Heaven and the Earth. The ritual later evolved into other activities such as ancestor worship, praying for blessings, etc.
In the eyes of Chinese people, the Spring Festival is closely connected with the concept of family. Chinese families start to prepare for the Spring Festival in the twelfth month of the lunar year. The 23rd day of the twelfth lunar month marks the Kitchen God Day, when people worship the deity who is said to protect the stove and the food in the kitchen. It is believed that on this day, the Kitchen god reports the activities of every household over the past year to the Jade Emperor, who will reward or punish a family depending on the report. Therefore, each household holds a sendoff for the Kitchen god every year, and from then on the preparations for the Spring Festival officially begin. Each family will then clean their home, put up Spring Festival couplets and begin purchasing New Year goods, and will remain busy until the eve of the Chinese New Year.
Nothing is more important than New Year’s Eve, when all family members will enjoy a reunion dinner together. They then set off firecrackers at midnight to express their hope of happiness and prosperity in the coming year. On the first day of the New Year, the younger generations will pay tribute or kowtow to their elders, and in return, children will receive red envelopes containing lucky money and best wishes from their elders. The Spring Festival comes to an end during the Lantern Festival on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month, but not before all members of the family have participated in the customary New Year activities.
As time goes by, many traditional customs have been simplified, and workers who only have seven days off for the Spring Festival find it harder to fit in all of the New Year rituals with their families. However, the tradition of celebrating the Spring Festival with the family is deeply rooted in the mind of every Chinese person. Each year, people will always shop for New Year goods and return home for a family reunion, irrespective of the difficulties they may encounter on their journey home.
Seeking one’s roots
“Each year, we return home to celebrate the Spring Festival with our families and visit relatives and friends. In fact, what we are doing is to find our sense of belonging,” said Mr Zhang. To some extent, returning home for the Spring Festival is a collective ritual for Chinese people to return to their roots.
The culture of using family names in China emerged 4,000 years before the widespread usage of surnames in Europe. People who have the same family name usually share the same ancestor, and in China this can be a strong bond that could bring people closer to each other. If a family was a tall tree, then its ancestors would be the roots deep in the soil, passing their wisdom and experience from generation to generation. Thus, family is key in helping a Chinese person to find out who he or she is.
Over the past 30 years, China has undergone profound changes as a result of rapid economic development and social change. However, regional variations in economic development have forced people to choose between cities and villages, hometown and faraway places, as well as family bond and their own dreams. As a result, we have witnessed the largest movement of people in history, unprecedented both in terms of population size and geographical distance. As people left their parents and hometowns to seek better job opportunities, their connection to their family roots have weakened, and many have felt cast adrift without a sense of belonging. “Making a living far away from my hometown always makes me feel rootless. Sometimes, I do not even know who I am,” said Liu.
Returning home for the Spring Festival is not only a physical journey, but a mental one as well. On New Year’s Day, Mr. Wang, along with his wife, children, and parents, went to pay their respects at their ancestral grave. “We do not return home just to entertain ourselves,” said Wang. “I want my kids to kowtow to their ancestors, so they can gain a better understanding of themselves and of where they come from.” Ancestral graves and ancestral halls enable Chinese people to “communicate” with their ancestors, and to trace their roots. “This simple ritual brings great comfort and warmth to our wandering hearts,” said Wang.
When your parents are alive, do not travel far from home
Though the large-scale human migration during the Spring Festival only started 20-30 years ago, the tradition of returning home for the Spring Festival has existed for thousands of years.
Confucius said in The Analects: “While your parents are alive, you should not travel to distant places. If you have to, you should let them know your whereabouts.”
Chinese people’s emotional attachment to family mainly stems from the bond between parent and child. In traditional Chinese society, parents were at the top of the family hierarchy and they determined and managed all family affairs. Under such leadership, family members lived together, supported each other, and formed a way of life around family ethics. This close-knit family model advocated a relationship of “benevolent father and filial child”, which became an intrinsic ethical principle for Chinese people. Though the Chinese family structure has become less rigid in modern times, the intimate emotional bond between parents and children has stayed unchanged. Parents worry constantly about their children who work away from home, and children often return home to look after their parents.
Chinese people tend to regard their parents as the essence of family. This is demonstrated in the old saying “Leaves do not fall far away from the roots of a tree” and a verse of a famous poem: “From the needle and thread in a loving mother’s hands/ come the clothes worn on a traveling son’s body”. This has become a religion-like belief in the minds of the Chinese. So Chinese people, in pursuit of old traditions, will always make their pilgrimage home to be reunited with their parents, regardless of the difficulties they may encounter on their journey.
Someone once said that a man’s biggest dream is to travel. However, when a man is far from home, his biggest dream is to return home. These ideas seem paradoxical, but it reveals the reality of life for hundreds of millions of Chinese people. For millennia, leaving and returning home for the Spring Festival has been a struggle that has affected all Chinese people.
Chinese New Year Goods
For Chinese people, the Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, is an important event. Every household will stock up for the celebrations, buying things such as foods, clothing and other New Year’s necessities. Specifically, they shop for sweets, snacks, cooking ingredients, new clothes, prints of New Year paintings, Spring Festival couplets and presents for friends and relatives. These purchases are all called niánhuò, literally, New Year goods, and the process for buying these goods is called bàn niánhuò ‘preparing New Year goods’.
During the Spring Festival, senior family members or close family friends will wrap up some money in red paper and give it to the children to symbolize the passing of good fortune to the younger generation for the coming new year. This kind of money given in a red envelope is called hóngbāo, or yāsuìqián, which is meant to stave off evil spirits. For the Spring Festival that just passed, electronic red envelopes were issued by several Chinese internet businesses and were targeted at mobile phone users to encourage them to participate in the promotional activities by rewarding them with red e-envelopes. This promotion war between the e-businesses, which was meant to attract customers, evolved into a massive Spring Festival red e-envelope bonanza for the public.
New Year’s Eve Dinner
On New Year’s Eve, the whole family get together to enjoy the last dinner of the lunar year, niányèfàn ‘New Year’s Eve dinner’. Chinese people attach great importance to this family feast, a very important part of Spring Festival celebrations. All family members gather together to celebrate the passing of the old year and to welcome the new year, enjoying the joys of a family reunion. Although the food at the dinner may vary from home to home and is different between the south and the north of China, all homes are very particular about the foods served at the dinner. Special attention is paid not only to the colour, aroma and flavour of the food, but also to the connotations embodied by the foods. For example, nián’gāo ‘rice cakes’ made of glutinous rice flour, is to represent niánnián’gāo ‘higher and higher, year after year’; and yú ‘fish’ sounding like the word for yú ‘surplus’ means bringing a surplus of fortune in the coming year.
Visiting Friends and Family
Paying people a visit during the Spring Festival is a good way to see off the old year and welcome the new year. According to traditional Chinese customs, people should visit their relatives, friends and elders to offer words of blessing for the New Year, and in return, they will receive gifts such as snacks, sweets and red envelopes. Since the Spring Festival lasts from the first day to the fifteenth day of the first lunar month, people have many opportunities to visit friends and family during this period. As some friends and relatives can live far away, it was once very popular to offer New Year’s greetings on the phone and via text messages. Now WeChat, a widely used messaging app, has become a quite popular way to send New Year’s greetings.
Published in Confucius Institute Magazine.
Number 37. Volume II. March 2015.
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