The sacred secular in China's 'Spring travel'


Each year, as the Chinese winter threatens to fade, hundreds of millions of people descend on train stations, airports and bus depots. Travellers sweep towards departure gates and platforms for the migration to their familial homes for Lunar New Year. It is not unknown for people to travel up to three days each way, especially rural workers toiling in factories in the south.

Passengers walk through a square at the Wuchang Railway Station at the conclusion of a past Chunyun. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)Official statistics in the China Daily state that more than three billion single trips are taken during the extended period of travel, or more than two trips per citizen. Although the Lunar New Year lasts 15 days, the actual travel period — Chunyun, 'Spring travel' — lasts 40 days, and this year stretches from 10 January through to mid February. In many ways it is more a pilgrimage than it is a commute. 

Chunyun is indeed sacred secular time, as a result of the privileged place of Chinese vacations, meaning both the time given off to workers (this is one of only two Golden Weeks of seven to eight days of leave) and the fact this is an important cultural event, as well as because of the high societal value placed on family gatherings. Workers and students in particular, especially since they are usually far from home, will do almost anything to join their loved ones for the festivities. 

It is to China's great credit that these journeys occur incredibly smoothly, with a minimum of cancellations and on the whole with a convivial spirit. At the beginning of Chunyun I took a slow train for 26 hours — from Chengdu in western China to Beijing in the north — and it gave me an opportunity to reflect upon this instance of China's development.

For all that there are multiple aspects of modern China that reveal within it's government ranks brittle sensitivity and a ruthless desire for control, at the level of improving people's lives through the development and maintenance of first-class infrastructure, China and its leaders must be praised. After just over a decade of building, China has now almost 140,000km of rail lines, with 35,000 of them being suitable for high-speed trains.

There can be a tendency to minimise any praise about China's achievements, to the anger of Chinese citizens at home and abroad. Furthermore, the understandable desire held by many lovers of China (both citizens and others) to keep a focus on human rights violations means more often than not other features of China's reality can be underplayed. Like that 'illusion' picture, which shows either a duck or a rabbit depending on one's perspective, the same scene can be regarded in different ways.

As an example, when I was entering Chengdu's North rail station several things were immediately apparent. First, because this station is for older trains  — rather than high-speed trains, which top out at 350km per hour — and the tickets are therefore cheaper, a lot of poorer travellers were present.


"Many ordinary people will now spend more time with their families because of the government's investment in the infrastructure that underpinned this mass migration."


This was evident in the plastic sacks tied with string, the padded cotton and army disposal clothing and the people themselves (students, older pensioners and blue collar workers). Quite a number of the people patiently waiting were also Tibetans, given their marked presence in Chengdu.

Second, there seemed to be a large police and military presence, with the square in front filled with official vehicles, and guard posts dotted throughout the space. 

It would be easy to conflate these facts and thus assume that the large police presence was because of a concern about possible acts of violence. On the whole this would be an unreasonable assumption, however, and would describe a China one wanted to see rather than the China that is there. A simpler understanding of the scene, rather, is that at this time of peak travel there needs to be order for things to run smoothly. After all, around 500 trains come and go in Chengdu every day, throughout its four train stations. 

My own journey, which at times resembled being one sheep in a large flock being forced along a race, was nevertheless one of much laughter and mutual help. People carried each other's bags up and down stairs, pushing was good natured rather than aggressive and the tenor of the journey was one of celebration rather than otherwise.

I have been in the US during Thanksgiving travel and often routes are disrupted, people's tempers are frayed and there's a general sense of frustration and angst. My journey during Chunyun was far from this, but rather a time of festive good cheer. Crowded yes, but a credit to the infrastructural investments and the general hospitality of China's people.

Many ordinary people will now spend more time with their families because of the government's investment in the infrastructure that underpinned this mass migration, and fair play for that.



Jeremy ClarkeDr Jeremy Clarke, PhD, is the founding director of Sino-Immersions Pty Ltd, a China consulting company, and a Visiting Fellow in the Australian Centre on China in the World, Australian National University.

Main image: Passengers walk through a square at the Wuchang Railway Station at the conclusion of a past Chunyun. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Jeremy Clarke, China



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