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The sacred secular in China's 'Spring travel'

  • 17 January 2020


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.

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