Episode 2: New Years

Each episode is accompanied by a blog post which examines various elements mentioned in the video at a deeper level and draws connections to the world we live in today. The following blog post is by Kiril Bolotnikov, student at New York University Shanghai.

How big of a deal is 春运 (chūnyùn; literally “spring movement”) in China? In this episode, Jesse brings us apocalyptic scenes of city streets emptied of humanity during Chinese New Year. What is not shown, however, is the human experience behind this annual return home, or the societal implications of the simple existence of the event. In order to understand the cultural relevance behind Jesse’s spoof of empty streets, one needs to understand where all these people are coming from, and where they are going.

Chinese Lunar New Year, known as 春节 (Chūnjié; lit. “Spring Festival”) in Chinese, is a festival that starts in January or February (depending on how the Chinese calendar lines up with the more common Gregorian calendar) and lasts for fifteen days. It is an important occasion to reunite with one’s family, similar to the familial reunion aspect of Thanksgiving in the U.S. If you are studying or living in China and have the opportunity to “spend Chinese New Year with Chinese people,” as Jesse’s companion suggests, this is a generous and hospitable offer and one that should be accepted.

What is 春运?

“The question is, what happens to the big cities like Beijing and Shanghai [during the Chinese New Year]? And the answer is, they become completely deserted.”

Similar to Thanksgiving, the Spring Festival is a period during which there is a spike in transportation—this period is 春运. It refers specifically to the roughly forty-day period before, during, and after the fifteen-day festival when transportation cross-country rises so drastically.

During the 2015 春运 season, it was estimated that China saw anywhere between 2.8 billion and 3.6 billion trips taken within China alone—an average of a little less than three trips per Chinese citizen. This phenomenon is, perhaps rightfully, sometimes referred to as the “great migration” (大迁徙, dà qiānxǐ), and is often referred to as the largest annual human migration in the world.

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that cars are not as common in China as they are in the U.S.—during Thanksgiving, most of the traffic is on the road, but in China, it’s primarily on public transportation. Due to the Chinese transportation infrastructure’s inefficiency and inability to properly support so many people on so many cross-country journeys, some try to beat the traffic or come back late to avoid traffic at the end of the festival. However, this inevitably just means a more protracted period of intensity—though admittedly less intense than if no one took such precautions.

My only personal experience with the insanity of 春运 travel was the time my traveling companions and I purchased a flight returning from Harbin to Shanghai on Chinese New Year’s Eve—obviously the last chance anyone has to make it home before the New Year. We were not completely cognizant at that point of what an unfortunate time we had chosen to travel. Our three-hour flight was delayed more than five hours, and we didn’t leave until 2 in the morning; though, on the bright side, we had a decent (if somewhat distant) view of the whole city’s fireworks from the airport.

You can read more about 春运 at the International Business Times, at National Geographic, or at China Daily. If you are learning Chinese and want to push yourself, read this Chinese article. You can also view this slideshow put together by the Christian Science Monitor to get a visual sense of the scale.

Who are the 外地人 Wàidì rén and 流动人口 Liúdòng rénkǒu?

“All the Beijingers poke their head out, going, “Ah, thank god all the 外地人 are gone.”

In any city, there are 本地人 (běndì rén, locals/natives) and 外地人 (wàidì rén, outsiders). In China, these labels are used more and more frequently to create a distinction between the two groups of people, as more 外地人 make their way into cities in search of new opportunities which were made possible after the 改革开放 (gǎigé kāifàng, the reform and opening-up of China in 1978). This movement caused China’s population in the rural areas to lessen over time. However, these rural areas come alive again during 春运 and 春节 as hundreds of millions return home.

These vast numbers of 外地人 workers are often called 民工 (míngōng) or 农民工 (nóngmín gong). These are qualified as part of the 流动人口, or “floating population,” referred to in government documents as “shifting the countryside’s surplus labor to advance urbanization construction.” Shanghai’s (official) population of 24 million is (according to official statistics) home to 9 million 外地人. The China Daily reported in 2011 that there were 221 million members of the floating population, and that 160 million of those were migrant workers from the rural areas. The same article also estimated that a further 300 million would migrate to urban areas over the coming three decades.

Education reforms in China have also led to increased numbers of students studying away from their hometown, thus creating further strain on the transportation system. In the year 2013, China’s universities and colleges accepted 6.8 million students and graduated about 6.25 million. The total number of students enrolled at that time was roughly 23.9 million. As the Spring Festival falls during university students’ winter break, the vast majority of students return home to celebrate.


“Great LOL of China” refers to Beijing as an “abandoned wasteland,” parodying the empty streets. While this is a slight exaggeration, it is certainly true that if living in a big Chinese city for the first time, the first week or so of Chinese New Year may be a jarring view of the livelier or more crowded streets that are common during all other times of year. Unlike Jesse’s difficult experience with locating an open convenience store, my experience is that while many restaurants will close down during this time (especially New Year’s Eve) convenience stores are open for the entire period and instant ramen would actually be the easiest food to find during 春节. These stores would be available to find not on Google Maps (as Jesse’s companion rightly informs us), but on any Chinese map service (such as Baidu Maps or Tencent Maps). Other shops start to open up again around the middle of the second week, and by the last day of the festival nearly everything is back open; however, this certainly varies from place to place, and my experience is only with Shanghai.

I hope that you found this post valuable and informative, and that you now have a deeper understanding of 春运. It is an annual occurrence that is also an amazing example of the effects on Chinese society of the interaction between the nation’s development and its traditions. Please share this article with anyone who you think would find it interesting: friends, family, teachers, students! More posts are forthcoming as we dive deeper into the immensity and many complexities of China.

Asia Society and the China Learning Initiatives appreciate your interest in learning more about China. If there are any topics you want to learn more about, feel free to email us at Chinese@asiasociety.org.


  • The Great LOL of China video series with Jesse Appell explores modern Chinese people and society from a foreigner’s perspective and an emphasis on the humor in cross-cultural misadventures.
  • A project that aims at making the learning about China more fun and engaging.