Friday marks the beginning of what is known as the “Spring Festival” (春节: Chunjie) holiday throughout East Asia, or better known as “Chinese New Year”. The holiday, which is the biggest event of the year in China, marks the first new moon of the Lunar Calendar which typically occurs around January to February. During this time, millions of people travel back from their places of work and residence to their hometowns in order to engage in a family union, creating the largest seasonal commute of its kind in the world.
Families together engage in traditional activities such as a special reunion dinner, sharing red envelopes with one another as gifts, launching fireworks and also offering symbolic sacrifices to ancestors. But just what is this festival all about? And why does it matter so much to locals not only in China, but neighbouring countries too such as Korea and Vietnam? Clues lie in the description above, that this festival is in fact a celebration of the family, lineage and the lasting role as to which it plays in Chinese tradition. However, it is not set in stone, but is a festival that has evolved with circumstances as China’s has developed into a modern country.
Chinese culture places significant emphasis upon the family as the most important unit of kinship. Stemming from the legacy of Confucianism which taught the notion of filial piety or Xiao, people in China are socially expected to a feel sense of obligation to their parents and their ancestors. On such a note, the concept of lineage is important with locals tracing their family routes and origins through patriarchal lines, keeping extensive genealogies sometimes even dating back thousands of years.
With this, Chinese tend to hold pride in the historical origins and feats of their families, with Confucian tradition having taught that the given qualities and deeds of a family are passed down from generation to generation. This places obligation upon the younger generations of the family to achieve and uphold the family’s name and legacy, bringing them honour. In doing so, the children thus become obligated to their parents and the parents in turn become obligated to their children. Thus the family unit becomes the core of Chinese culture and social life.
On this background, the Chinese New Year has been a lasting tradition in celebrating the legacy of the family and offering sacrificial rites to ancestors. Nevertheless, how we understand it today has been shaped by modernity. The event of the family reunion, where people return to their hometowns (and thus the place of their ancestry) to be with their parents, has been articulated by a changing economy which has saw China transition rapidly from an agrarian country into a modern one which has saw an increased fluidity of people throughout the country for work, study and so on.
Once upon a time, a Chinese family would all be firmly rooted within one locality and village, therefore the celebration of the New Year was always there, but a given phenomenon. Thus, a changing world has placed greater emphasis on the family reunion not as a ceremonial communion with ones ancestors, but as a literal and living meeting for people to rekindle with their parents who they may otherwise rarely see within the working year. The ancestral traditions of China have in effect reinvented and recalibrated themselves to meet modern circumstances.
In doing so, modern Chinese New Year is a hybrid blend of ancestral and modern festive celebration. There are few other times for a family to catch up and to have a great dinner together, to exchange gifts and have fun. Thus throughout this period billions of journeys will be made backwards and forwards, major cities such as Shanghai and Shenzhen, known for their bustling migrant countries, will in effect become ghost-towns, whereas traditional provincial cities, towns and villages will become teeming with life. In this case, whilst Chinese New Year is about a tradition lasting over thousands of years, it is also an expression and product of the world we live in. Old ideas and meanings have acquired new forms, thus as Chinese wish each other longevity throughout this period, the Spring Festival itself has mastered just that.