‘Chunyun’ is the biggest seasonal migration of all.
Over the next few days, crowds will press tightly in the narrow streets of the ‘China Towns’ of New York and London, against that familiar background aroma of spice and steam, as elaborate dragons lead processions to the insistent beat of drum and cymbal. Under each undulating and twisting dragon’s back is an athletic team of kung fu fighters which will occasionally leap up to grab red envelopes of money hung from upstairs windows above grocery stores and neighbourhood eateries.
Meanwhile in Asia, cities will empty out as hundreds of millions of workers, travelling by road, rail and air, return to their rural family roots to celebrate the Spring Festival. In 2015, the number of passenger journeys over the course of the 40-day festival was estimated at around 3.6 billion, making it the largest annual human migration on earth.
At the heart of ancient Chinese culture are the dual pillars of the cult of ancestry and reverence for nature. These concepts are expressed through six Great Festivals and in Chunyun, which marks the lunar New Year, this mass return to the ancestral home at the end of winter can be seen as a confluence of both respect for nature and respect for ancestry.
Like many spring festivals, Chunyun symbolises both the end of the old and the start of the new. It begins 15 days before New Year itself, in the month of the twelfth moon, also known as the ‘Bitter Moon’. During this period, debts are typically settled in a bid to start the new year with a clean slate, and talismans hung about the home to attract ‘fu’ or luck. Traditionally, towards the end of the month, an offering was made to Tsao Wang, the Kitchen God, before he left for Heaven to report on the conduct of the family during the past year.
An account from the pre- communist era of the 1920s describes how “At Midnight on the San Shih Wang Shang (the last night of the dying year) members of a family present New Year wishes to one another. Among old fashioned people this is done with much ceremony. The master and mistress of the house seat themselves, rigid as Buddhas, on two stiff chairs in the reception hall where all those living under the roof appear and k’o t’ou before them.” Later, during the hour of the Tiger, before the cock had crowed, cypress and pine branches would be spread on the courtyard of the home before the head of the house broke the seals on the front door or gate, placed there the night before. Prayers were given in honour of Heaven and Earth, of the Ancestors, and of the returning Household Gods.
In the 21st century, the principle of continuity, from one year to the next, and across the generations remains at the heart of the festival and aside from the fun and feasting, it is this desire to return to the chia, the ancestral home, which accounts in part for the epic scale of the Chunyun migration.