Out with dragons, in with snakes
A family enjoys dumplings for new year
Ditan Park, Beijing, decorated for Lunar New Year
Plains, trains and family feuds: in China, new year sparks the world’s greatest annual migration, and can be fraught with tension, writes
Lunar New Year is the biggest holiday in the Chinese calendar, a time when hundreds of millions of people travel from the cities to their ancestral home towns ahead of the event, which this year falls on tomorrow’s date. As the Year of the Dragon becomes the Year of the Snake, the Chinese take two billion trips by rail, bus and air, to spend what for many is their only annual trip home to see their families.
It’s a time of great happiness and there are some serious traditions to be respected. But three decades of highspeed social change in China have made the Spring Festival an altogether more complicated proposition than it used to be.
For many young Chinese, who make up the biggest demographic in the world’s greatest annual migration, the trip home can be fraught, filled with questions about marriage and future careers.
When they arrive, the children shower their parents with lavish gifts and traditionally clean the parental home from top to bottom – although the younger generation resents getting the vacuum cleaner out for this part of the festival.
The family still gets together to roll out dough for Chinese dumplings, known as jiaozi, and fill them with meat and vegetables, then seal them and boil them for a delicious feast to welcome in the New Year. The process takes hours, and is a traditional bonding session for kin who see each other rarely, a symbol of closeness.
Complicated family hierarchies dictate exactly which family members get to spend quality time in the ancestral home, and who gets left out in the emotional doghouse. The eldest son gets precedence, and often the younger son can feel awkward during the festival. Don’t ask about daughters.
Those born during the 1980s, when the one-child policy really began to impact, and who have no siblings, bear the brunt of family pressure from a range of relatives.
The fate of one couple is indicative of how changing Chinese society is making the new year difficult. Both single children, he hails from Urumqi in the west, she is from Guangzhou in the south. They married in Changchun last June, but the union did not survive the row over which family they would visit over the new-year holidays.
He believed she should come to his family house, as she is a daughter-in-law and this is her duty. (Being a daughter-in-law is not a very respected position in traditional Chinese society.) In the woman’s view, men and women are equal, so why should she leave her parents alone at Chinese New Year. They quarrelled and ultimately chose to divorce.