Out with dragons, in with snakes


Plains, trains and family feuds: in China, new year sparks the world’s greatest annual migration, and can be fraught with tension, writes Clifford Coonan

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.

The People’s Daily summed it up in a recent editorial: “At present, among the 178 million elderly people above the age of 60 in China, nearly half of them live an ‘empty nest’ life, suffering from the loneliness of ageing life and only looking forward to the family reunion during the Spring Festival. However, today in China, there are 200 million only-children and a couple has four parents to care for in total, leaving them torn between two families.”

At Chinese new year, any woman over the age of 25 without a husband (referred to as “leftover women”), comes under intense pressure from their relatives when they travel home. One friend of mine would feign illness during the holiday to avoid the annual interrogation by her mother. And arriving home without a boyfriend meant a seemingly endless stream of blind dates arranged by her match-making mother, most of whom had also made the mistake of coming home single.

In Chengdu, local media told of how Tang Yongxue stood on the street waving a placard saying: “Fake boyfriend needed for Spring Festival – 10,000 yuan [€1,186] for five days’ work”. He had to be aged 26 to 30, at least 1.75m tall and “insightful”. She could have turned to Taobao, China’s answer to eBay, for ads for companions for women heading home for the holiday. They offer complex pricelists for services as diverse as “drinking booze with older relatives”.

The resume of one candidate on Taobao says he was born in 1991, has a bachelor’s degree, an outgoing personality and is 170cm tall and 60kg. His services cost 300 yuan (€36) a day; he offers free hugs but charges for “appropriate kisses”.

The tipple of choice during the lengthy eating sessions is baijiu, a clear liquor of varying intensity, and one boyfriend candidate charges for drinking based on the alcohol content.

Now there’s even a 24-part TV show, called Renting a Girlfriend for Home Reunion, screening nationwide, in which a guy, Sun Yiwei, hates the match-making efforts of his parents, so he hires Chu Xiaoxiao to play his girlfriend. In the end, the couple fall in love and get married.

Now that would be an auspicious start to the Year of the Snake.

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