By Samantha Quee

I was an exchange student at Fudan University, Shanghai in 2011.  It January, and everyone in school was getting excited because Chinese New Year was approaching, which meant a weeklong holiday for the entire country.  I still remember telling my new friends in China my travel plans for the holiday, only to receive several shocking expressions on their faces.  “What? Ni feng le ma?” (Are you crazy?)

I grew to understand why, because if given an option, no sane human being will want to travel out of their city during Chinese New Year, due to the phenomenon called the “Chunyun.” This year, Chunyun, the largest annual human migration in the world, will begin on January 13 and last until February 21.

The Chinese are expected to make about 3 billion trips during the Spring Festival travel rush in 2017, the Ministry of Transport in China revealed in December last month.


A packed sleeper bus full of people trying to return home.

Why the rush?

Three main factors are responsible for the heightened traffic load during the Chunyun period.

1) It is a long-held tradition for most Chinese people to reunite with their families during Chinese New Year.  People return home from work or study to have reunion dinners with their families on New Year’s Eve.  Since the Chinese economic reforms of the late 1970s, new economic opportunities have emerged, often at a considerable distance from people’s hometowns.  Places such as the Special Economic Zones and the wealthy coastal regions offer employment and often, a more sought-after lifestyle.  Consequently, there has been a massive migration from rural to urban areas over the course of the last few decades, reminiscent of other industrial revolutions around the world.  The number of these migrant workers was estimated at 50 million in 1990 and unofficially estimated at 150 – 200 million in 2000.  During the Chunyun period, many of these laborers return to their home towns.

2) Chinese education reforms have increased the number of university students, who often study outside of their hometown.  The Spring Festival holiday period falls around the same time frame as their winter break.  Among the 194 million railway passengers of the 2006 Chunyun period, nearly 7 million were university students.

3) The Spring Festival Period is one of the week-long holiday periods in the People’s Republic of China (the only other being National Day, Oct. 1), and many people choose to travel for pleasure around this time.  Tourism in mainland China is reaching record levels, further adding to the pressure on the transportation system.  Every year, stress on the transport system becomes greater and greater, despite improvements in infrastructure over the last few years.

So, if you are currently planning for a trip to China, plan to go at a different time than Chinese New Year!