By Arianna Tanganelli
Yesterday, 13th of February 2021, China celebrated its New Year, which usually kicks off one of the largest migrations on the planet. China stops during the Chinese New Year (CNY), just as we do for Christmas in Italy. Lunar New Year is one of the biggest and most heartfelt traditional Chinese holidays, it celebrates the beginning of the Chinese calendar year. The traditional Chinese agricultural calendar is lunisolar, meaning that the months always begin with the new moon. Usually the New Year coincides with the second new moon after the winter solstice, and varies between 21 January and 19 February in the western calendar. As for the year, we are in 4719 as the years are counted from what for us is 2637 BC. This event sees hundreds of thousands of people leave their cities to visit their families in rural or other metropolitan areas of the country. In fact, virtually all of China goes on holiday at the same time, making the New Year the largest human migration event on Earth. Numbers are impressive! Just think that in 2019, pre-Covid19 and so with travel at full capacity, there were about 415 million travellers in a 40-day period, according to Chinese government numbers. By comparing China’s largest annual migration with the largest migration movement in the West we can gauge its size: an estimated 115 million Americans were on the move for Christmas and New Year of the same year, so practically less than a quarter. And clearly, this big difference is made by the size of the Chinese population. In Chinese, it is called 春节, which we call the Spring Festival in English, but this is not only a festival rich in millenary traditions and fascinating customs, it is a social phenomenon, and, again, is the biggest annual migration in the world. The CNY is far greater than the great pilgrimages of scale, to name a few other great migration events around the world, we see that the migration for Arba’een – one of the most important ceremonies in the Shi’a Muslim calendar, in Iraq, sees 40 million believers moving from all over the Middle East to walk for 40 days from the city of Najaf to Karbala. Or the Kumbh Mela, in India, which last year attracted another 250 million believers. Compared to the Chinese New Year, these numbers are laughable!
Joking aside, however, the people movement that we usually see in this weekend is massive and it has implications on different levels: pollution and waste are an issue that should not be underestimated in the world of travel. Imagine the amount of people who have to hit the roads to spend a few days at home, so imagine how many trains, planes, buses, cars, but above all, how much pollution and rubbish that has to be dealt with in such a short period of time. China has a well-oiled system, and is prepared for the smallest detail, for example the average train delay remains below 1%, even though the number of travellers increases exponentially on any given day. A great concern around the environmental consequences of the great celebrations for the CNY has been air pollution caused by the drastic increase of air transport used in a short period of time and the heavy use of fireworks. In recent years, there have been movements that advocated for a ban of fireworks for the CNY celebration, however, it has been recognised that certainly fireworks are not one of the major causes for air pollution and that this excessive fuss was misplaced. The Lantern Festival is the protagonist of another environmental debate concerning the Chinese celebrations for the New Year. The Lantern Festival aims to promote reconciliation, peace, and forgiveness. Thousands and thousands of paper or plastic-made red lanterns are being sent off to the air with small fires as the source of hot air for the lanterns to fly, and there are many risks to be considered. Some of the lanterns in fact catch fire mid air becoming ball fires dropping from the sky. Other cases have been reported of lanterns that land back and start fires on the ground. Even though the percentage of these accidents are small, the number of lanterns thrown in the air for the festival is significant, making the danger real.
However, the pandemic is hindering the ritual internal migration, with some people choosing not to or simply unable to move due to post-Covid19 bans. Some companies are offering bonuses to keep producing and thus keep their workers from moving away and avoid contagion. Because of this invite to keep the people from moving around, production and the economy of the country will not slow down as it usually does during national celebrations. So, the winner of the situation, again, will be China’s GDP! In fact, we can expect less travel and banquets and more online shopping and manufacturing. 2019 was the year of the pig, 2020 was the year of the mouse and we all know that 2021 will be the year of the bull, and in the year of the hardest working animal perhaps some GDP growth is to be expected. However, like every New Year, there are traditions that must be respected, and one of the most solid traditions is that of exchanging red envelopes containing money (always an even number, never odd). The tradition has continued despite the pandemic and has been brought online: Tencent has built a business on it, allowing the more than 700 million users of Wechat (China’s Whatsapp) to exchange virtual envelopes full of money through their mobile phones.
New Year happiness (新年快乐) to everyone then!