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Why Lunar New Year typically prompts the world’s largest annual migration

Observed by billions of people, the festival also known as Chinese New Year or Spring Festival is marked by themes of reunion and hope.

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Chinese folk artists perform the lion dance at a temple fair to celebrate the Lunar New Year on January 22, 2012 in Beijing, China.

Photograph by Feng Li, Getty

By Erin Blakemore
Published 11 Feb 2021, 12:20 GMT

Celebrated around the world, it usually prompts the planet’s largest annual migration of people. And though it is known to some in the West as Chinese New Year, it isn’t just celebrated in China. Lunar New Year, which falls this year on Friday, February 12, is traditionally a time for family reunions, plenty of food, and some very loud celebrations—although festivities are sure to look different this year amid the pandemic.

Modern China actually uses a Gregorian calendar like most of the rest of the world. Its holidays, however, are governed by its traditional lunisolar calendar, which may have been in use from as early as the 21st century B.C. When the newly founded Republic of China officially adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1912, its leaders rebranded the observation of the Lunar New Year as Spring Festival, as it is known in China today.

Learn why some people celebrate Christmas in January.

As its name suggests, the date of the lunar new year depends on the phase of the moon and varies from year to year. Today, Spring Festival is celebrated in China and Hong Kong; Lunar New Year is also celebrated in South Korea, Tibet, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and places with large Chinese populations. Though the festival varies by country, it is dominated by themes of reunion and hope.

For Chinese people, Spring Festival lasts for 40 days and has multiple sub-festivals and rituals. The New Year itself is a seven-day-long state holiday, and on the eve of the new year, Chinese families traditionally celebrate with a massive reunion dinner. Considered the year’s most important meal, it is traditionally held in the house of the most senior family member.

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 Lunar New Year has even spawned its own form of travel: During chunyun, or spring migration, hundreds of million people travel to their hometowns in China for family reunions and New Year’s celebrations. In past years, billions of travellers have taken to the road during the 40-day period. Known as the world’s largest human migration, chunyun regularly clogs already busy roads, trains and airports.

But this year, the pandemic has stifled the festive tradition. The Chinese government has issued guidance restricting non-essential travel and encouraging people to celebrate the new year at home. Those who do travel must take COVID tests and quarantine once they reach their destinations. China’s transportation ministry estimates that just 1.15 billion people, less than half of the 2019 number, will travel during Spring Festival. The restrictions unleashed a firestorm of criticism from people who had been looking forward to spending the festival with their families—proof of the holiday’s enduring significance for those who associate it with luck and love. 

This story was updated on February 10, 2021.

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