Scene of the 2009 Chunyun period inside Beijing West Railway Station, China

Chunyun, (traditional Chinese: 春運; simplified Chinese: 春运; pinyin: Chūnyùn), also referred to as Spring Festival travel season, or Chunyun period, is a period of travel in China with extremely high traffic load around the time of the Chinese New Year. The period usually begins 15 days before the Lunar New Year's Day and lasts for around 40 days. The number of passenger journeys during the Chunyun period has exceeded the population of China, hitting over 2 billion in 2008.[1] It has been called the largest annual human migration in the world.[2] Rail transport experiences the biggest challenge during the period, and myriad social problems have emerged.



Temporary ticket offices in the square outside of Hefei Railway Station, open for the Year 2011 chunyun period

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

First, 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 dinner 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 at 1990 and unofficially estimated at 150 million to 200 million in 2000.[3] During the Chunyun period, many of these laborers return to their home towns.

Second, 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.[4] Among the 194 million railway passengers of the 2006 Chunyun period were 6.95 million university students.[5]

Finally, because the Spring Festival Period is among the two week-long holiday periods in the People's Republic of China (the other being National Day, Oct 1), 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.

These factors exacerbate current problems with China's current inter-city transportation systems. The railway network is insufficient to handle the number of passengers, and does not reach enough places. The locations not serviced by rail must rely on bus transport, which faces problems such as inadequate equipment and road network.

Impact on transportation systems and related problems

The most affected modes of transportation are inter-city surface passenger transportation systems, namely railway and road networks. Most Chinese middle-class citizens cannot readily afford air transport. International, urban and waterway transportation are slightly affected.[6] Until 2007, due to the high demand, the prices of tickets are increased during the period.[7]. In 2007's Chunyun period (Feb 4-March 14), however, the government imposed strict regulations against inflated prices on railway tickets.

Railway and buses

The Ministry of Railways estimated that 340 million passengers would take trains during the 2009 Chunyun period. However, the average daily capacity of the Chinese railway system is 3.4 million. The shortage of railway resources led many passengers to pay double or even triple-priced tickets from scalpers or to wait in queues for upwards of a day's time at railway stations.

A Chinese railway ticket from 2006

Because of the extremely long waiting period, many customers become frustrated and search for solutions to jump the line, often resulting in conflict. Fighting over places in line is often seen, and as people get closer to the ticket booth, much pushing and shoving ensues. The overworked ticket booth workers are generally frustrated with the repetitive and dull nature of their work, which, in most places in the country, come in long shifts every time, and therefore reflect a largely negative and frustrated image to the customers. Inquiries by customers are not always answered correctly or at all; customers are not offered many options to begin with, if time is allotted for indecision the customer is usually pushed aside by the next person in the line. The same problem is found with phone lines, which saves the anxiety of waiting in line, but are severely overloaded and the reception is often rude when a ticket agent finally picks up after several hours of waiting. In Shenzhen it is estimated that 23 days worth of tickets can be gone in a matter of 14 minutes if telephone was the only method employed. An internet system is present, but at times inadequate.

To fit demand, hundreds of "temporary trains" (Linke) and hundreds of thousands of temporary buses are operated during this period, the number of ticket offices is increased and selling periods are extended to cope with the demand, with temporary booths springing up. Batch orders from schools and factories are organized to distribute tickets ahead of time. These measures, however, are generally inadequate and often tampered with. For example, during the 2005 Chunyun period, the ticket offices in Shenzhen had tens of telephone lines, and at times got millions of calls per hour. In the Guangzhou area, the number of calls reached 19.91 million per hour. Guangzhou Railway Group increased the number of telephone lines at their ticket offices to 8,000 in the 2006 Chunyun period.

Due to the basic nature of Chinese railway tickets and the loosely set limitations on the number of "standing tickets" (which is basically a pass to get on a crowded railway car), Scalpers (piaofanzi 票贩子 or huangniu 黄牛, lit. yellow cow in Chinese) profit greatly during the Chunyun period. Organizations of scalpers have emerged, and the scalpers inside the sometimes intricate network work collectively to make the most gain out of the tickets. They pick up tickets in great numbers minutes after they go on sale, and then deal them out in and around the railway station at highly inflated prices. A significant problem has also emerged with the illegal dealing of tickets through obsolete ticket modification or even printing outright fake tickets using computer technology. Although measures have been put in place to prevent fake tickets, passengers who purchase the tickets become extremely frustrated when the authenticity of their tickets is questioned only upon arrival at the ticket validation officer, what would be minutes before boarding the train. Because of the worsening nature of the problem, the government has issued many warnings and began various campaigns to crack down on the scalpers. Unfortunately, because of the complicated nature of the problem and the social networks which surround the scalper organizations, police and other authorities who are supposed to be in charge of the crackdown often become involved in the illicit activity themselves, and take many bribes from the scalpers.

There has also developed a significant safety risk during the Chunyun season. Theft, robbery, fraud and other crimes are the most flagrant during the time period. Passenger supervision and checks on luggage become stricter. The common belief in the safety of railway travel is undermined by the fact that many railway cars are severely overcrowded. Bus companies, in order to gain a bigger profit, overwork the bus drivers on irregular schedules, overloading people every round, causing a higher accident rate. Trains also face a problem with scheduling, as an overcrowded network cannot ensure the overall accuracy of train schedules, and some trains are habitually late hours at a time, cause unease and frustration with passengers. The government has taken to passing legislation to regulate late trains, and make a public notice and apology for late trains mandatory.

The passenger flow during the Chunyun period is usually imbalanced. Before the Spring Festival, passengers usually gather in developed coastal cities, railway interchange cities such as Beijing and Guangzhou, and basically flow from urban to rural areas. The passenger flow direction is reversed after the Spring Festival. In addition, passenger flow is very sensitive to disruption, such as bad weather.[8] In 2007, round-trip train tickets will be available for college students.[9]

Severe snow storms in late January 2008 stranded many thousands of migrant workers as they attempted to get home. At one time over 100,000 people were at the main railway station in the southern city of Guangzhou.[10] Around 1.3 million troops and reservists were drafted in around the country to clear blocked roads and rail lines to enable people to travel.


Air transportation is less affected as most travelers are workers who cannot afford air transport, but nevertheless the Chunyun impact is increasing. In 2008 roughly 28 million passengers used air transportation as their method of travel inside China. Xiamen Airlines, for example, added nearly 210 flights to its roster during the Chunyun period, with thirty flights especially placed to Hong Kong and Macau and another ten flights to international destinations in Southeast Asia and Korea. Cross-strait flights between Taiwan and mainland China were also permitted during this period before regular year-round flights were established. [11] To prevent accidents in the air, the Chinese government has brought in very strict regulations on not overloading planes. The General Administration of Civil Aviation of China (CAAC) estimates at least 36 million passengers will fly during the 2009 Chunyun period. [12]

See also




  • M.W.H., Railroad in the clouds, Trains March 2002
  • Chinese internet film director Hu Ge has made a parody film about the phenomenon.

External links

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