Happy Chinese New Year

Today is Chu Yi (初一), the first day of the lunar new year on the Chinese calendar. For those of you keeping track, it marks the beginning of the Year of the Pig. It’s “my” year, which means I’m either 12, 24, 48, 60, 72, or 84. I’ll let you guess which it is!

All across China, people are making their way, if possible, back to their hometowns, in what is often billed as the world’s largest human migration. Everyone, from migrant workers to young professionals to university students, is on the move—in most cases returning to small towns and villages in the countryside to visit their families.

And they do not return empty-handed. Since gift-giving is such an important part of New Year celebrations, and is also a primary way of expressing love in Chinese culture, the travelers are laden down with gifts of all sizes and shapes.

When the holiday-making comes to an end, and the workers, yuppies, and students head back to the cities, they will be taking with them, not only memories, but special gifts that will remind them of home.

Film director Jia Zhangke teamed up with Apple (yes, it is a marketing effort for the iPhone XS) to produce a short film, titled The Bucket, about a young man whose mother sends him back to the city with a very heavy bucket. It’s a gorgeous and sweet film, and you’ll need to watch the video to find out what is in the bucket! (email readers, click here to watch the film)

What food or gift does your mom send home with you after the holidays (whichever ones you celebrate)?

(Note: this post first appeared at ChinaSource.)

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Happy Year of the Monkey

Today is the first day of the New Year in the traditional Chinese lunar calendar. According to the Chinese zodiac, this is the Year of the Monkey. If I were still in my Beijing apartment, this is what I would be seeing outside my living room window.

(If you are reading this by email, please click on this link to see the video.)

But I’m in Minnesota now, so the only thing I’m seeing out my living room window today is blowing snow!

Here’s a round-up of recent articles about Chinese New Year.

Spring Festival Treats – A Laowai’s Adventure (The World of Chinese)

Chunwan (春晚): CCTV New Year’s Gala (What’s on Weibo)

Aerial: 30,000 Stranded at Chinese Train station (China Real Time)

Please Don’t Ask

Once I began studying Chinese, I fairly quickly became fluent at answering the following questions:

  1. Where are you from?
  2. Why are you here?
  3. Are you married?
  4. Why not?

I can’t say that I dreaded the questions (OK, maybe I dreaded #3 and #4 a little), but I certainly knew that they were going to be asked of me over and over and since practice makes perfect, I mastered the answers.


As people in China prepare to head home for the annual Chinese New Year celebrations, many are dreading the questions that their relatives will pepper them with.

The website What’s on Weibo recently ran a post highlighting some of the most dreaded questions for Chinese New Year. Here’s the list, but be sure to visit their site to see the explanation of each.

  1. How did you score on your final exams?
  2. How much money are you making?
  3. Did you find a boyfriend/girlfriend yet?
  4. Do you have a house and a car?
  5. When are you finally having kids?

In fact, question #3 is such a daunting one that there is a cottage industry of people renting themselves out as boyfriends or girlfriends for the holidays. The Globe and Mail has an in interesting story about this:

For many young women, showing up at home with a pleasant-looking, well-behaved boyfriend – even if your family never sees him again – is better than enduring two weeks of questions about why there’s no marriage or kids on the horizon. (China can be a deeply sexist society – women who are unmarried past the age of 30 are often referred to as “leftover women,” even in official media.)

“There are all kinds of reasons” that women contact a rental boyfriend, Mr. Zhou explains in an interview via instant messenger. “Some are divorced, some want help getting rid of another boyfriend, some don’t want to go to a wedding by themselves.”

But most, he adds, “just want someone to go with them to their hometown for three days, just to meet their parents and let them know they have a boyfriend.”

What questions do you dread?

Image credit: International Business Times

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Friday Photo: Fireworks and Pollution

Wednesday was the eve of the Chinese New Year, the night that ushers in 15 straight days of shooting off fireworks. In the run-up to the holiday this year, I spotted a poster in a Beijing neighborhood reminding people that fireworks are a source of pollution.


It says (roughly) “How much healthy air is taken away when you set off fireworks?”

The characters in red say “When setting off fireworks, be legal, be civilized, be safe.” “Don’t set them off; set off fewer of them; protect to the environment.”

I missed out on the fun because I left Beijing late last week. Never mind; I can always watch this video taken from my apartment in in 2010 to be reminded of what I missed.

Happy Year of the Goat!! Or sheep. Or ram! Whatever. 


On the Horse

I’ve been meaning to write about this for awhile, and there’s no better time than today, the first day of the Year of the Horse!

One of my favorite Chinese expressions is mashang (马上), which can be translated as “immediately,” or “right away.” It is used to convey that something is about to happen.

Q:Ni shenme shihou lai?  (When will you be here?)

A. Mashang!  (Soon!)

Or, waiting to see someone in an office….

Qing zuo. Ta mashang lai.  (Please have a seat. He will be with you shortly.)

What’s fun about this expression is that it is made of up two characters (ma and shang). Ma means horse and shang means on. So a literal translation would be “on the horse.”

Q: When will you be here?  A: I’m on the horse.

Please have a seat. He’s on the horse!

As you can imagine, the puns on this first day of the Year of the Horse are coming fast and furious, with New Years greetings making use of this phrase to indicate the imminent arrival of wealth and good fortune.

Nothing illustrates this more brilliantly than this funny video flying around the Chinese Inter-webs: Minions 2014 Chinese New Year / Year of the Horse! (I couldn’t stop laughing!)

(If you receive this post by email, click here to watch the video.)

Here’s a rough translation: 

Horse, horse horse….the Year of the Horse is here!

You’ll get whatever you want.

It’s coming right away.

In the Year of the Horse, you’ll get money, a house, everything!

The Year of the Horse is here!

We Wish You  Happy New Year.

Men, women, old, and young are all happy.

Mashang kuaile! (Happiness is on the horse!!!)

And if I’m ever late to an appointment with you, remember, “I’m on the horse!”



Happy New Year, Beijing!

It’s New Year’s Eve in China, and if I were back in my old apartment in Beijing, this is what I would be witnessing as midnight approaches.

(If you receive this post by email and cannot see the video, click here to watch it.)

Kind of missing China this week.




Here’s a round-up of articles and resources on Chinese New Year. 

China’s Travel Nightmare Begins (Business Insider)

China’s New Year Gift-giving Goes Global (China Real Time)

Chinese New Year Facts: 20 Things to Know About the Lunar New Year (Huffington Post)


Image source: Mashable


China on the Move – Visualized

January 31 is Chinese New Year, the first day of the new year on the lunar calendar. Because it is the most important holiday for spending time with family, the month-long “Spring Festival” sees a mass migration of people from their places of work or study in one part of the country to their hometowns in other parts of the country. 


The Chinese search engine, Baidu, has launched what they call a “heat map,” that visualizes, in real time, this mass migration that is taking place.

Here’s a description from  Tech in Asia:

Baidu  has launched a heat map of where Chinese travelers are heading to, coming from, and which routes are most popular during Chinese New Year, the country’s largest national holiday.


It’s a time when most Chinese either return home to their families or go on vacation, and it’s the largest annual mammalian migration on Earth. During the 40-day holiday period – which is called Spring Festival in Chinese – 3.6 billion passenger trips will be made across all modes of transportation (Note: most people only get eight days off).

The heat map updates every four to eight hours, showing the most popular destinations, points of origin, and travel routes. It includes a search function so you can see stats from specific cities and time frames. Here’s a few stats as of press time:


  • The most popular destination is Beijing, followed by Chongqing. The hub cities in Hunan and Guangxi provinces tie for third.
  • Beijing is also the most popular city to leave, followed by Shanghai and Guangzhou.
  • The trip both to and from Chengdu and Beijing take up the top two most popular routes.

Last week, the New York Times blog Sinosphere had a post about this annual migration:

Demonstrating a deeply felt need among hundreds of millions of people working away from home to return for the most important festival of the year, a good portion of China’s 1.35 billion people are expected to make over 3.6 billion journeys – by plane, train, automobile, bus, motorized tricycle and probably a few donkeys.


The sentiment of “home at any cost” is summed up by a catchy saying: “Rich or Poor, Home for New Year” (有钱没钱, 回家过年) and the enormous human activity needed to make that happen is called the “Spring Transport” (春运)。


That movement of people strains the country’s transportation system, with tickets hard to buy, controversies over ticket sale systems, black-marketeering by “yellow oxen” (as the marketeers are called), trains packed like sardine tins and fights over boarding, lines and seats. But the end goal – celebrating with family – is considered worth it. This year, New Year’s Day is Jan. 31, beginning the Year of the Horse.

And Shanghaiist published some photos of what a train car looks like at the end of one of these journeys. 


 When people ask me about a good time to travel in China, I tell them NOT during Spring Festival. Now you know why! 


If I were in Beijing This Weekend

I’m not in Beijing to experience the Chinese New Year celebrations, but if I were, this is what I would be seeing outside my living room window:

That clip was filmed on New Year’s Eve, 2010 — from my living room window!

Part of me is glad to be missing that and part if me wishes I were there.

Story of my life, I guess…

Here are some interesting articles about the New Year celebrations in China.

From The Guardian: Chinese new year: mass holiday exodus underway – video

The world’s largest annual human migration reaches its peak on Friday, as millions in China travel home for the lunar new year. With around 200 million people on the move, pressure on the transport network is reaching a critical point. One traveller has devised a head-support sleeping aid to make the long journey home more pleasant.

From NPR: Chinese New Year: Dumplings, Rice Cakes And Long Life

About 3,000 years ago, give or take a couple of decades, the Chinese people began celebrating the beginning of their calendar year with a joyful festival they called Lunar New Year. They cleaned their homes, welcomed relatives, bought or made new clothes and set off firecrackers. And there was feasting and special offerings made to the Kitchen God for about two weeks.

From the BBC: Behind the scenes as Chinese TV prepares for New Year Gala

More than 200 million people are on the move in China to be with their families for the Lunar New Year this weekend. Many will be watching the carefully co-ordinated Lunar New Year Gala, where hundreds of acts will be expected to perform. The BBC’s John Sudworth has gained exclusive access to plans by Chinese state television for this weekend’s New Year gala programme.

Again, from the BBC: Boyfriends for hire to beat China’s wedding pressure

In the basement of an office tower in central Beijing, a cloud of gloom hovers over the canteen at lunch time. Groups of young women huddled over large bowls of noodles look depressed when asked about the February’s impending Chinese New Year holiday. “I’m pretty old – I’m almost 30 – but I’m still single,” explains Ding Na, a woman hailing from China’s northeast. “I’m under lots of pressure. My sisters and my relatives all ask me why I’m not married. When they call me, I’m scared to pick up the phone.” […] Luckily for some, China’s most popular online marketplace, Taobao, offers a band-aid solution: the rental of fake boyfriends. For as little as $50 (£32) a day, dozens of classified adverts promise to provide a male companion for the holidays, pretending to be a single woman’s plus-one.  

And one more from The Guardian: New Year Celebrations Around the World — in Pictures

From Beijing to Bangkok, Stockholm to London, communities around the world get ready to celebrate the Chinese New Year and welcome in the year of the snake.

Finally, I recommend the movie Last Train Home.

Every spring, China’s cities are plunged into chaos as an astonishing 130 million migrant workers journey to their home villages for the New Year’s holiday. This mass exodus is the largest human migration on the planet – an epic spectacle that reveals a country tragically caught between its rural past and industrial future. Working over several years in classic verité style Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Lixin Fan (with the producers of the hit documentary Up the Yangtze) travels with one couple who have embarked on this annual trek for almost two decades. Like so many of China s rural poor, Zhang Changhua and Chen Suqin left behind their two infant children for grueling factory jobs. Their daughter Qin – now a restless teenager – both bitterly resents their absence and longs for her own freedom away from school, much to the utter devastation of her parents. Emotionally powerful and starkly beautiful, the multi-award-winning Last Train Home’s intimate observation of one fractured family sheds unprecedented light on the human cost of China’s economic ‘miracle’.