More Chinese Migrants Are Saying No to New Year

More Chinese Migrants Are Saying No to New Year
Photo credit: REUTERS/ 達志影像

What you need to know

The Chinese tradition giving away money in red envelopes is keeping some migrant workers from their homes..

This February, an increasing number of migrant workers are expected to forgo the time-honored tradition — and the considerable financial strain — of returning to their hometowns over Chinese New Year, a newspaper affiliated with the country’s top discipline authority reported Tuesday.

This growing phenomenon, known as duonian, or “escaping Spring Festival,” has largely come about in recent years because of reciprocal gift-giving, a quintessentially Chinese custom of doling out red envelopes stuffed with cash in order to maintain or bolster relationships.

In 2016, the Chinese government ramped up efforts to curb outmoded traditions and extravagant spending.

In China, virtually any occasion — graduations, weddings, housewarming parties, national holidays, anniversaries, and funerals — can warrant a shower of red envelopes. But Chinese New Year, in particular, is the time when millions of migrants to the country’s urban hubs return to their homes in the countryside or lower-tier cities.

“I haven’t returned home for two years,” a villager surnamed Gao in central China’s Hunan province told the newspaper’s reporter. “I didn’t dare go back. In addition to the cost of transportation, visiting my relatives would add up to a few thousand yuan.”

Gao explained that most of this cost stemmed from an obligation to give red envelopes to family members he hardly knows or hasn’t seen in years as a token of goodwill. “I’ve got a lot of relatives back in the village,” he said. “The expenses are bottomless. I’ve thought it through, over and over, and decided not to return.”

The report cites a survey from Central China Normal University in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province. From polling 3,828 households in 273 villages in 31 provinces, municipalities, and autonomous regions, the researchers determined that the average family’s gift-giving in one year was around 5,300 yuan (US$840) — or 16 percent of all household expenses, and second only to food.

The article espouses that reciprocal gift-giving has been an indispensable means of cultivating relationships in China since ancient times. But today, the author added, the tradition simply creates too much pressure.

In 2016, the central government ramped up efforts to curb outmoded traditions and extravagant spending, particularly in rural China. In August 2016, a man in Sichuan province was fined by the local government for holding a lavish banquet in honor of his mother’s 87th birthday. And in October of the same year, a county in eastern Shandong province banned funeral performances featuring the suona, a traditional wind instrument, as too ostentatious for somber occasions.

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The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.

TNL Editor: Morley J Weston