Eleven years ago, I took a train from Shanghai to Beijing during the Spring Festival rush, known as chunyun. I got a ticket in a hard-seat car, no other seats were available. As a result, I was squeezed into a space so small I could not turn left or right.
And forget about going to the restroom; it was occupied by as many as eight passengers. During the 24-hour journey, I did not eat or drink anything - just to avoid going to the toilet.
It was a trip to remember. Anyone who wants to understand China - of ordinary Chinese, not just those frequenting five-star hotels - should get on a hard-seat train during chunyun, at least once. For one thing, you will instantly realize why China has a family planning policy.
I should add that my journey was not interrupted by snowstorms or delays. So, I can imagine what those millions of home-bound people stranded in trains, buses and railway stations are going through, both physically and mentally. After days of waiting at the Guangzhou Railway Station, reported Southern Metropolis News, passengers were finally allowed to board trains. However, they did not burst into joy, but tears.
Even without the complications of bad weather, chunyun is a harrowing experience. The Lunar New Year is part of a tradition that makes us who we are as Chinese. Just as Chinese characters (logograms) are not ideal for computer input, this most important of Chinese holidays puts an incredible strain on the nation's transport network.
I am sure when our ancestors sat around a fire with the whole family they had no idea what chaos family reunions could cause. Likewise, when Cangjie invented Chinese characters 4,600 years ago, he could not have foreseen the era of typewriters and computers. However, that is not a reason why we should simplify things by getting rid of those elements our current infrastructure or technology cannot accommodate. Science and technology exist to help us keep our heritage, not to reduce us to an economically optimum existence that has no richness.
That does not mean I am in favor of everybody making the journey home regardless of circumstances. On the contrary, each person should weigh the costs when making a decision. And this year, the odds are stacked against the customary "I'll be home for the New Year".
When I was a kid - a time of shortages, this holiday meant new clothes and enough food for several days. Now, most Chinese can live every day as if it is the Spring Festival, and we realize it is not just the material things that make us long for the season, it is the warmth of sitting around a big table with family members and relatives - your parents whom you have not seen for 12 months, your aunt who doted on you when you were a toddler, and even your high-school friend.
As our family structure keeps shrinking, we will probably see in our lifetime the disappearance of big families, and we will recall with fond memories the good old days when family members journeyed distances - some even from abroad - to share New Year's Eve watching a television show and feasting.
Spring Festival is a big money-spinner for many businesses, but for those who take days off to spend with their families it has nothing to do with economics. Yes, we give red envelopes, but they only add to the joy of the festival. I wish everyone, especially those who have been through the snowstorms, happiness in the coming year.
(China Daily 02/02/2008 page4)