Spring Festival 2016

Spring Festival is a time of mass migration in China.  People leave the big cities and return to the rural towns and villages where they grew up, or where their parents now live.  Foreigners should think twice before travelling at this time.  It is common for people to travel 20-hours or more by train, often with standing tickets (this means sitting on piles of luggage in the aisles and praying there are no sudden stops).  Everybody heeds the call to return home for Spring Festival, no matter what the distance or inconvenience.  Spring Festival is basically the Chinese version of Christmas: it is a time for family reunions as well as for eating and drinking to excess in front of the TV.

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The only difference is that there is no exchanging of gifts or cards at Spring Festival.  Chinese people tend to be rather unsentimental in this respect.  For example, children do not unwrap presents but they do receive red envelopes (hong 2 bao1; 红包) of money from older family members.  (There are no wedding gifts, either; people simply swap red envelopes and hope that this more-or-less pays for the receptions.)  My wife took me back to her hometown for Spring Festival.  And I was expected to come bearing gifts for my parents-in-law and for my brother-in-law (cigarettes, alcohol or tea are acceptable gift ideas.  Shoes and watches will also go down well).

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My wife’s parents live in CaoHe (漕河), which is a town in the county of QiChun (蕲春) in Hubei (湖北) province.  In China, counties are smaller than cities and so QiChun is under the administration of HuangGang (黄冈) city.  There is a train station in QiChun, but there are not many direct rail links to the major cities.  To get there, you had better take a shuttle from the capital of Hubei province, WuHan (武汉).  Not many Chinese people have heard of QiChun.  It has a KFC but no other Western influences.  Its people speak a dialect of Chinese (Qichunhua; 蕲春话) that is closer to Cantonese than it is to Mandarin.  And the only main industry is agriculture.

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My wife’s parents grew up very poor.  My father-in-law has very little formal education.  He grew up on a farm and has worked as a miner, factory security guard and construction worker.  Now, he supervises the construction of bridges and tunnels while his wife prepares food for the workers.  They are reasonably well-off and live in a small but homely apartment in QiChun.  My father-in-law’s mother is financially dependent upon them, as is typical of that generation (there are no state pensions).  It is a nuclear family and my wife’s parents assume traditional gender roles, as is often the case in China, even today.  Men are the bread-winners; women look after the home and the children.

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My wife was born in a small village called YuLiangCun (余凉村), where her grandma now lives.  (The house where she was born lies empty, since Chinese people would rather build a new house than stay where another family has lived.)  YuLiangCun belongs to the town of QiChun and the countryside is both beautiful and hilly.  There are rice paddies, lakes and a mountain.  There are also so-called field banks (tian geng; 田埂).  (Farm laborers build up mounds of earth at different heights in the field, which makes the fields look like riverbanks.  This way, it is easier for the laborers to reach the whole crop.)  My wife grew up on a farm, like her parents did.  It was a tough childhood: she walked for hours just to get to school and the family struggled to afford essentials, like exercise books.

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It is true that China’s population is becoming more urban.  Even so, many families still live very simple and self-sufficient lives in the countryside.  Houses in QiChun do not have insulation, central heating or double-glazing.  My wife’s aunt and uncle had to construct a bamboo sluice to get water from a nearby well.  There are no gardens – only bare patches of land where hens and stray cats roam around.  But the air is fresh, life is simple and people are content with their lot.

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