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Lunar New Year and the World’s Largest Annual Migration

By Claire Del Prete

On Sunday, billions of people across the globe celebrated the Lantern Festival, marking the end of the Lunar New Year period of 2023. Lunar New Year, also known as Spring Festival or Chinese New Year, lasts for 40 days surrounding the New Year state holiday, which is seven days long and often culminates with a grand family dinner. The holiday, marked by themes of fortune, happiness, health, and above all, hope, encourages billions of observers to embark on the world’s largest annual migration of people, also known as chunyun.

Lunar New Year is a globally celebrated holiday, prompting many migrants to leave their factory jobs and educational institutions to join in on the 40-day travel season. Factories braced for impact even earlier than usual with the surge of Covid infections in China that emerged in December 2022. To account for the mass labor shortages, companies and local governments organized recruitment job fairs and offered cash stipends and travel reimbursements to entice workers to return in February.

This year, China’s Ministry of Transport estimated 2 billion passenger trips. For many, this was the first family reunion since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic over three years ago.

Since the first outbreak in late 2019, domestic travel restrictions have been in place to avoid the spread of infections. With the newest wave of infections, these worries persisted, but beneath the shadow of Covid, many still took the risk. In theory, the massive peregrination is a recipe for disaster––travelers packed like sardines, headed towards rural villages with elderly and often under-vaccinated populations—and it threatened to spread the virus to the countryside.

Prominent Chinese government scientists spoke out against this concern. Ahead of the holiday, Wu Zunyou, the chief epidemiologist of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said that the “wave of epidemic has already infected about 80% of the people” in the most largely-populated country. Despite this figure, it is important to note wide-spread skepticism that China is under-reporting “the true impact of the disease”, as suggested by World Health Organization executive director, Mike Ryan, in early January.

This year, revelers gathered to celebrate the year of the Rabbit. Each year represents one of the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac in relation to their position on the lunar calendar. Families typically gather at the home of the most senior family member to feast on traditional foods, such as dumplings for wealth and noodles for long life, and to share memories and red envelopes containing money.

Despite the threat of Covid infections or unemployment, billions of travelers saw the lack of travel restrictions as an opportunity to spend quality time with their families. In China and many of the surrounding Asian countries, loyalty to one’s family means everything. As Lunar New Year comes to an end, the holiday observers will return to their livelihoods, their hearts and stomachs full from their family feasts.


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