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Spring Festival travel mess

Chinese New Year is the world's biggest mass migration. Each year about three billion trips are made during the several-week period. At train stations the number of people that want tickets outstrips seats available on trains, resulting in long lines and people jostling for a good position in the queues. Chinese citizens made 3.6 billion trips during the Chinese New Year in 2014, 200 million more journeys than in 2013. There could have been more travelers but snow and bad weather hampered the mass migration. [Source: Christian Shepherd and Muyu Xu, Reuters, Jan 27, 2017; [Source: Associated Press, January 14, 2014]

The Chinese Lunar New Year season last for about 40 days, beginning around two weeks before Lunar New Year Day and extending for three or four weeks afterwards. Workers are simultaneously given days off and hundred of millions of people travel. Returning to one’s hometown or village is regarded as mandatory. Some times a village of 5,000 can swell to one with almost 50,000 people if everyone who is expected shows up. There were 2.56 billion passenger trips over 40 days during the 2011 Chinese New year season. Extra flights and trains were added to meet demand which rose 11.6 percent from the previous year. Travelers took 2.2 billion trips during the 40 day Lunar New Year in 2007 This broke down to about 2 billion trips by road; 155 million trips by train; and 19 million by air.

Every year during the lunar New Year, except when there are coronavirus restrictions, 300 million or so migrant workers return from China’s industrial cities to their homes in the countryside, Some have called this temporary shift in population the largest human migration in the world.” The trains are so crowded that people in the lower classes sometimes wear diapers because it is impossible to get to the bathrooms and if you do make it is impossible to use them because people are standing in them. Some people endure these conditions for 36 hour train journeys.

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Chinese New Year Sends Laborers Home, Rich Abroad

According to the China National Tourism Administration around 5.19 million Chinese traveled overseas during the Chinese New Year holiday period in Japanese 2015, up about 10 percent from a year before. The most popular destination was South Korea, attracting 15.6 percent of the holiday travelers from China, followed by Thailand, with 13.9 percent, and Japan, with 8.7 percent. [Source: Jiji Press, February 20, 2015]

The New Year holiday continues for a week, with government and businesses shut down and millions of Chinese traveling to their home towns to visit family. Many foreign residents and Chinese with money in Beijing leave the city, taking the opportunity to enjoy warmer weather in Southeast Asia or travel to Japan and South Korea for skiing holidays.

Christopher Bodeen of Associated Press wrote: “Dragging a heavy suitcase through a Shanghai subway station, 17-year-old Linghu Yong prepared himself to cram onto a jam-packed train Thursday for the 30-hour trip home to spend the Lunar New Year with his family. And he was one of the lucky ones. Crowds of other migrant workers were still camped out for the often dayslong wait for a ticket. "I'll be celebrating the New Year for the first time on the train," said the aspiring college student from the western city of Chongqing, who came to Shanghai to apprentice at a cellphone factory. "My New Year wish is to go home to celebrate the New Year with my family, and to buy a computer." [Source: Christopher Bodeen, Associated Press, January 30, 2014 ]

“While still an annual ritual for millions working far from home, such journeys are being shunned by many of the newly prosperous who are increasingly using the weeklong national holiday to fly to overseas or tourist spots within China. Beijing accountant Wang Zheng, 34, said her whole family will go to China's tropical resort island of Hainan despite its reputation for holiday price-gouging by hotels and restaurants. "Why not make the holiday more fun rather than just having the usual big dinner with family or going to the traditional temple fair? That definitely gets old," she said.

Cyber-Battle for Chinese New Year Train Tickets

“In 2017, almost half of all train tickets are expected to be sold via mobile apps compared to 27 percent in 2016, according to a report by Zhixing Railway Tickets, a booking app owned online travel giant agent Ctrip. One the eve of Chinese New Year 2015, AFP reported: “As hundreds of millions in China flock home to celebrate the Year of the Sheep, the world's biggest human migration places extraordinary pressure on roads and railways — but technology is offering new ways to find a route home. Rail is one of the favoured ways to travel and while historically there have been endless queues at the ticket windows, China's official train booking website is helping to relieve congestion in stations and kiosks. But with such huge demand users say it can be still be an exercise in hair-tearing frustration. Posters on social media say the booking website is "more difficult to access than the Diaoyu Islands" — the uninhabited East China Sea archipelago disputed between Beijing and Tokyo, which calls them the Senkakus. [Source: AFP, February 15, 2015 ==; [Source: Christian Shepherd and Muyu Xu, Reuters, Jan 27, 2017]

“There are, however, new tactics in the battle. Kelly Gan, a 27-year-old accountant, explained: "I was using a program that refreshes the page every five seconds to grab a spot as soon as it was available on I basically did it all day long, from when I woke up until I slept." She finally managed to get her ticket from Shanghai to Chengdu, a journey of more than 2,600 kilometers (1,600 miles) and 39 hours. It cost her 450 yuan ($72) for a "hard sleeper" — a bed and mattress that are a far more comfortable option than the firm bench most passengers will have to endure. ==

“Chinese train tickets can only be bought a maximum of 60 days before departure, triggering a scramble. All tickets are sold in the first few minutes after they become available, and purchases for this year's festivities peaked on December 19, with at one point selling 1,032 tickets every second. The next best opportunity to buy is 15 days before departure, the last date that people can secure a full refund for tickets if they are unable to use them. Vast numbers of people initially buy tickets that are not exactly what they want, in order to have some way to get home, and then seek better alternatives. At Shanghai railway station, more than 7,000 tickets were being returned each day, reports said in late January. ==

“The program Gan used to secure a returned ticket was an open-source one made available for free by a lone independent developer, but major Chinese internet firms have also waded into the fray. Chinese search giant Baidu developed software to speed up the booking process and avoid losing a ticket between booking and payment, one of the most frustrating user experiences.The company says 18 million people have installed it, and bought 28 million tickets between them. Web browser LieBao offers a pre-booking function, allowing users to select a ticket beforehand and sending an automatic request as soon as booking officially opens. ==

“Equality of the people may be a founding principle of communism, but it does not exist in the rat race of Lunar New Year ticket purchases. Instead runners come in two divisions: the Internet users who have ways to handle the booking rush, and the technologically illiterate, often poor migrant workers. A maid in Beijing, Guo Dengxiu is one of the hundreds of millions of migrant workers who have left the countryside during China's economic rise to seek work in the cities. But she does not know how to use online tools, and failed to secure the ticket to return to her home in the Anhui province, 1,000 kilometers south of the capital. "My son bought me a standing ticket. If I do not find anything else, I'll do the 15-hour trip without a seat or on a folding stool," she told AFP. "I have to be home for the New Year!" ==

Chinese Lunar New Year 'Ticket Snatching' Apps

By the mid 2010s, apps that charged fees to improve the odds of getting rail tickets during the Chinese New Year rush were all the rage but were criticized by state media for being nothing more modern-day electronic touts and scalpers. Christian Shepherd and Muyu Xu of Reuters wrote: “Plugged by app developers as a way to simplify purchasing, the use of the "ticket snatching" software has ballooned in recent years as more people buy on mobile devices. "High demand for rail tickets during the New Year season cannot be an excuse for snatching apps to rob consumers, disturb public order and even push up the price," People's Daily, the official newspaper of the ruling Communist Party, said in a commentary earlier this month. The Chinese authorities say they want to ensure equal access to rail tickets for all during Lunar New Year. [Source: Christian Shepherd and Muyu Xu, Reuters, Jan 27, 2017]

“When purchasing moved online, "snatching" software sprang up from travel and tech companies hoping to increase users' chances of making it to the front of the virtual queue. Shuang Xu, who works for a travel company in Beijing, started looking for tickets to her home city of Chongqing two weeks before she planned to leave for the New Year, but the official train booking website,, kept crashing. Xu paid 60 yuan extra to buy two high-speed train tickets, worth 1,535 yuan, from the capital to the southwestern city. “"I had no choice but to try other ways," she said.

Software provided by the likes of International Ltd and search engines including Qihoo 360 Technology Co gives users a better chance, though no guarantee, of securing a spot on China's trains. The cost for improving the odds varies across platforms and can range from an extra 20 to 200 yuan ($2.90-$29).

“More than 50 Chinese travel and tech companies have rolled out ticket snatching software in recent years, acquiring rival apps to help ensure a piece of the growing market for digital ticket booking services. Ctrip, China's biggest online travel company, has acquired a number of rival companies with ticket-selling apps, which combined make the company the largest provider of the mobile app software. Most apps, including those by Ctrip, only charge users if they successfully secure tickets, although critics say bundled insurance and other add-ons create price competition regardless of the policy.

“Qihoo 360's company policy stated it used "safe, no add-ons, no bundles" ticket snatching. "We have never charged any kind of fee from our users in any way," said Wang Yinhua, chief ticket snatching engineer at 360 Browser, a popular web browser developed by Qihoo 360. He added: "Before the age of online ticket purchases, people had no choice but to queue up through the night at railway stations and ticket windows."

“Yet the software bears some similarity to ticket touts, according to Zhao Zhanling, a legal adviser to the Internet Society of China, which is a non-governmental body backed by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. "Using ticket snatching software is in effect allowing (buyers) to cut in line," he said. "If there are people who use technology to cut in the line, this means more people who use 12306 (without software) do not get tickets."

“One traveler wrote on the Twitter-like Sina Weibo messaging service: "I didn't see the difference between snatching apps and scalpers." Touting is illegal in China, and companies cannot charge more than 5 yuan on top of a train ticket's set price as a service charge. But snatching software is seen as entrusting a third party to buy the ticket on your behalf, so it does not break the rules.

Dilemma for One-Child Families: Where to Spend New Year

During the Chinese New Year hundreds of millions of people pack the trains and highways to return to their home towns. But, Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post, “for one particular group — young urban married couples who grew up as only children — the yearly ritual can also mean tough decisions, sometimes-painful arguments and a modern-day test of one of China’s centuries-old family traditions. [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, January 18, 2012]

These young couples are part of the generation of only children born during the 34 years of China’s “one-child policy.” Following the typical pattern, they migrated to the larger cities from the outlying provinces to go to university. They stayed for work and then got married. And now they must decide which set of parents to visit. It’s a decision fraught with emotion, especially for China’s growing elderly population, often living alone and far from their children, who historically have been caregivers in a country with little social safety net.

“Both of us want to go back to our home to celebrate Chinese New Year,” said Lin Youlan, 30, a government worker who married her husband, Li Haibin, 33, four years ago. “We always fight about this problem.” She is from Chongqing in southwest China, and he is from Shandong, on China’s east coast. They live in Beijing, and they are only children. As the only son, Li is under intense pressure to visit his parents, who are not in good health. “In Shandong province, men must celebrate the Spring Festival with their own families. And the wives should spend the Lunar New Year at their husbands’ homes,” he said. “I worry how others will look at my parents if I don’t go back home every year.”

Traditionally, the Lunar New Year’s Eve and the first day of the new year were spent at the home of the husband’s parents, and the second day was spent with the wife’s. But in those days, married couples largely came from the same village or town or a relatively short distance apart.

Some Chinese couples try to resolve the annual conflict by visiting both sets of parents. Chen Juan, 29, and her husband, Huang Feilong, 31, met in Beijing through an online dating site. They were are both from Hunan province, from cities about three hours drive apart. They got married in 2008 and have spent four Chinese New Years together — three at his parents’ home and one with her family. “We fight about this almost every year,” Chen said. This year, they are dividing the week long holiday in half, the first and most important days with his family, then the remainder with hers. But China’s size — as well as the difficulty of finding bus and train tickets over the holiday period — makes traveling to two sets of parents impractical for many.

New Year and Chinese Migrant Workers

Every year, during the lunar New Year, 300 million workers return from China’s industrial cities to their homes in the countryside, Some have called this temporary shift in population of migrant workers alone is the largest human migration in the world. Migrant workers than can’t get bus or train tickets often head home on motorbikes, often traveling hundreds of kilometers in the freezing cold with various items strapped on their bikes. See Film, Last Train Home

The average migrant spends about eight months of the year away from home, returning to his village in spring and the fall to help plant and harvest crops. Everybody that can tries to return for the long New Year’s break Some workers are only able venture to their home villages once every two or three years. Sometimes they spend half of their two weeks off getting there and back in several-day, bunk-bed bus journeys.

There are many stories of migrant factory workers being shaken down, beaten and even killed by brutal auxiliary police. Violence sometimes erupts after migrant workers are subjected to terrible working conditions and then are denied their pay. Push often comes to shove around the New Year holiday when it is time for workers to get their back wages and return home and see their families and they are told the money isn’t ready.

Often migrant workers are not paid until they return to the work site after returning home for the New Year holiday. This practice is done so the worker’s don’t work for a month and then leave. But some employers abuse the arrangements and tell workers they will get paid after they work a few more weeks and repeatedly deny them their pay. There have been cases of workers working for two, three even ten years without getting paid. Even under these conditions new workers keep coming because opportunities in the villages are so limited.

Lunar New Year Migration Home for One Beijing-Based Migrant Worker

Describing the journey to his home village by one migrant construction worker in Beijing, Megan K. Stack and Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Li Guangqiang rises early and pulls on his sharpest city clothes: dark jeans fashionably distressed, puffy down coat, black pouch slung over one shoulder. An outfit carefully chosen to announce: I am not a farmer or a villager. Not anymore. [Source: Megan K. Stack and Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, February 20, 2011]

“Li's journey will be long, and he has no time to lose. Heading out into the dry, dirty cold of a Beijing winter, he rolls his suitcase along frozen canals the shade of curdled milk, through the warren of alleyways where he and other migrants sleep in makeshift shelters of concrete block walls and corrugated tin roofs. When the holidays are over, when he makes his way back to work on the construction of the new Microsoft site, his home will be gone, swept aside in booming Beijing's tireless bouts of gentrification. But he's not thinking about that now, because these are the dying days of the old lunar year.”

“Today Li will go home. Figures loom out of the darkness and make their way up the worn steps of the bus station, lugging booty for seldom-seen families: gifts of clothes and food wrapped in auspicious red to ring in the Year of the Rabbit, boxes of cheap toys, sacks of grain hefted on broad shoulders. These precious days are the most eagerly awaited of the year: a rare chance for rest, and the coming together of families painfully split apart by economic necessity. Self-conscious spouses are reunited. Children peer shyly at parents they haven't seen in a year. Men who are mocked and exploited in the slick cities puff out their chests and strut, get drunk on rice wine and lavish their hard-won cash on their families.”

Taking the Bus Home for Chinese New Year

“Many of the workers sleep outside train stations for days to get tickets, then stand packed tight as cattle in train carriages,” Megan K. Stack and Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “Li opts for the relative comfort of the bus for the 12-hour trip to his village, about 400 miles south of Beijing in Shandong province. In the drowsy din of the bus station, Li's eyes dart anxiously from gate to gate, but he tries hard to appear nonchalant. The 38-year-old has been making the journey for 16 years, and tries to adopt the swagger of the big city.”"I used to get very excited," he says, shrugging, "but now I go back and forth every year." [Source: Megan K. Stack and Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, February 20, 2011]

“Li's bus is called, and he joins the crowd surging through the gate. They toss bags into the belly of the bus, scramble aboard and elbow their way down the aisles. Every seat is full, and almost all of the passengers are men. The bus shudders to life and pulls onto the road. It rumbles south past shopping malls, gas stations, construction sites. The bus is filled with the click of cellphone cameras taking parting shots as Beijing falls away...Turn on the heat, the passengers beg...No, the driver replies. It's a waste of fuel...The passengers do not insist. They're used to shabby conditions and physical discomfort. Soon the bus is rocked by snores and coughs. Li doesn't sleep; he just waits.”

“Hours fade, and the bus rolls over country roads cluttered with the tokens of Chinese growth. Factories and sprawling construction sites are overhung with cranes and fronted by billboards showing the housing developments that soon will be completed...In the early afternoon, the driver pulls over, urges everyone off the bus and then locks the doors. This is the lunch stop; always the same place, Li grumbles....In the restrooms, waist-high partitions separate one stinking hole from the next, and icicles drip from the ceiling. In the cafeteria, Li grimaces at vats of oily vegetables and indistinguishable meat. "It's not clean," he warns, and heads back outside. In the trash-strewn parking lot, he stuffs his hands into his pockets and stares at the horizon until the driver finishes his lunch.”

“The landscape turns to mountains and thicker trees, then flattens out again into fields as darkness falls. The county seat is gaudy with lights, the market stalls and supermarkets packed with shoppers from surrounding villages who've come to town to stock up on holiday delicacies and decorations. Everybody is a little more flush with cash at this time of the year.”

Arriving Home for Chinese New Year

“Li is the first one off the bus,” Megan K. Stack and Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “Early fireworks burst into pinwheels in the sky. He snatches up his bag, pushes past the taxi drivers and finds his cousin waiting for him in a ramshackle silver van. They smile shyly, light cigarettes. They don't embrace...The van pulls out of the city, back into the darkness of a country night, on rough roads that slice through the winter-dry fields of wheat and corn.” [Source: Megan K. Stack and Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, February 20, 2011]

“Li's house looks dark and abandoned. Last year's faded wishes for prosperity and happiness, printed on red paper gone to pink, still cling to the metal gate. He makes his way through the courtyard and onto the concrete floor of the sitting room, bone-cold and bathed in thin sulphur light. A television flashes and flickers behind a cotton curtain. "Hey, come out here!" Li shouts gruffly.

“Ducking her head bashfully, his wife sweeps slowly through the curtains. She is only 39 but she looks older, much older, than her city-dwelling husband. She has pulled her hair neatly back from a face grown ruddy and chapped from the sun and wind. For her husband's homecoming, she wears a padded cotton jacket printed with bright red swirls.”

“Li shoots his wife an impatient, unreadable look. She stands at his side uncertainly. Their 13-year-old son comes skittering over the threshold from the yard. Both father and son seem embarrassed to make eye contact, let alone touch; the boy stares at the floor and races in nervous circles around his father. But the uneasy moment is broken, diluted in cries of welcome as neighbors pour in to greet Li. He has made it home at last.”

The next day “Li wears a gray woolen sweater and jeans as he works in the back courtyard. Much of his holiday is spent catching up on the repairs, the broken water pump on the well, the loose tiles on the roof.”

New Year’s Coronavirus Travel Restrictions in 2020 and 2021

Javier C. Hernández and Alexandra Stevenson wrote in the New York Times: “Every winter, Pang Qingguo, a fruit seller in northern China, makes the 800-mile trip to his ancestral home to celebrate the Lunar New Year with his family. The coronavirus ruined the festivities in 2020, stranding Mr. Pang in the northern city of Tangshan, as many Chinese cities imposed lockdowns. Now, as China confronts a resurgence of the virus, the pandemic is set to spoil the holiday again, with the authorities announcing onerous quarantine and testing rules to dissuade migrant workers like Mr. Pang from traveling for the new year, which begins this year on Feb. 12. [Source: Javier C. Hernández and Alexandra Stevenson, New York Times, January 28, 2021]

“Many of China’s roughly 300 million migrant workers face a similar reality as the government tries to avoid a surge in cases during what is typically the busiest travel season of the year. The authorities have demanded that people visiting rural areas during the holiday spend two weeks in quarantine and pay for their own coronavirus tests. Many migrants, who endure grueling jobs for meager wages in big cities, say those restrictions make it impossible to travel.

“The rollout of the rules has drawn widespread criticism in China, with many people calling the approach unfair to migrant workers, who have long been treated as second-class citizens under China’s strict household registration system. Without that registration, migrant laborers can’t access social or medical services in the cities where they work. The workers have been among the hardest hit in China by the pandemic, as the authorities have carried out scattered lockdowns to fight the virus and employers have reduced hours and pay.

“Zhu Xiaomei, who works at a fabric store in the eastern city of Hangzhou, typically makes the 30-hour journey by train to her hometown in the southwestern province of Sichuan to be with family. This year she will spend the holiday alone for the first time, inside her 130-square-foot dormitory, which lacks a kitchen. “Of course it is a bit upsetting,” Ms. Zhu, 40, said. “I have never experienced this feeling.”

“For many Chinese families the holiday will represent a second year that the pandemic has kept them apart. Just hours before the start of the Lunar New Year last year, the authorities imposed sweeping lockdowns and suspended trains and planes across the country. In a matter of hours, more than 35 million people in the city of Wuhan and the surrounding areas were ordered to stay at home.

“Chinese officials are concerned that widespread travel could give rise to fresh outbreaks, especially in rural areas, where testing is less common and there has been some resistance to quarantines and other public health measures. While China’s outbreak is relatively under control compared to other countries and life is largely normal in many cities, clusters of new cases have emerged in recent weeks, prompting sporadic lockdowns and mass testing efforts.

Efforts to Discourage Chinese from Traveling During New Year 2021

Javier C. Hernández and Alexandra Stevenson wrote in the New York Times: “The authorities still expect hundreds of millions of people to travel during the Lunar New Year season, which lasts from January to March, despite the threat posed by the virus. Many of those travelers are going to large cities, not just rural areas. Several major cities in recent days have tightened restrictions on travel. Beijing is requiring visitors to test negative for the virus before being granted entry. [Source: Javier C. Hernández and Alexandra Stevenson, New York Times, January 28, 2021]

“The Chinese government, in response to the migrants’ outrage over the new restrictions, has tried to offer sweeteners, including gift baskets, activities and shopping discounts, to encourage them to stay put. In Shanghai, officials plan to pay the phone and medical bills of those who forgo their journeys home. In Beijing, the authorities have encouraged companies to pay employees overtime, while housemaids have been told they will receive about $60 if they work during the holiday. In Tianjin, a northern city, the government has promised subsidies to businesses for every worker that stays over the holiday.

“Some cities and counties have gone further, promising a better shot at accessing social benefits like schooling and health care. Some officials are offering rural migrants who forgo holiday travel favorable treatment in applications for residency in cities. “Through these heartwarming measures, let migrant workers stay in their place of employment and spend the Spring Festival without worries,” Chen Yongjia, a Chinese official, said last week at a news conference in Beijing hosted by the State Council, China’s cabinet. In China, the New Year holiday is typically referred to as the Spring Festival.

“In the run-up to the holiday, the government has led a propaganda campaign aimed at persuading migrant workers to avoid traveling home. Large red banners invoking filial piety and model citizen behavior have started to appear on city streets. “Mask or a ventilator? You pick one of the two,” reads one banner. “If you come home with the disease, you are unfilial,” another exclaims. “If you spread the disease to your mother and father, then you are utterly devoid of a conscience,” a third banner reads.

Chinese New Year Debt-Paying in the 19th Century

In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “However little attention he may pay to the Chinese calendar, every foreigner in China is sure to be reminded in a very effective way of the approach of the close of the Chinese year, long before the edge of the New Year is to be seen above the horizon. At some time during the twelfth moon, the “boy” makes his appearance, and with an unusual animation in his unanimated face, explains that owing to a combination of circumstances which seem to be to a large extent incapable of elucidation to us, he is obliged to request the advance of his wages for the current month, and also for the one to come. This may be contrary to rule, doubtless is so, but owing to the combination above alluded to, is an imperative necessity. Otherwise ruin impends. It is not long before a similar statement is made by the cook, with regard to his affairs, and by the various coolies0 as to theirs. In each case the necessity turns out upon investigation to be so real, and the pressure of the combination of circumstances so powerful, that we are, in a manner, forced to do violence to our own judgment, in order to avert the imminent ruin of those who are in our employ, and in whom we feel, perhaps, some interest. But it is a long time before it occurs to us to look into the matter more deeply than sufficiently to ascertain what everybody knew before, that Chinese New Year is preceded by a universal season of debt-paying from which no one is exempt. If we insist upon following up any specific case with a rigid examination into its remoter causes, we soon learn from the principal party such facts as appear to justify his assertion of an emergency, and also that there is nothing peculiar in his case, but that other people are in the same predicament. If these inquiries are carried far enough, and deep enough, they will bring to light the seven deadly sins of Chinese social financiering. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“1. Everybody always needs to borrow. That the business of the world even in Western lands depends upon the borrowing of money, and that credit is the largest factor in trade, are positions which we do not for a moment forget. But Chinese borrowing is of a different type from that with which the great expansion of modern commerce has made us familiar. We do not affirm that there are not Chinese who do not need the money of other people for the conduct of their affairs, but only that these people are so rare that they may as well be disregarded. The whole scale of Chinese living and the whole system of economics are of such a sort, that as a rule there is but a narrow margin of financial reserve. With all their practicality and skill in affairs, it is a constant source of wonder that so few Chinese ever have anything to fall back upon. One reason for this is the fact that it is very difficult for them to accumulate a reserve, and another equally potent is the fact that there is nothing which can be safely done with it pending its use. There are no savings-banks, and there are no investments which0 are safe. The only thing which can be done with ready money, is to lend it to those who need it, which is generally done with some reluctance, as the lender justly fears lest he should never again see either interest or principal. Whoever has a wedding in his family, is liable to have to borrow money to carry it through, and if it be a funeral the necessity will be still more urgent. He needs money to start in business, and he needs more to settle up at the end of the year, when, if their own accounts are to be trusted, nine Chinese out of ten who engage in business in a small way, find that they have “lost money”; though this often signifies that they have not realized so much as they had hoped. In short it is hard to find a Chinese to whom the loan of a sum of money at any time, would not be as welcome as “water to a fish in a dry rut.” It is this all-prevailing need which smoothes the surface of the spot where the pit is to be dug.

“2. Everybody is obliged to lend money. We have just remarked that the man who happens to have a little surplus cash does not like to lend it, lest he should never see it again. But there are various kinds and degrees of pressure which can be brought to bear upon the capitalist. One of these is connected with the solidarity of the Chinese family, or clan. If one of the members has money which he might lend and another is desperately in need of it, the latter will get a member of the generation higher than that to which the capitalist belongs, to intercede for him. This may be done unwillingly, but it will probably be done. To a sufficient amount of pressure of this ancestral description, the capitalist will find it best to yield, though not improbably against his financial judgment. But every Chinese is from infancy accustomed to the idea that it is seldom easy to have one’s own way in all things, and that when one cannot do as he would, he must do as he must. If the borrower does not belong to the same family or clan as the lender, the difficulty will be greater, but it may perhaps be overcome by the same description of pressure, by means of0 friends. A would-be borrower is often obliged to make a great many kotows before he can secure the favor of a loan (at an extortionately high rate of interest), but he is much aided in his efforts by the Chinese notion that when a certain amount of pressure has been brought to bear, a request must be granted, just as one of a pair of scales must go down if you put on enough weights. Thus it comes about that in all ranks of Chinese, the man who has, is the man who must be content to allow to share in his wealth (for a handsome remuneration).

“3. From the foregoing propositions, it follows with inevitable certainty, that almost everybody owes some one else. There is never any occasion to ask a Chinese whether he owes money. The proper formula is, How much do you owe, and to whom, and what is the rate of interest?

“4. No Chinese ever pays cash down, unless he is obliged to do so. To us this may appear a most eccentric habit, but it seems to be almost a law. The Chinese has learned by ages of experience, that he no sooner pays away money to satisfy one debt, than he needs that same money to liquidate other debts. In their own figuratively expressive phrase, a single cup of water is wanted in three or four places at once, and the supply is always as inadequate, as the classical “cup of water to put out the fire in a cart-load of fuel.” Knowing this with a keenness of apprehension which it is difficult for us to appreciate, the Chinese holds on fast to his cash till it is wrung from him by a force which overcomes his own tenacity of grip.

“5. No Chinese ever pays a debt till he is dunned. To us this also seems a strange practice. Most of us have grown up with a fixed idea that as a debt must be paid, “if it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly.” The mind of a Chinese operates in quite a different way. His view is, “If it must be done, it were best done when it is done as deliberately as the case admits.”

“6. It seems also to be the rule, that no Chinese will pay his debts till he has been dunned a great number of times. Here0 again he is at the opposite pole from that which we occupy. We do not like to be dunned, and would rather make considerable sacrifices than to have needy persons dogging us for the collection of debts which we honestly owe, which we must ultimately pay, and not to arrange for the payment of which at once is more or less of a disgrace. By “we” we mean of course the average foreigner, for it is not to be denied that Western lands have their full proportion of impecunious and shameless rascals who “live off the interest of their debts,” and who swindle all those whom they can. But the Chinese of whom we are speaking do not belong to this class. The mass of the Chinese people we believe to be honest, and they fully intend to pay all that they owe, but they do not intend to pay until they are ready to do so, and neither gods nor men can tell when that will be. It is a current saying that when a person has many debts he is no longer concerned about them, just as when one has many parasites he ceases to scratch!

“7. In a large proportion of cases, the Chinese who pays a debt, pays but a part of it at a time. The rest he will try to get together in the “third month,” “the ninth month,” or at the “end of the next year.” The practical outcome of these last three peculiarities is, that the twelfth moon of every Chinese year is a time of maximum activity all over the empire. One would suppose that a vast amount of work was being accomplished, but the facts are otherwise. One is reminded of the Witch in “Alice Behind the Looking-Glass,” where the child was hurried along on a broomstick at such a rate as to take her breath away. She thought she must be traversing illimitable space, but when this idea was communicated to the Witch, the latter only laughed, and replied that this was nothing at all, for they had to go like that to “keep up with things” and if they were really to get ahead to any extent, the rate of travel must be enormously faster than that! The racing around of the Chinese in their final moon, is just “to keep up with things.” Every shop, no matter how trifling the sum0 total of its business, has its army of runners out, each “demanding debts,” or rather endeavouring to do so; for to achieve it is no such easy matter. The debtor is himself a creditor, and he also will be occupied in the effort to call in the sums which are owing to him. Each separate individual is engaged in the task of trying to chase down the men who owe money to him, and compel them to pay up, and at the same time in trying to avoid the persons who are struggling to track him down and corkscrew from him the amount of his indebtedness to them? The dodges and subterfuges to which each is obliged to resort, increase in complexity and number with the advance of the season, until at the close of the month, the national activity is at fever heat. For if a debt is not secured then, it will go over till a new year, and no one knows what will be the status of a claim which has actually contrived to cheat the annual Day of Judgment. In spite of the excellent Chinese habit of making the close of a year a grand clearing-house for all debts, Chinese human nature is too much for Chinese custom, and there are many of these postponed debts which are a grief of mind to many a Chinese creditor.

“The Chinese are at once the most practical and the most sentimental of the human race. New Year must not be violated by duns for debts, but the debt must be collected New Year though it be. For this reason one sometimes sees an urgent creditor going about early on the first day of the year carrying a lantern looking for his creditor. His artificial light shows that by a social fiction the sun has not yet risen, it is still yesterday and the debt can still be claimed!

“We have but to imagine the application of the principles which we have named, to the whole Chinese empire, and we get new light upon the nature of the Chinese New Year festivities. They are a time of rejoicing, but there is no rejoicing so keen as that of a ruined debtor, who has succeeded by shrewd devices in avoiding the most relentless of his creditors and has thus postponed his ruin for at least another twelve months.0 For, once past the narrow strait at the end of the year, the debtor finds himself again in broad and peaceful waters, where he cannot be molested. Even should his creditors meet him on New Year’s day, there could be no possibility of mentioning the fact of the previous day’s disgraceful flight and concealment, or indeed of alluding to business at all, for this would not be “good form,” and to the Chinese “Good Form” (otherwise known as Custom), is the chief national divinity.

“An ingenious device by which to secure the desirable result that a family shall be sure to have a supply of the food most indispensable for a proper treatment of guests at the festive New Year season, is found in what are called New Year Societies. Each member of the society contributes a few hundred or perhaps a thousand cash a month for the first five months of the year, until the wheat harvest in June when wheat is at its lowest price, for example 1,200 cash for 100 catties or picul. During the five months which have elapsed, the money thus assessed upon the members has been put at interest, and has already accumulated a handsome income. As soon as the new wheat is in the market, the loans are all called in, and the treasurer takes the whole of the sum belonging to the association and invests it in wheat. This he keeps until the close of the year, by which time it is not at all unlikely that the price of the grain has doubled. He then exchanges the wheat, at the current rate, with some maker of bread-cakes (man-t‘ou), and these are divided among the stockholders. In this way, each one gets not only the benefit of the interest on loans for five months, but also nearly or quite double the value of the wheat bought just after harvest. Sometimes the monthly payments are continued throughout the year, and the sum is then expended in a lump for bread-cakes, wheat, cotton, or whatever each family most needs for the New Year season. In societies of this kind, the rate of interest is sure to be at least three per cent. per month, and perhaps four per cent. The amounts borrowed are usually small, and each borrower must1 have a security from among the contributors to the fund. In case payment is not forthcoming at the due date, the next step is to raise an uproar, and if possible to collect the debt by force. The inevitable and universal uncertainty and difficulty attending the collection of any money on loan, give emphasis to the adage that “where the profit is large, the risk is correspondingly great.”

“Extortionate as are the ordinary rates of Chinese interest, ranging from twenty-four to forty eight or more per cent. per annum, there are other ways than direct loans, by which even greater profits may be gathered. The passion for gambling seems to be all-pervasive among the Chinese, and it is perhaps a greater bar to the prosperity of the common people than any other habit of their lives. Many of the phenomena of Chinese coöperation are associated with gambling practices, from which the profit to those who manage the finances is very great. In all cases where there is money to loan, it is possible to employ it for gaming, under the direction of the managers, or trustees. Those who are in the habit of gambling do not stop when their supply of money fails, but draw upon the bank of the loan association at terms which are agreed upon, but which differ according to circumstances. In an emergency, it might happen that a person whose fortune had failed him, would be obliged to borrow of the bank, say 800 cash, which in a short time he must replace with 1,000. At the end of the year when the accounts are made up and the money paid in, it is equally divided among the contributors of the society, whether they may have used the capital for gambling or not. In case they have borrowed a part of the capital and are not able to repay it, their debt is set against their contribution, and they lose their investment.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2021

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