Chunyun, also referred to as the Spring Festival travel season or the Chunyun period, is a period of travel in China with extremely high traffic load around the time of the Chinese New Year. The travel season in China usually begins 15 days before New Year’s Day and lasts for around 40 days. In 2016 it was predicted that there would be 2.9 billion passenger journeys during that year’s Chunyun season.

It has been called the largest annual human migration in the world. Rail transport experiences the biggest challenge during the period, and several problems have emerged.

Three main factors are responsible for the heightened traffic load during the Chunyun season. First, it is a long-held tradition for most Chinese people to reunite with their families during Chinese New Year. People return home from work or study to have reunion dinner with their families on New Year’s Eve.

Since the Chinese economic reforms of the late 1970s, new economic opportunities have emerged, often at a considerable distance from people’s hometowns. Places such as the Special Economic Zones and the wealthy coastal regions offer employment and often, a more sought-after lifestyle. Consequently, there has been a massive migration from rural to urban areas over the course of the last few decades, reminiscent of other industrial revolutions around the world.

The number of these migrant workers was estimated at 50 million at 1990 and unofficially estimated at 150 million to 200 million in 2000. During the Chunyun season, many of these laborers return to their home towns.

Second, Chinese education reforms have increased the number of university students, who often study outside of their hometown. The Spring Festival holiday period falls around the same time frame as their winter break. Among the 194 million railway passengers of the 2006 Chunyun period were 6.95 million university students.

Finally, because the Spring Festival Period is one of the week-long holiday periods in the People’s Republic of China (the only other being National Day, Oct 1), many people choose to travel for pleasure around this time. Tourism in mainland China is reaching record levels, further adding to the pressure on the transportation system. These factors exacerbate current problems with China’s current inter-city transportation systems.

The railway network is insufficient to handle the number of passengers, and does not reach enough places. The locations not serviced by rail must rely on buses for transportation, which faces problems such as inadequate equipment and road network.