Millions of Chinese traveling for New Year of the Snake

Chinese New Year Lion dancers at historic Chinatown Gate, Hing Hay Park, Seattle, Washington. Photograph by Joe Mabel, released for public use via Wikimedia Commons.SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 10: In one of the largest annual human migrations on planet Earth, more than a hundred million Chinese are heading home for the New Year. China’s more than 1 billion citizens mainly work in cities, so mass transit lines are jammed every year. This long-distance human movement dwarfs American holiday customs. Already in 2013, Chinese news reports have been warning of migration problems with forecasts of rain and snow in some regions complicating this enormous feat of transportation.

WANT TO SEE THE MIGRATION? Thanks to Zeitgeist video producers, The Last Train Home is a fascinating bitter-sweet look at one family’s quest to visit their hometown. No, don’t think of Norman Rockwell. These long-distance separations of families in China’s emerging industrial economy usually are painful. Nevertheless, Zeitgeist’s DVD of the documentary is the only vivid glimpse of the New Year’s migration that is easily available for Westerners right now. ReadTheSpirit reported on the Last Train Home documentary and related issues in this earlier story.


Chinese-American artist Kam Mak’s design for the American Chinese New Year stamp reflects his fond childhood memories of the holiday.The New York Daily News’ Erica Pearson posted one of the most fascinating Chinese New Year stories (with photos) that we have seen so far in 2013. Pearson profiles New York Chinese-American artist Kam Mak, who has received the U.S. Postal Service commission to design official American postage stamps honoring this distinctive cycle of holidays.

In Pearson’s story, she reports that for Mak: The design evokes one of his favorite memories from childhood New Year celebrations on Henry Street in New York. Firecrackers, traditionally lit to scare away evil spirits, would go off all night, Mak said. “It would start on Lunar New Year Eve, and you would hear it just continue—bap, bap, bap, bap—all night long. By the time you get up in the morning, that’s what I would do, me and my neighbors, we would run downstairs. We would kick through drifts of those red papers and there were always some that missed. And we relit them. It was just a joy!”


Americans might envision our own Christian “year-end holidays,” which we think of as a week of festivities with time off school and work. Families gather and share beloved memories. Favorite foods are prepared. People return home with high hopes and promises for the new year. That American image provides a pretty good feeling for the Chinese New Year festival, which lasts not one, but two weeks!

FLASH FORWARD TO THE FEBRUARY 24 LANTERN FESTIVAL—Each day in this two-week festival has a different traditional name and focus. Time is set aside to honor ancestors; time is devoted to eating healthier food and cleansing the body; the seventh day is set aside as “the common man’s birthday” when everyone marks getting a year older. But the final day, the Lantern Festival, brings one of the most beautiful evenings each year in streets and public squares across Asia where Chinese New Year is observed. The festival touches communities across Vietnam, Singapore and many parts of Malaysia and Indonesia. Of course, Chinese communities in the U.S. also host their own festivities. And, on this final festive day of the New Year holidays, families light beautiful lanterns (some now are incredibly elaborate) and hang them outside their homes, or carry them through the streets while visiting friends. The origins are complex and interpretations of the lanterns are many—but the main theme is hope for the new year and finally letting go of our past, flawed selves from the previous year.


Ancient Chinese statue of a snake in noble human form.The Snake is part of the complex Chinese Zodiac, which blends time, space and nature into a cycle of mythic tales that shape the world to this day. The last Year of the Snake was 2001-2002; after this year of 2013-2014, the next one will be 2025-2026.

While some snake myths reflect negative and even destructive forces—for the most part, the snake is a symbol of wisdom and often is seen as a noble and inventive force in Chinese culture. For example, one association of the snake relates to a deity credited with the invention of writing and techniques for fishing. Across thousands of years of Chinese art and literature, snakes play many fanciful roles, especially as shape shifters who occasionally take human form.

This is specifically the Year of the Water Snake—a particular spiritual focus in the calendar that has not been seen since 1953-54. That’s because the entire cycle of images in the Chinese Zodiac is associated with another rotating cycle of elements, such as “Wood,” “Metal,” “Fire” and “Water.” In Chinese spirituality, these “elements” are not atomic building blocks of matter—as the word now is understood in the West—but changeable parts of the world, each with their own mythic associations.

If you care to dig deeper into Chinese spirituality, the Year of the Water Snake leads to connections with other forces in mythology: The direction North, the season of Winter, the color black and the constellation that Chinese call the Black Tortoise, the planet Mercury, and in Chinese medicine there are associations with the human skeleton and kidneys.

CARE FOR A BEAUTIFUL CHILDREN’S BOOK? We recommend Lady White Snake: A Tale From Chinese Opera. This picture book features illustrations from Chinese opera—which is the main form in which Chinese families experience the traditional legend of the Lady White Snake. Aaron Shephard added the English text of the tale about a shape-shifting snake with noble intentions who takes the form of a beautiful woman to interact with humans.


This Lunar New Year is celebrated around the world by Chinese families—but many Asian cultures have their own interpretations of the New Year. For example, Tibetan Buddhists call the New Year Losar. (Wikipedia has a more in-depth overview of Losar.) Different foods and beverages are enjoyed. The period is shorter in Tibetan culture. Even the Dalai Lama observes this New Year—although significant sharing with Chinese culture has taken place through the millennia and this Losar on February 10 also is known as the Year of the Water Snake. In Mongolia, the holiday is called Tsagaan Sar and, while it also honors the Year of the Water Snake, many foods and customs are distinctive to that part of the world.


CAREGIVERS CALENDAR: Throughout 2013, ReadTheSpirit is publishing a wide array of stories and book to help the millions of men and women who are full-time caregivers for loved ones. One of our most popular ideas in the opening weeks of this year is an effort to completely redraw a creative Caregivers Calendar. And, one of the ideas in that fanciful new calendar is an American Snake Day. Take a look!

NATURE LOVERS: PROMOTE SNAKE-SAVING FASHIONSThe Kansas City Star has posted a commentary about the global trade in python skins. Each year, half a million python skins are explored from Asia for fashionable footwear, handbags and other accessories.

A REAL SNAKE LOVER? Thanks to the ever-watchful British press, photographs have emerged showing the owner of a small Manila zoo actually relaxing with big snakes all around him as he casually tries to read a book. Click here if you’re brave enough to read The Independent’s short report—with the photos.

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email