Ritual and Social Change: Chinese Rural–Urban Migrant Workers’ Spring Festival Homecoming as Secular Pilgrimage


Meng Li


Drawing upon Clifford Geertz’s interpretive approach to ritual, this study examines the meaning of the annual Spring Festival homecoming performed by rural-to-urban migrant workers in China. Built on participant observation of the ritual and in-depth interviews with 25 migrant workers, I suggest that the homecoming is a secular pilgrimage, the meaning of which emerges around travelers’ communication about suffering on the journey and the pursuit of an ideal “home” through communal traveling. This ritual exemplifies symbolic forms of communication used to cope with and make sense of social changes in modern societies.


Ritual, Clifford Geertz, Secular Pilgrimage, Social Change, China

In January of 2012, I traveled from Beijing to rural Henan province in Central China by train as part of a research effort. The trip was undertaken during the Spring Festival travel season, also known as chunyun in Chinese. This is a special period when people who work far away from home return to their families in celebration of the Chinese Lunar New Year (the Spring Festival). My trip started at Beijing West Railway Station, one of the largest modern railway stations in Asia. The station was crammed with people from all walks of life, as the Chinese idiom “a mountain of people, a sea of people” (renshan renhai) vividly illustrates. Outside the railway station, some passengers transformed the open square into a large hotel, where they could eat, chat, play, and sleep while waiting to board. Others walked without hurry through the closely guarded station entrance, following the slow movement of the snarled traffic, while those in a hurry shouldered their luggage, pushing their way through the crowd toward their waiting rooms. Seats available in the waiting rooms were not enough for the crowds. More people had to stand or sit on the floor than on the seats, which made moving around a difficult task. The unmistakable smell of ramen noodles, a popular food for long-distance travelers, lingered in the air. The din of conversations and TV commercials was occasionally interrupted by a formal voice over the loudspeaker, reminding passengers to watch their children and personal belongings and not to accept drinks or food from strangers. In the sea of people waiting to embark, a few exhausted passengers fell asleep on their own islands of luggage, apparently drained before the journey even started.
Every year, hundreds of millions of Chinese people embark from stations like this for their annual trips home. Although returning home for festivals is a common practice in many cultures, none can compare to the scale of the Spring Festival homecoming. In 2013, the number of passenger journeys undertaken during the Spring Festival period via train, bus, and plane reached 3.4 billion, equal to moving half of the world’ population in 40 days. This spectacular movement of travelers creates “the world’s greatest annual human migration,” an “annual journey that eclipses both Thanksgiving and Hajj” (Mitchell, 2009).

Many of the travelers are rural–urban migrant workers. Since economic reforms began in 1978, rural residents have had the opportunity to pursue better employment in urban centers. Labor migration from agriculture to industry has directly contributed to China’s recent economic boom, transforming the country into the “workshop of the world.” But the sharp increase of population mobility has given rise to the largest number of separated families in Chinese history. Of the 260 million migrant workers in China, few can settle their entire families in cities due to socioeconomic constraints (National Bureau of Statistics of China, 2013). They have to leave some family members in the countryside and visit them occasionally on short trips. For many families, the Spring Festival reunion is a once-in-a-year chance to achieve family unity.

Scholars of international migration have investigated homecoming rituals performed by transnational migrants. For example, in Klimt’s (1989) study of Portuguese migrants in Germany, she argues that the periodical return of migrants for summer festivals reveals their commitment to the native place as a response to German policies and social environment, which largely exclude guest workers from establishing permanent settlements. Salih (2002) presents a geographically similar homecoming performed by Moroccan transnational migrants in Europe, but with different meanings. By returning to the community and carrying out traditional rituals, these migrants not only reintegrate into the community, but also display their “modernity”—the increased economic benefits, social status, and individual choices after migration. Previous scholarship on the Spring Festival homecoming in China, however, abounds with general discussions of the phenomenon as a transportation problem through a sociological or demographic framework. In analyzing the reasons for the emergence of chunyun, such as population mobility, rural–urban migration, and the constraints of China’s overburdened transportation system, scholars have also proposed possible solutions (e.g., Dong & Chen, 2008; Duan, Zhu, Cui, & Chen, 2009). Less attention has been devoted to how people participating in the homecoming make sense of their experience of traveling, and what the dramatic event informs us about cultural values and social changes in contemporary China.

To address these questions, I examine the meaning of the Spring Festival homecoming from the perspective of ritual communication. Ritual, defined as the performance of structured symbolic actions that pay homage to a sacred object, is one characteristic form of cultural communication. Cultural communication of many kinds, such as ritual, social drama, and myth, aligns individuals to a social group by creating, affirming, and negotiating a shared cultural identity, and thus is constitutive of the everyday communal life (Philipsen, 1987, 2002). While the transportation perspective of the Spring Festival homecoming emphasizes the material aspects of the phenomenon, a ritual perspective highlights the meaningfulness of the physical movement in contemporary Chinese culture. Drawing upon Clifford Geertz’s (1973) conceptualization of ritual, I interpret both the symbolic and the indexical meanings of the homecoming, which I argue is ritualized as a secular pilgrimage. An analysis of migrant workers’ accounts and my observation of the homecoming suggest that the meaning of the ritual emerges around migrants’ shared corporeal experiences during the journey and the pursuit of an ideal “home” through communal traveling. I further argue that migrant workers’ return is more than a reflection of a traditional rural culture that values family unity and place attachment: it indexes migrants’ experience of dislocation and liminality in the processes of modernization as well as their longing for a united, symbolic home. By unraveling the cultural meaning and social implications of the homecoming ritual, this essay is intended to demonstrate the effectiveness of investigating culture through the lens of ritual and analyzing social change through cultural communication.

Ritual, Meaning, and Social Change

The Spring Festival homecoming is different from other types of travel, such as ordinary family visits or tourism, because of its ritualized forms and meanings. Bell (1992) argues that an event is ritualized as a result of “privileged distinction”: the establishment of its powerful status through strategically differentiating itself from other quotidian social practices in culturally meaningful ways (p. 90). Initially, the homecoming was no more than an assembly of returning passengers. But in the context of modernity and population mobility, the journey home has gradually achieved its social significance as numerous Chinese people undertake similar journeys every year and construct the meaning of the event through interpersonal and mediated communication. This ritualizing process is similar to Geertz’s (1973) famous example of the twitch versus the wink, in which both acts involve the same physical movements but the latter acquires symbolic meanings and the former does not.

Symbolic anthropologists (e.g., Munn, 1973; Turner, 1969, 1974) and communication scholars (e.g., Katriel, 1991; Katriel & Philipsen, 1981; Leeds-Hurwitz, 2002) share similar understandings of the symbolic nature of ritual. They both view ritual as a system of symbolic communication that manifests worldviews, values, and attitudes of people in a culture. Turner (1969), for example, notes that the purpose of ritual symbolization is to “make visible, audible, and tangible beliefs, ideas, values, sentiments, and psychological dispositions that cannot directly be perceived” (p. 50). Rothenbuhler (1998) and Leeds-Hurwitz (2002) also point out that ritual is comparable to language in that they both deliver cultural messages to people in a community, albeit differing in modality. Geertz (1973) was among the earliest theorists who extensively investigated the symbolic aspects of ritual, and my analysis of the Spring Festival homecoming is largely informed by his work.

Geertz (1973) advocated a semiotic concept of culture, defining it as systems of significance that humans create for themselves. Accordingly, the analysis of culture is “not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning” (p. 5). Geertz’s symbolic approach to ritual is premised upon not only the autonomy but also the interdependence of culture and social structure, the relationship between which, to quote Turner (1988), is not “unidirectional,” but “reciprocal and reflexive” (p. 22). The separation between social structure and culture enables Geertz to discuss the double-sided capacity of symbolic forms to both represent (as a model of) and shape (as a model for) reality. In the field of communication, this distinction between the of and for mode of symbols has been theorized similarly as the dialectic opposites between, for example, the representational and constitutive models of communication (Carey, 1988; Craig, 2007) or the heuristic and performative aspects of communication (Philipsen, 2002). Carey explains this formulation of Geertz in his essay A Cultural Approach to Communication as the process in which “we first produce the world by symbolic work and then take up residence in the world we have produced” (p. 30).
In Geertz’s substantial research on ritual, he made the dual aspects of symbolic forms explicit by considering ritual both as manifestations of cultural concepts and as concrete social interactions that serve as a template for living and believing. In his well-known example of the Balinese cockfight, Geertz (1973) refers to the ritual as a “paradigmatic human event.” The cockfight has few material consequences; instead, it signifies, displays, and dramatizes everyday concerns of the Balinese, such as status, masculinity, alliance, pride, and loss, rendering them all intelligible in one spotlighted event (p. 450). By participating in the ritual, in which significant cultural symbols evoke collective sentiments and imaginations, Balinese men are able to experience these cultural themes as “really real.” As Geertz argues elsewhere, in the performance of a ritual “the world as lived and the world as imagined, fused under the agency of a single set of symbolic forms, turn out to be the same world” (p. 112). I take the Spring Festival homecoming as a counterpart of the Balinese cockfight, since both are dramatizations of human experience in which the quotidian experience of being in a culture is “more powerfully articulated and more exactly perceived” (p. 443).

In addition to interpreting the symbolic meaning of the homecoming, I consider Geertz’s (1973) notion of ritual as “metasocial commentary” a useful way to illuminate the interaction between the homecoming ritual and the social environment from which it originated. For Geertz, rituals are embodiments of cultural ideals that respond to, comment on, and potentially reconfigure concrete social situations. This approach to ritual highlights its indexicality, which refers to the immediate performative aspects and social context of the ritual (Rappaport, 1979). Geertz’s early study on the funeral of a Javanese boy, made difficult by a clash between traditional beliefs and social structure in transition, exemplifies this approach to ritual as indexes to social change. The failure of the ritual indicates the already urbanized social relations among the kampong people, not congruent with their unaltered beliefs and rituals based on rural neighborhood solidarity. Though the homecoming examined in the present study also emerges in the context of urbanization, it exemplifies how traditional practices are reconstructed to adjust to changing social situations rather than the failure of ritual to accommodate social change.

Geertz’s (1973) approach to ritual not only informs the theoretical perspective of this article, but also my methodology. According to Geertz, the analysis of any cultural phenomenon is comparable to reading a literary text, which requires an explication of structures of meaning and a consideration of relevant contexts—a practice that he calls “thick description.” I attempted to achieve a thick description of the Spring Festival homecoming in three ways. First, I collected ethnographic data through observation and interviews in search of the meaning of the homecoming both collectively constructed and individually articulated. Second, my analysis extended the meaning of the ritual by connecting it to migrant workers’ accounts of migration and family separation, and in so doing, situating the homecoming within a larger social context. Finally, I examined the homecoming as a genre of cultural performance—a secular pilgrimage, to underscore the symbolic significance implied in the form of the ritual. The following section discusses the concept of secular pilgrimage, which frames my interpretation of the Spring Festival homecoming.

Secular Pilgrimage

The concept of pilgrimage had long been confined to religious trips until very recently, when the discussion on the relationship between pilgrimage and tourism opened up inquiries about pilgrimage-like travels and activities. Turner and Turner (1978) claim that in the time when traveling was difficult for the majority of laypeople in Europe, to go on a holy journey was the only way to travel away from one’s community. “[A] tourist is half a pilgrim, if a pilgrim is half a tourist,” as they famously conclude (p. 20). As traveling became a prevalent phenomenon in modern societies, the boundary between pilgrimage and tourism were further blurred. Traditional pilgrimage destinations, such as Santiago de Compostela, Medjugorje, Lourdes, and Mecca, have become popular tourist sites. Tourists and pilgrims engage in similar activities, such as sightseeing, taking pictures, and buying souvenirs (Olsen & Timothy, 2006). For tourists seeking transformation, self-discovery, or a new spiritual center, their experience of traveling resembles that of pious pilgrims (Cohen, 1992).

The convergence between pilgrimage and tourism has inspired scholars to investigate other parallel activities, including fan gathering (Alderman, 2002), sports activities (Aden, 1999), root-seeking tours (Schramm, 2004), hiking trips to tour the land (Katriel, 1995), and trips to cultural centers, such as graves, war memorials, and settings of popular films or TV shows (e.g. Brooker, 2007; Margry, 2008). For example, in Run for the Wall: Remembering Vietnam on a Motorcycle Pilgrimage, Michalowski and Dubisch (2001) offer a powerful account of the annual motorcycle journey to the Vietnam War memorial in Washington D.C. This ritual is partly a political movement to draw public attention to POW/MIA issues (Prisoners of War / Missing in Action) and partly a collective ritual of healing from Vietnam War trauma. The Run has all the elements that make it a pilgrimage: a long, difficult, and dangerous journey on motorcycles, a trip toward an “American shrine,” the performance of collective healing rituals, and the emotional suffering and psychological transformation experienced by its participants. In short, the Run is a pilgrimage to the political, cultural, and historical center of the U.S.A.

Considering the broad range of pilgrimage in the contemporary world, Morinis (1992) proposes a definition of pilgrimages based on the shared characteristics of pilgrimages of all forms: “The pilgrimage is a journey undertaken by a person in quest of a place or a state that he or she believes to embody a valued ideal” (p. 4). This definition emphasizes pilgrims’ active construction of ideals, as he argues, “The deity of the shrine is frequently an embodiment of cultural ideals, but it is the pursuit of the ideal (whether deified or not) that defines the sacred journey” (p. 2). In other words, no journey is inherently sacred; the perceived holiness of a pilgrimage is constituted through the performance of the travelers, who construct communal meanings about the journey. Morinis’ definition of pilgrimage provides a framework to understand the Spring Festival homecoming. Although the Spring Festival homecoming is a secular journey, the place to which migrant workers return embodies the ideal image of family togetherness, as well as a sense of belonging that is absent from migrants’ daily life in the city. As I will demonstrate in the rest of the essay, it is the collective pursuit of an ideal “home” that transforms a transportation problem to a national pilgrimage.


The data used in this article are based on my ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Beijing and Guoying village in Central China for a larger research project on migrant workers’ family reunions over the course of three separate visits in 2011 and 2012. I gained access to migrant workers through three means: initial direct contact with migrants in public places; attendance at a training session of domestic workers; and referrals provided by early participants. In particular, my research benefited from a migrant couple who introduced me to Guoying village and a migrant community in Beijing. Data for this article drew from open-ended interviews with 25 migrant workers and participant observation of the homecoming as I traveled from Beijing to Guoying village during the 2012 Spring Festival travel season.

Having grown up in China, the annual media coverage of the homecoming had always fascinated me. Though I had joined the journey multiple times when returning home from college to attend family reunions, the research trip in 2012 was my first journey to rural areas during the Spring Festival period. As introduced in the opening of this essay, I traveled six hours by train from Beijing to Zhengzhou, from which I took a long-distance bus to the town nearest Guoying village the next day. I wrote fieldnotes of my observation of the trip itself and my conversations with passengers on the journey.

Along with participant observation of the journey, I conducted semi-structured interviews with migrant workers about their homecoming and migration experiences. In order to maximize the depth of the interpretation of the homecoming ritual, I practiced theoretical sampling by returning to the field to conduct more research until I was confident that the data covered important themes and categories with substantial detail and variation (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Participants, 10 male and 15 female, worked in diverse occupations, mostly in manufacturing, construction, and service industries. They ranged in age from 21 to 52, and 21 of them were married, three single, and one divorced. All had close family members or relatives staying behind in the countryside, such as children, spouses, elderly parents, and siblings. Interviews with migrants took place at their workplaces, homes, or other places of their choice. I began by asking participants a series of descriptive questions about their migrant experiences (e.g., Could you describe how you become a migrant worker? What are some places that you have been to? What is your life like in the city?), and then probed into their Spring Festival homecomings and family reunion rituals through descriptive and structural questions (e.g., Could you tell me about some experiences you had on your last trip home? What are the things that you must do or prepare before leaving the city?). Interviews also included compare-contrast questions that often provoked evaluations of different situations in participants’ migrant experiences (e.g., How is life in the countryside different from life in the city? How is returning home in the Spring Festival different from family visits at other times?) (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002; Spradley, 1979). The interviews, conducted in Mandarin, lasted anywhere from 50 minutes to three hours, were audio-recorded and later transcribed for analysis.

I analyzed fieldnotes and transcribed interviews about the homecoming following Spradley’s (1979) domain analysis and Strauss and Corbin’s (1998) constant-comparison method. The analytical process involves reading through the data, identifying recurring categories, and grouping data within the categories. Among the nine semantic relationships identified by Spradley, strict inclusion (X is a kind of Y), location-for-action (X is a place for doing Y), and sequence (X is a step/stage in Y) proved useful in delineating the process of ritual performance. For example, I developed codes around “X (e.g., buying tickets, buying gifts) is a kind of preparation for going home” to analyze migrant workers’ preparative acts before leaving the city. On the other hand, I found cause-effect (X is a result of Y), rationale (X is a reason for doing Y), means-end (X is way to do Y), and attribution (X is an attribution/characteristic of Y) helpful in organizing meanings of the ritual. I developed codes around “X is a reason for leaving the countryside” and “X is a reason for going home,” for instance, to capture participants’ justification of migration and return. Following the constant-comparison method, I coded the first unit of discourse as the first category and then compared the second unit with the first category to code against it. Categories were constantly added, revised, and merged as the analysis progressed. Once the coding was complete, I organized larger themes to form an intelligible interpretation of migrant workers’ Spring Festival homecoming.

In the remainder of the article, I present three central themes that emerged from the data. The Spring Festival homecoming is meaningful to migrant workers because (a) the journey home involves suffering and endurance; (b) direct contact with people in a liminal space creates a sense of community; and (c) home is a sacred destination for migrant workers.

Suffering and Endurance on the Trip

When migrant workers talked about the journey home for the Spring Festival, they usually began with physical struggles and emotional suffering they endured. The suffering body is a classic symbol of pilgrimage. In religious pilgrimages, suffering as a result of practices, such as walking barefoot or moving on one’s knees, are seen as necessary sacrifices that will bring a secular person closer to the divine (Frey, 1998). The arduous journeys to pilgrimage centers, to quote Geertz (1973), are “not only models of what they believe, but also models for the believing of it” (p. 114, italics original). Likewise, instead of stopping migrants from returning home, the pain and discomfort involved in the trip constitute and intensify the sacredness of the journey.
When Xue Aifen, a 39-year-old female domestic worker from Gansu province, recollected her recent torturous experience of buying tickets, she stamped her feet on the ground in anger. In January 2011, she spent three cold mornings waiting outside a ticket booth in order to get a ticket. Her feet soon turned numb, but she was more upset when the ticket person told her, again and again, that there was no ticket to any place near her village:

I arrived at the ticket window at seven on the first day. The time was too late for a ticket. So on the second day, I waited in line at six. After several hours when it was finally my turn, I was told that there was no ticket. I was in despair! The cold was unbearable. I could not stand still because of the pain in my feet. I pulled myself to the side and almost began to cry. I said to myself that I need a ticket to go home and I will come earlier tomorrow morning, maybe at five. I came at four thirty instead. Nobody was there. I wanted to leave, but was so afraid that I could not get a ticket this time. So I stayed, in complete darkness.

Xue Aifen had worked in Beijing and Shanghai for 11 years. At her home in rural Gansu, her husband planted crops and operated a mill, while her youngest son was still in school. Located on the edge of the Liupan mountain range, Xue Aifen’s village was 1600 km away from Beijing. A trip home took more than 15 hours by train, and she could only afford to visit her family once a year during the Spring Festival. Fortunately, on the third day of waiting, she acquired a ticket to a city a few hours away from her hometown, spending almost half of her monthly salary.

Purchasing tickets is just one obstacle that migrant workers have to overcome when they go on the journey home. The train journey is long, crowded, and traumatic. All my interviewees experienced minor or severe physical discomfort during the journey, especially when they could not get a seat ticket. To ensure timely transportation of passengers, trains are always heavily overloaded during the Spring Festival travel season. It is common for migrant workers to spend 15–20 hours or more, standing on the train or sitting on the ground squashed up against other passengers. Zhao Hongyun, a 28-year-old worker from Anhui province, described her experience:

After getting tickets, sometimes you don’t have a seat. Several people are crammed in one seat, and the aisles are full of people. Many migrants like us go home in the festival season, all carrying their quilts. You cannot move at all, let alone go to the restroom … When you need to go to the restroom or get some water, the whole compartment of people stops you from moving. You may feel sleepy at night, but have to sit on the floor. People even sleep under the seats. There are just too many people.

My research trip was not as crowded as Zhao Hongyun described, but the compartment was still filled with passengers, and the only spaces were piled high with suitcases, sacks of quilts, and boxes of gifts prepared for people at home. Some passengers without seats bought new stools before getting on the train or sat on their own suitcases. Two young female migrants who could not find a spot on the aisle crammed into the narrow linking area between the cars, huddling together against a closed carriage door. They giggled while playing games on cell phones, forgetting the discomfort for the moment. Moving through the crowd in the aisle was difficult, since one sometimes had to pass over the passengers who refused to stand up and move out of the way. “Your whole body seems to “float up” (piaoqilai),” as one migrant said. Sleeping on the train was impossible for those without seats, as passengers and train attendants moved around all the time within the already overcrowded space. According to my participants, during the lengthy period of travel, many passengers suffer from exhaustion, swollen feet, or bruised legs. Motion sickness is also common, an extra price paid for the journey home.

The discourse of the suffering body is pervasive in migrants’ stories about the homecoming. Even arriving at the destination does not always end the physical hardship. Many migrants have to travel from the nearest train station to their own villages in the countryside by bus or taxi. A construction worker Wang Dongming recalled his journey home in 2008 when the whole country was beset by strong snowstorms. When his train arrived at a town near his village, he found himself trapped at the railway station since all buses and cabs stopped running because of the snow. Usually he could call a taxi for about 40 or 50 yuan, but at that time nobody was willing to take him home no matter how much he would pay. Dongming ended up walking for hours on icy roads with his heavy luggage before his relative, whom he phoned earlier, found him a taxi.

Despite the troubles and discomfort on the trip, most migrant workers look forward to returning home. A few participants even mentioned that the thought of going home sometimes had the magic power to alleviate the physical and emotional discomfort on the trip. In the words of one migrant, “When you think of home, you will feel better.” Liu Xiaojing, a young convenience-store worker from Henan, told me that traveling is always difficult for her as she suffers from motion sickness. She remembered all her first experiences with a new mode of transportation: first time taking a bus, first time traveling on a train, and first time sitting in a car. None of them was pleasant for her. But when she went home for the festival, the excitement conquered the discomfort:

I felt very good when I went home, in a really happy mood, no carsickness at all. (She chuckled.) I was told that if you had a happy mood, you wouldn’t feel sick. I usually have to take medicine, but I didn’t this time. Everything was fine and I was even eating snacks on the bus.

Xiaojing’s experience seems to be insignificant compared with the much more intense physical pain and spiritual transformation involved in some religious pilgrimages. But it equally reveals the goal of a pilgrimage, in which participants’ bodily pain is transformed into perseverance and pleasure by the spiritual power of the god or the ideal. For migrant workers, the suffering during the trip home is eased by the anticipation of arriving home, where they will be welcomed by separated family members.

Communal Traveling: Liminality and Communitas

The journey home places migrant workers in an “in-between” time and space separated from the mundane life in the city. This transitional state, conceptualized by Victor Turner (1969) as liminality, is a threshold condition that sets individuals free from conventions and social rules. The homecoming exemplifies both the temporal and spatial dimensions of liminality. In the temporal dimension, the journey is a social transitional period for migrant workers. In the spatial dimension, strangers come into direct contact in a liminal space between the city and the countryside, creating a simultaneous community.

The travel season holds special implications for migrant workers. About one or even two months before they leave the city, they begin a series of preparative acts, including discussing the upcoming journey with fellow workers and family members, preparing gifts and tickets, finishing up work, asking for breaks or wages, or negotiating resignation. These “rites of separation” resemble the performance of ritual actions in the preliminal stage of a rite of passage, which symbolically break the association with the previous social condition (van Gennep, 1960). Since most migrants only take temporary jobs in the city, the end of a lunar new year is the time for important life decisions: Should I continue the same job or not next year? Should I send my children back for school in the countryside? Can I still work in the city if my parents find a fiancé for me during the festival? Answers to these questions determine how they will say farewell to the city. A typical scene in the Spring Festival homecoming involves migrant workers carrying a large amount of luggage with them. Without a permanent dwelling in the city, workers who may not return have to take their entire personal belongings home, including clothes for all seasons and bedding, in addition to gifts purchased for family members. These big and small bags (dabao xiaobao), as my participants described them, are visible reminders of their shared migrant identity and the unstable living conditions in the city.

The spatial dimension of liminality is represented by migrant workers’ experience on the train, the main performative space of the Spring Festival journey. As with all liminal spaces, railway stations and trains can be viewed as danger because they embody uncertainty and risk. Passengers are vulnerable during the Spring Festival travel rush since theft cannot be easily detected in crowds. Although the railway system enacts certain rules to govern passengers’ behaviors on the train, during this special period, these rules often go unheeded. Passengers must resort to collective resolution of conflicts over seats, space, and movement occurring in an overcrowded compartment. The shared goal and experience of going home enable temporary relationships with co-liminars on the train—a sense of communitas (Turner, 1969) or participatory communality (Bell, 1992, p. 222).

When I traveled from Beijing to rural Henan, I witnessed how complete strangers gradually formed a community. When the door of a compartment opened, a large number of passengers crammed into the narrow space on the train. Passengers holding standing tickets occupied all the aisles between rows of seats and the connection spaces between compartments. It took a long time for a migrant couple to find their seats, which had been taken by passengers with “no seat” tickets. Babies suffering from the stale air in the stuffy compartment wailed one after another, a scene that perhaps resonates with most parents who have traveled with small children. A few passengers chose to immediately fall asleep to avoid the noise, thus finding a bit of solitude amid the crowd. A train attendant pushed her cart around the train, selling snacks and boxed lunches, while passengers had to squeeze aside even more for her to pass. But the tension inside the train slowly disappeared as time passed by, when passengers trapped in the limited space started to share their seats with standing neighbors, chat with other passengers, or even play cards together. Guo Zhen, a middle-aged female worker from Heilongjiang province, described her experience of socializing with strangers on the train:

We all talk with each other, no matter where you’re from. Because we’re all hurrying home and we share the same feelings. We chat about what we will do to celebrate the New Year.

In this short excerpt, Guo Zhen discussed some commonalities among travelers: a shared purpose of traveling, shared experience on the train, and shared emotions. As Bell (1992) points out, “[r]itualization cannot turn a group of individuals into a community if they have no other relationships or interests in common” (p. 222). Travelers acknowledge that no matter who they are and where their journeys end, home is their final destination and family reunion is the ultimate goal. Released from arduous work and an unpleasant living environment in the city, migrant workers build bonds with other passengers who have similar expectations of the delights of home.

Instances of communitas also occurred at railway stations. Zhao Ling, a female worker from Shanxi province, recalled her recent trip during the Spring Festival. After getting off a bus near the railway station, she lost her way until a young couple approached her:

They said, “No worries. We’re going to the station and you can follow us.” After arriving at the station, they helped me find the waiting area. They actually sent me there. After a while they came back again, warning me not to go with those who claimed they could get me on the train earlier. I was fortunate to meet them.

Such stories of spontaneous help, similar to previous examples of communitas on the train, correspond to religious pilgrims’ experience, as Turner (1974) quotes, “Love, humility, and true brotherhood was almost a physical feeling wherever I turned…All ate as One, and slept as One” (p. 204). These passengers accented the oneness not under one god, but under the same ideal of family reunion and similar experience as migrants and travelers.

The sense of communitas at the liminal phrase is more than a spontaneous creation of passengers. The broadcasting or television systems installed on a train constantly confirm passengers’ communal experience of traveling. When a train leaves the station, the announcer usually greets passengers warmly:

If a train ticket is an invitation, you are our distinguished guests. Welcome to the train, our temporary big family…Our journey starts now and here, but our friendship will extend endlessly with the radio waves. You will make new friends on the train. As an old saying goes, “To treasure this encounter even though we are strangers.” It was destined that we would get together on the train. (Qu, 2007, para. 4)

I have heard greetings like this many times when traveling by train in China both during the Spring Festival and at other times. As a representative of the crew, the announcer encourages the passengers to reexamine their relationships with fellow passengers and maintain a harmonious order within the limited social space. The passengers are reminded that although they may not know each other before the trip, the train offers an opportunity for them to engage with each other. Sharing the same space and following the same rules, a group of total strangers may become friends and even establish family-like relationships. These instructions are more effective in the Spring Festival travel rush, since most passengers are preoccupied by anxiety in the moving crowd. After a train departs, train attendants provide water to passengers, a ritualistic welcome practiced for many years. By reframing interpersonal relationships in the compartments through verbal performances and ritual practices, greetings of this kind create a friendly and welcoming atmosphere on the train, functioning as a form of institutional control to maintain social order in a liminal space.

In some newly built trains, televisions have replaced radio broadcasting to accompany passengers on their journey. During the Spring Festival travel period, advertisements and programs relevant to the theme of “going home” are repeatedly broadcast in compartments. One example that I documented during my trip from Beijing to Zhengzhou was a narrative-style advertisement featuring the Spring Festival reunion between a retired father and his three children. All the children informed the father in the phone calls that they could not return for the reunion because of work. Apparently disappointed by their decisions, the father showed his understanding and encouraged them to take care of themselves. When he sat down in front of a whole table of dishes, immersed in loneliness, all the children returned to give him a joyful surprise. The advertisement ends with the whole family celebrating the reunion, while the promoted product can be seen nearby. Commercial or public-interest advertisements centered on the reunion theme are popular in the Spring Festival travel season. This one is noteworthy in that it previews the process of family reunion as passengers travel on the journey home. The reunion between the elderly parent and his adult children reiterates the symbolic meaning of traveling as a practice of filial piety and an expression of familial love. At the same time, those who travel for other purposes are reminded of their indisputable obligation of returning home.

Home as a Sacred Destination

Migrant workers’ homecoming has a serious goal: reunification of family members and reenactment of traditions in the festival. As opposed to a typical religious pilgrimage in which all pilgrims travel from diverse places to the same shrine, such as Santiago de Compostela or Mecca, migrant workers undertake different routes traveling to different places. But the homecoming is always a journey toward what many migrants consider to be sacred—home. In this section, I consider what the destination means to migrant workers. Morinis (1992) defines a pilgrimage centre as a place where pilgrims encounter the intensified ideal that they cannot find elsewhere. My analysis suggests that migrant workers’ home embodies the ideal of attachment, belonging, and rootedness absent from their everyday life in the city.

The connection between migrant workers and their homes is complicated. Although urbanization has given migrants opportunities to physically leave the countryside, the place continuously draws them back. Chinese migrants’ attachment to the home of origin, as they elaborately expressed in the interviews and perform in the reunion, echoes the enduring Chinese culture of place attachment (Fei, 1947/1992; Stafford, 2000). My participants sometimes referred to their places of origin as their “old roots” (laogenr). No matter poor or rich, they will never forget or abandon their homes. No matter how long they stay in cities, they are still the people nurtured by the land. The Chinese saying “falling leaves return to their roots” (luoye guigen) is a vivid expression of this feeling of attachment. As one worker said, “There is no other place like home. Falling leaves have to return to the roots. We will return to this place in the end. This is a very strong feeling.”

I got to know a migrant family from Henan province in the summer of 2011. The husband, Wang Gui, was a construction worker and his wife, Wang Minxia, a domestic worker. The couple had been in Beijing for more than 10 years. Having already bought a small apartment in a satellite city near Beijing, they are regarded as an exceptional example of migration among friends and coworkers. With no close family members left behind in the countryside except siblings, they did not have the same obligation to return for the Spring Festival. Yet to my surprise, the couple still went home every two or three years to visit relatives and take care of their shabby old house in the countryside. When asked why the trip was necessary, the couple explained that the village is their “old root.” The old house in the village cannot be replaced by any other “homes,” including the new apartment in the city. “No one will work as a migrant for the entire life,” Mingxia said. “The old home is the only place we will finally return.” When I visited their well-furnished and cozy apartment in a newly built residential community near Beijing, I started to wonder whether the couple will go back to the countryside or not in the future. But the old house that they maintain and periodically return to still symbolizes their attachment and commitment to the native place, a tie that bonds migrant workers with their past.

The couple’s story reveals another aspect prevalent in migrant workers’ conception of home. Since they cannot identify themselves as urban citizens, they have to invoke their places of origin as a way to define who they are. As a group, migrant workers have been referred to as the “floating population” (liudong renkou), which indicates their mobility and liminal position between the city and the countryside. While migrants describe homes as old roots that nurtured them, they use the word “drifting” (piaobo or piaozhe) to illustrate their experience in the city.

When I first met Liu Yang, a 27-year-old factory worker from Henan, he had just left an electronic factory in Shenzhen. After working away from home for eight years, he was drained by the tedious work on the assembly line. Both his body and his heart were tired, as he described. He complained about the close supervision and strict discipline in his factory, especially the factory boss’ indifference towards sick or injured workers. He told me that after years of hard work in the city, he realized that he was merely a tool for other people to make money:

You feel disappointed when you’re alone, away from home. Always drifting. I’m always drifting outside. After working in the city for years, I have learned my lesson. I’m only a tool. I don’t have life insurance or benefits. I work hard but don’t earn much. If I were sick, they could think of many ways to push me off.

Liu Yang’s experience of drifting in the city reflects a dilemma of China’s internal migration. While market reforms have facilitated peasants’ migration, the state still constrains their possibility of becoming urban citizens. Clear boundaries exist within the urban labor market, which is open to migrant workers only to the extent that “targeted groups are channeled to low-paying jobs and jobs not desired by urbanites” (Fan, 2003 p. 27). Most migrants centralize in labor-intensive or high-risk occupations in construction, manufacturing, and service industries. A large number of them suffer from exploitation in the labor market in the form of wage inequality, uncompensated overtime, and wage default. When I asked Liu Yang and other interviewees whether the city gives them a sense of home, all of them said no. Another male worker from Shanxi compared Beijing to his hometown, saying “the home here [in Beijing] is a place where you sleep, and the home there [in the countryside] is the root you will finally return to…Without your purse, you are nothing in Beijing.”

Dreams of returning home entail dreams of family unity. In Chinese, “home” and “family” are signified by the same word—jia— and thus the attachment to home as a place of residence and the yearning for familial connection can be simultaneously communicated when they express their homesickness (xiangjia). During a casual conversation with Guo Wei, a 36-year-old construction worker who traveled back to Guoying village for the reunion, I asked whether he missed home while working in the city:

When you’re away from home, do you miss home?
Guo Wei:
I call them all the time. I can chat with them when I call.
Did she talk on the phone as well? (I pointed to his three-year-old daughter who was eating sunflower seeds.)
Guo Wei:
Of course. (He laughed). One time I asked her, “Do you miss daddy?” “Yes, I miss you very much.” I asked her, “What do you want when I go home?” “Buy me a floral skirt so that I can wear it all the time,” she said.

I was deeply touched by his longing for family, although, as with most of my male participants, he did not express his feeling of homesickness directly. Since admitting homesickness is sometimes regarded as a weakness among migrant workers (Jacka, 2005), married male workers tended to respond to my question about homesickness implicitly, often discussing instead the actions they would take to overcome homesickness, stating “Cell phones are pretty convenient these days and we can call each other whenever we want”; “Our workers can get together, drink, and play poker, so you can forget that you are not with your wife and children”; and “It’s not like that we never visit home again. We can go back to see our families if we really miss them.” In Guo Wei’s example, he used reported speech from his daughter, who straightforwardly voiced her attachment to her father. In this way, he conveyed his own sentiment of yearning for familial love without stating explicitly how strongly he missed his family members.

Migrant workers’ home attachment is both an articulation of traditional Chinese values and a reference to their unsatisfactory experience in the city. In the opening of his classic book on rural China, Fei (1947/1992) explains that country people were often described as being “soiled” (tuqi), because they “cannot do without the soil” and “their very livelihood is based upon it” (p. 37). In traditional rural China, peasants were attached to their lands and tended to stay in the same place from birth to death. People’s attachment to soil reinforced the solidarity of kinship, as Confucius instructed: “While parents are alive, one should not travel to distant places” (fumu zai, bu yuanyou). But my reading of home, a key symbol in the homecoming ritual, suggests that migrant workers’ place attachment is more than the continuation and reproduction of cultural traditions. For the younger generation of migrant workers, their attachment to the land is not a material one since their life is separated from the land. Unlike their parents and grandparents, most young workers have not even worked on the land. The emotional attachment to the soil acquires new symbolic implications: migrant workers’ pursuit of a sense of safety, belonging, and family unity not provided by the “urban jungle” they live in. In other words, the sacred destination that the Spring Festival homecoming honors is an important reference point for understanding migrant workers’ identities, displacement in the city, and family separation.


In this essay, I argue that the Spring Festival homecoming, a byproduct of China’s internal migration, has transformed from a transportation phenomenon to a nationally practiced ritual. If we scrutinize the scale, process, meaning, and individual experience of the journey, we can easily conclude that the homecoming possesses some basic characteristics of a pilgrimage: temporary withdrawal from conventions and social rules, moving from the center of mundane life to a sacred periphery, communities, ordeal, individual transformation, and so forth (Turner & Turner, 1978). In particular, my interpretation of the ritual focuses on the “sacralization” of the journey home through the construction of symbolic meanings around physical and emotional suffering, communal traveling, and the pursuit of an ideal “home.” This ritual not only displays symbolically some significant aspects of contemporary Chinese society, such as modernity and mobility, but also produces the collective subjectivity of the ritual participants. Similar to the cockfight for the Balinese, the Spring Festival homecoming can be viewed as a paradigmatic human event for the Chinese, creating a story that they can “tell themselves about themselves” (Geertz, 1973, p. 448).

The valued ideals constituted in the homecoming are partly cultural. Migrant workers whom I interviewed referred to the Spring Festival as a time to experience “the heavenly joy of family unification” (tianlun zhile). Family relationships here are connected with the order of heaven (tianlun) in the sense that the unity and harmony of the family will bring order to the society and the universe. The homecoming from this perspective is a model of the still prevalent cultural values that privilege family unity, order, and place attachment. The ideals are also specific to the migrant group. Working away from home and being separated from loved ones make a “normal” family life under the same roof a remote possibility. The unpleasant working and living conditions in the city further weaken migrant workers’ sense of belonging to the families and communities from which they sprang. The spectacular movement of population serves as “sentimental education” for migrants to pursue a sense of belonging, a model for people to imitate (Geertz, 1973, p. 449). The performance, in turn, shapes Chinese people’s perception of collective values and evokes shared nostalgia at the turn of the year. Through the performance of the homecoming ritual, both participants in and spectators of the great population movement rediscover the social principles of family unity and proximity that have been disrupted by modernization and population mobility, while reflecting on their everyday life uncertainty.
Since one characteristic of ritual is repetition, a ritual tends to present itself as the enduring expression of cultural traditions (Bell, 1997). The analysis of the homecoming offers nuances to the interaction between ritual and social changes in the form of “metasocial commentary.” The ritual is indexical to at least three aspects of social transformation in contemporary China. I noted that the journey signals migrant workers’ lack of full citizenship rights in the city. In addition, the pilgrimage is a collective response to the massive family separation of children from migrant parents, husbands from wives, and adult children from elderly parents. The dispersal of families has become one of the most severe social problems in China, as family separation greatly impedes the fulfillment of family obligations and duties. As family historian John Gillis (1996) argues, when the functional family becomes fragile, the symbolic family that people create and imagine through myth, ritual, and image becomes stronger and more desirable. The Spring Festival homecoming is such a case.

The third aspect of social change that the Spring Festival homecoming reflects is the complexity of China’s modernization. Given that traditional Chinese culture largely discourages individual mobility, the rural–urban migration is viewed as a manifestation of the individualization of Chinese society, a process of “the disembedment of the individual from previously all-encompassing social ties, especially that of the patriarchal order” (Yan, 2011, p. 208). Yet the unprecedented Spring Festival homecoming shows that traditional practices of festival celebration and values of family unity are utilized to maintain family bonds that are disrupted in the process of modernization. One concept that can illuminate this paradox is liminality. Thomassen (2009) summarizes that the concept of liminality has been applied at individual, group, and societal levels, beyond the scope of transitional rites. For example, minority groups, such as immigrants and refugees, are liminal because they are “betwixt and between home and host, part of society, but sometimes never fully integrated” (p. 19). Societies in war, internal conflicts, political instability, and other transitional periods can also be viewed as being in a liminal situation. Based on this study, I propose that the liminality displayed in the pilgrimage of homecoming indexes both the experience of migrant workers and the situation of China in social transition. There is no guarantee that the liminal condition will only be transitory, at least for this generation.

The present study offers another example of how ritual communication mediates social changes and cultural values in contemporary world. Rituals of unification of many kinds implicate modernity, separation, and population mobility. The nostalgia and sense of community evoked in reunions, often viewed as part of “tradition,” are themselves signifiers of social change (Cheal, 1988; Ikeda, 1998; Seltzer, 1998). Specifically, as Ikeda maintains, “reunion-like” phenomena often occur unexpectedly, as some traditional festivals or ceremonies that are not named as reunions now bring back people who travel far away from their “physical and metaphysical homes” (p. 167). By orchestrating culturally specific symbols, patterns, and their significance, these rituals give form to our increasingly individualized, and sometimes disorganized, experiences in modern societies, constructing a meaningful reality for the participants.

To argue that the Spring Festival homecoming is a secular pilgrimage does not imply that every migrant worker’s dream is going to be fulfilled by the reunion. In fact, a few migrant workers that I interviewed had deep reservations about returning home for the reunion. They even questioned the meaning of going home and considered the reunion to be an unnecessary family obligation. These migrants are sometimes referred to as the “home-fear group” (kongguizu). Reasons for not being willing to return include difficulty in buying tickets, high expenditure in the reunion, opportunities to make more money during the festival, the fear of being pressed to get married by parents, and so forth. Conversely, they expressed a similar longing for families in the countryside and recalled their past enthusiasm for returning home. Family and community members also had different attitudes toward migrants’ failure to return. Some showed understanding of their personal situations, while others criticized them for “not caring about their families.” Future research could examine further the multifaceted meaning of the Spring Festival homecoming, as well as the contested meaning of home, by focusing on those who fear returning home.

Another possible direction for future research has to do with the role that mediated discourses play in the ritualization of the homecoming. My observation of the advertisement on the train is just one example of how the ritual has become a symbolic resource for creating shared experiences. In fact, every year during the chunyun period, news media devote daily special coverage to the most recent conditions of the Spring Festival homecoming, and discussions about purchasing tickets and preparing for the journey occur through all media outlets. Humorous videos and serious public-interest advertisements are also constantly created, forming a communicative web in which the Chinese voice their collective home attachment while learning, to paraphrase Geertz (1973) again, what to feel as an individual living in a transitional society. When I asked my participants to describe their journeys home, some mentioned that their stories were not very different from those portrayed on TV. These comments mark the inevitable power of media in modeling migrants’ homecoming experiences.

By exploring the symbolic processes of the homecoming ritual in China, I hope this ethnographic account has shown the particular means and meanings of some communication practices important in Chinese culture, and has emphasized the constitutive role of communication in social change. Through performing the homecoming ritual and communicating the meaning of the practice, participants of the ritual enact and negotiate their membership in the community. In this process, communication does “cultural work” (Philipsen, 2002) by transforming the harsh physical realities of the journey into a large-scale transcendent activity. Geertz (1973) once stated that “the imposition of meaning on life is the major end and primary condition of human existence” (p. 434). The homecoming ritual, as with reunion-like rituals around the world, demonstrates the continuous necessity of creating and using symbolic forms of communication to cope with and make sense of the ever-changing social realities, to tell our stories to ourselves and others.


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