Chinese New Year: when Tradition Embraces New Technologies

07/02/2019

The Spring Festival unraveled – again – China’s ability to combine its thousand-year tradition with innovation and technology. More than 400 mln railway trips in 2019

 

Much like the celebration in the Western world, Chinese New Year is one of the most important events of the year and it is celebrated with fireworks, parades, concerts, and formal galas.

The Year of the Pig officially began on February 5, but celebrations started the previous night and will last until February 19, at the end of the Lantern Festival. These two weeks are known as the Spring Festival and are celebrated with family reunions by both Chinese citizens and more than a billion people around the world.

 

Chinese new year - tradition embraces technology - lion and dragon parade - cifnews

© Weibo. The Lunar New Year is now celebrated worldwide and the traditional dragon and lion parades attract millions of viewers in every city.

 

But things have changed a lot over the last few years. Especially in China where a brand-new middle-class recently emerged and where cities have gone under a total transformation over the last two decades.

However, during the Spring Festival, there is one thing that never changed: the family gatherings. Since people often live far away from their hometown, from January 21 to the end of February, all over the country, there is a travel frenzy to reach the family and spend the holidays together.

Today, the road home has become easier to travel compared with just a decade ago when the Chinese had to spend hours at train stations to get their tickets and then face multiple-hours journeys. Although the transports are still very crowded, at least now people can easily book a ticket for a high-speed train, flight, or a long-distance bus by their smartphone.

This will to gather with family for the holidays results in the Spring Festival travel rush, the chunyun, 春运, a well-known travel hysteria that affects Chinese people this period of the year.

 

Since the Festival travel season begun, railway passenger trips in China carried over 143 million people while Guangzhou alone already handled a total of 12.14 million passengers.

 

It is estimated that the 40 days-chunyun will see 413 million railway trips across the country, up 8.3% from last year. To meet this growing demand, China has been expanding its railway network for years resulting in the newly-built Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link, which connects more than 40 cities across the country.

However, during the last few Spring Festivals, a new trend emerged. Instead of traveling back to hometown, young workers in China began to invite their parents and family to the cities they live in to spend the holidays.

 

Chinese new year - tradition embraces technology - shenzhen - cifnews

© Unsplash. Lianhua West, Shenzhen. Since the Festival “reverse travel” season begun, over 3 million passengers already traveled to Shenzhen.

 

According to the China Railway, this year’s “reverse travel” for Spring Festival on busiest train routes rose 9% over last year. Moreover, Ctrip – China’s leading online travel agency – revealed that the number of trips from small cities to Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou also doubled in 2019.

Nevertheless, since China’s per capita income rose at an unprecedented rate over the last decade, travel has experienced significant growth with an increasing number of Chinese traveling overseas for their vacations, even during the Festival.

 

Ctrip forecast that 7 million Chinese tourists will travel to over 900 destinations in more than 96 countries during the New Year’s holiday with Thailand and Japan at the top among favorite destinations.

 

This group of travelers is likely to break its last year’s spending record of $70.2 billion representing a billion-dollar opportunity for luxury brands, which already launched their Lunar New Year’s campaigns in both airport duty-free shops and social media.

However, the Year of the Pig is not experiencing a change of behavior in the chunyun only. Although the hongbao’s purpose did not change a bit, its shape changed in some unimaginable way.

In China, the exchange of small gifts among friends or relatives is quite common, but on the occasion of the most important anniversaries, such as the Spring Festival, the gifts take place in a conventional form, that of a red envelope containing money.

Therefore, the hongbao, 红包, is generally a red paper envelope usually decorated with greetings. But with the advent of technology and mobile payment, the hongbao changed as well and now digital red envelopes could be delivered through many online platforms or apps.

 

Chinese new year - tradition embraces technology - hongbao - cifnews

© Sina.com. Once again this year, the “hongbao war” among tech giants began before the New Year’s Festival.

 

This year, Baidu prepared a record $ 231 million worth of red envelopes by becoming the exclusive partner of CCTV’s annual Spring Festival Gala.

For what concerns WeChat, instead, since it launched the red envelope feature in 2014, the popular messaging already confirmed to be the undisputed leader of Chinese New Year communication thanks to the hongbao exchange through its digital wallet. Every year, the app launches its Holiday Red Envelope to which users can add wishes and stickers in a customized gift package.

Last year, WeChat hongbao involved over 765 million users during the Chinese New Year and the most recent data shows that millennials sent and received most of the hongbao during the New Year’s Eve, especially in Beijing, Chongqing, and Chengdu, followed by Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

 

Data released by WeChat shows that New Year’s red envelopes now account for 14.2% of all hongbao sent annually through the platform.

 

Whether it’s a physical store or an online platform, many brands now launch many campaigns by sending their personal hongbao, which generally contain either discounts or coupons to spend.  For example, for some years now, Alibaba has included the traditional envelopes in an augmented reality (AR) game. Users can give the app access to their cameras and GPS locations in order to find floating digital hongbao. Some brands have collaborated with Alipay “hiding” these red AR envelopes in their physical stores or products, combining online and offline realities.

 

Chinese new year - tradition embraces technology - JD hongbao - cifnews

© JD.com. This year, JD.com, a Chinese e-commerce giant, used hongbao to promote hundreds of products on its platform.

 

In addition, even Ctrip entered the “hongbao war” combining tradition with innovation. The travel agency surprised everyone by proposing ,international hongbao 国际红包, containing foreign banknotes and a code to book a trip, which went sold out in less than 24 hours from the launch.

The busiest hongbao and wish exchange occurred on Monday night, during the four-hour-long Spring Festival Gala, the TV show that almost every Chinese family watches over the New Year’s Eve dinner, which recently became the single most watched television broadcast in the world.

 

Thanks to the smart use of VR, AI, and 5G network, the 2019 CCTV Spring Festival Gala set new viewers record with an audience of 1.173 billion viewers from all over  the world.

 

The 2019 China Central Television (CCTV) Spring Festival Gala – commonly abbreviated in Chinese as Chunwan 春晚 – set new viewers record as it accounted 1.173 billion viewers across all platforms, 42 million more compared to last year’s event. More than 24.8 million people watched the show from overseas, while 527 million people watched it on new media platforms such as apps, websites, video-streaming platforms, and social media.

Even if the Spring Festival Gala has been going on since 1983, the 2019 event owed its success to the use of the latest technologies in the fields of virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence (AI), and 5G network. The show, in fact, has been broadcast in 4K ultra high-definition through a 5G network while AR and AI have been used to create an immersive experience for the audience.

Under the theme “Forging Ahead in the New Era and Celebrating a Happy Year,” many acrobats, martial artists and Xiangsheng performances – a Chinese form of comedy involving a dialogue between two performers – have been hosted to celebrate not only the Year of the Pig but also the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the PRC.

 

Chinese new year - tradition embraces technology - CCTV chunwan - qufu - shandong - cifnews

© CCTV. Qufu, Shandong. This year’s gala has been staged at five different venues. Besides the main venue in Beijing, Qufu and Tai’an are among the four sub-venues, due to their significant role in the development of Chinese civilization.

 

This year again, the Lunar New Year unraveled Chinese ability to combine its thousand-year tradition with innovation and technology.

In the near future, with more migrant workers finding a home in new cities, the Spring Festival travel rush will hopefully become just a memory. New technologies will, in fact, ease family gatherings and holiday travel. Red envelopes, instead, adapted to the Chinese transition to a modern society showing how tradition can be preserved even while embracing new technologies.

The Dragon is a quickly evolving country and nothing like the stroke of New Year’s Eve midnight unravels the changing in the habits of a population. The Year of the Pig’s start marks the end of a year full of hi-tech and economic successes, but the efforts to reach the Made in China 2025 plan are surely going to unravel new Chinese unimaginable achievements but without ever disregarding tradition.

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