What is Chinese Labor Day (劳动节 Láodòngjié) and how is it celebrated?

Have you ever wondered how Labor Day is celebrated in China, or wanted to learn more about the modern pressures of Chinese work culture? In this article, we explore common celebratory practices for this national holiday and explore the state of modern Chinese work culture.

a chinese-style propoganda poster showing a group of smiling workers in black and white waving red flags and streamers against a city skyline

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What is Chinese Labor Day?

International Workers' Day, also called Labor Day or 国际劳动节 (Guójì Láodòngjié) in Chinese, is an international holiday that is generally celebrated on May 1st each year in over 80 countries worldwide. It celebrates the achievements of the workers of the world.

Since this holiday is also celebrated on May 1st in China, it is sometimes referred to as 五一节 (Wǔ-Yī Jié) or simply 五一 (Wǔ-Yī) in Chinese, an alternative name which is frequently translated into English as “May Day.”

a young female chinese factory worker wearing a blue uniform and hat standing in an electronics assembly line holding a cellphone with gloved hands

Chinese Labor Day is a May 1st holiday that celebrates the contributions of workers of all types.

History of International Workers' Day

The origins of International Workers' Day began in the United States in 1886 when workers across the country walked out of their jobs in protest of long working hours, demanding an eight-hour day.

This early activism later evolved to fighting for further rights and more humane labor practices with a focus on the abolishment of child Labor, the demand for fairer and safer working conditions and more workers’ rights, as well as the idea of having a “weekend.”

a print of the Great Railway Strike of 1886 showing railway cars on tracks with a crowd of people swarming around them on the ground and several men sitting on top of them

International Workers Day grew out of earlier workers’ rights movements in the USA.

Labor Day and the PRC

The first Labor Day activity in China is said to have been held on May 1, 1920. Then, between 1921 and 1922, activists established centers to educate ordinary workers, organized unions, and pushed for better conditions for everyday industrial workers.

Just a month after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Government Administration Council of the Central People's Government (中央人民政府政务院 Zhōngyāng Rénmín Zhèngfǔ Zhèngwùyuàn) officially declared May 1st to be Labor Day.

an old fashioned color chinese propaganda poster showing a May 1st Chinese Labor Day celebration parade with banners and red Chinese flags and industrial imagery in the background

The roots of Chinese Labor Day can be traced back to before the founding of the People’s Republic.

How is Labor Day celebrated in China today?

Labor Day was originally a one-day holiday in China, but it has since gone through many different changes.

A five-day affair?

In 1999, the Chinese State Council (国务院 Guówùyuàn) decided to increase the duration of Labor Day and make it part of a “Golden Week” triad, meaning that it would be a seven-day holiday, along with Chinese New Year and National Day. However, in 2008, Labor Day was stripped of its “Golden Week” title and officially became a three-day holiday.

However, in March 2019, China’s State Council once again announced that Labor Day 2019 would span a total of four days.

For the years 2020 and 2021, the State Council stated that it would be a five-day holiday covering May 1st - 5th, suggesting that this longer holiday length may become a permanent fixture of Labor Day celebrations going forward.

a chinese man sitting on a rock looking to the right of the photograph while a girl stands behind him holding up a camera taking a picture of the karst mountain peaks and river in front of them

Chinese Labor Day is a five-day holiday, providing domestic workers with the perfect opportunity to travel and relax.

Golden Week and the economic boom

Labor Day, along with the other holidays that are referred to as “Golden Weeks,” play a huge economic role in China. The longer paid holiday period means that more and more families are able to use this break to make long-distance family visits or travel for pure leisure.

Many businesses also take advantage of this holiday to sell products at discounted prices.

It is generally a fun-filled period as people enjoy their break, engaging in a variety of leisure activities, such as traveling to their family home, eating out with friends and visiting domestic attractions.

Consequently, the Labor Day holiday is a period of greatly heightened travel activity which helps support China’s domestic tourism market. In fact, after its extension to 4 days in 2019, travel agencies reported a huge increase in outbound flight bookings.

Chinese tourists visit great wall in golden week

Holidays like Chinese Labor Day generate massive amounts of revenue for China’s domestic tourism industry.

Modern pressures of Chinese work culture

Despite all the hype about a seven-day holiday to celebrate workers, many Chinese office workers (上班族 shàngbānzú) struggle with a heavy workload throughout the year.

996 work culture controversy

If you have any type of Chinese social media or are generally in touch with Chinese news, you might have already heard about the 996 working hour system (996工作制 jiǔjiǔliù gōngzuò zhì). This consists of working 12 hours a day, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.

996 is a work culture that is implemented mainly in Chinese tech companies, and that reached its controversial peak when Chinese tech tycoon and Alibaba founder Jack Ma praised it and encouraged workers to see it as a “blessing,” making international headlines.

Jack Ma’s comments gave rise to a lot of outrage on Chinese social media, resulting in an anti-996 protest which was launched on Github, Microsoft’s Internet hosting website for software development.

This was quite an influential event that led to broader recognition of the harmful nature of excessive and unfair work cultures like 996 across various sectors of Chinese society, from business to academia. It was so influential that in 2021, 996 was ruled illegal by China’s Supreme People’s Court, sparking further discussion about the need to improve Chinese work culture.

Work-life balance

Despite the movement towards a healthier work culture, many workers are still frequently expected to work overtime (加班 jiābān). Technically, according to China's labor laws, a standard work day is eight hours long, with a maximum of 44 hours a week. Any work beyond that requires extra pay for overtime.

However, with many people using apps like WeChat for both personal and professional purposes, it is not uncommon to be expected to answer work related messages outside of office hours. This creates a rather blurry boundary between work and personal life, leading to burnout and improper rest.

Work-related activities after hours often occur in the form of dinners out with the boss, day trips on the weekend with the team, or KTV nights at the local bar with colleagues. Needless to say, this is not considered “work,” so no one is expected to receive compensation.

It has been argued that Chinese society and culture are collectivist, meaning that they place greater importance on community and collective collaboration and harmony. While after-hours activities might be presented as “voluntary,” many Chinese working professionals know they must attend in order to show their seriousness about their position and their loyalty to the business they work for.

restaurant serving chinese baijiu

Chinese workers are often expected to attend a variety of social activities after official working hours have ended.

Want to better understand Chinese work culture?

For a more detailed guide on working and landing a job in China, check out our article on working in China.

Language plays an integral part in any culture – so if you are interested in living and working in China, it is paramount that you learn the language in order to better understand the country’s cultural norms.

No matter whether you’re interested in China for personal or professional reasons, why not consider enrolling in CLI’s one-on-one Online Program and start learning Chinese from the comfort of your own home today?

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Chinese Labor Day vocabulary

国际劳动节Guójì LáodòngjiéInternational Labour Day
五一节Wǔ-Yī JiéMay Day
庆祝qìngzhùto celebrate
放假fàngjiàto have a holiday / be off work
休息xiūxíto rest
工作与生活的平衡gōngzuò yǔ shēnghuó de pínghéngWork-life balance
集体主义jítǐ zhǔyìcollectivism
加班jiābānto work overtime
996工作制jiǔjiǔliù gōngzuòzhì"996 work system"
上班族shàngbānzúoffice workers
歧视qíshìto discriminate
国务院GuówùyuànState Council
中央人民政府政务院Zhōngyāng Rénmín Zhèngfǔ ZhèngwùyuànCentral People's Government Administration Council

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