It’s Year-end Party Season For Chinese Companies — Do Workers Like Them?
As the youngest member of her team at work, Scarlett Sun was tasked with performing a K-pop dance with two other young female employees at their company’s year-end party ahead of the Lunar New Year in 2023.
Known as nianhui in China, the year-end party is a major fixture of Chinese corporate calendars. They usually take the form of evening banquets, with big companies even renting out arenas and performance venues.
Like the team-building events in Chinese corporate culture, year-end parties are meant to build camaraderie among colleagues. But some Chinese workers say they don’t like them because of the stress they cause.
According to a late 2023 report by the Chinese online recruitment platform Lagou, 54% of the 793 interviewees expressed a reluctance to participate in corporate parties, while the rest look forward to such events.
The primary reason for the reluctance is aversion towards socializing, while around a third of interviewees blamed the pressure to participate in performances.
Though Sun did not want to participate in the dance, her supervisor told her she had no choice — each department in their Shanghai company was competing for cash prizes.
“I was told that we were not just dancing for ourselves, but striving to win glory for the department,” said Sun, who only gave Sixth Tone her English name for privacy reasons. The supervisor expected them to rehearse during their free time.
As China enters this year’s company year-end party season, many Chinese workers with similar experiences are lavishing praise on “Johnny Keep Walking!,” a fish-out-of-water comedy film released on Dec. 29. Many say the film has captured China’s workplace culture and idiosyncrasies, especially in relation to year-end parties.
The film, whose Chinese name means “Year-End Party Never Stops,” climbed to the top of China’s box office over the weekend, amassing 642 million yuan ($89 million) as of Friday. The film has dominated social media discussions since its release, with a rating of 8.2 out 10 on review website Douban.
In the film, the main character Johnny, played by prolific actor and director Da Peng, grapples with office politics and corporate jargon as he is promoted from his factory job in the countryside to a human resources job at company headquarters in the city.
Clips of Johnny exposing his company’s problems at the year-end party have gone viral. “Everyone can find themselves in the film. I think I might be the young woman at the end who couldn’t attend the annual party because of overtime work,” one Douban comment reads.
The climactic scene is inspired by a real incident in 2019 when several employees of the former private education giant New Oriental Education “roasted” company management and workplace culture in a song at their annual party, which quickly went viral.
Netizens expressed their delight with the song’s acerbic lyrics, such as “Hardworking people, what do we achieve, if those who write the PowerPoints are the ones to succeed?”
There are differing accounts of the origins of company year-end parties. According to Su Yong, a professor at the School of Management at Fudan University, the tradition was introduced to China by foreign enterprises, which used it to improve the relationship between employees and management.
Others say the tradition can be traced back to “Weiya,” the traditional Chinese festival celebrated on the 16th of the 12th lunar month, when people burn spirit money and incense for Tudigong, or the earth god.
The tradition gradually developed into an occasion for business owners to show appreciation for their employees and to wish for more business in the new year.
As the country’s economy took off during the “reform and opening-up” period, the year-end party became common practice among companies to celebrate their success, boost employee morale, and enhance their public image. These parties became increasingly extravagant, with big firms often inviting celebrities to perform or even arranging overseas holidays for staff.
In addition to performances, Chinese companies also use the year-end parties to give out awards and hold lucky draws. But suggestive dances — often routines taken from social media — are becoming increasingly common, says Liu Rui, an HR specialist from the southern city of Guangzhou.
“Including some trendy songs or humorous segments in the annual party to liven up the event is understandable, but it is certainly not the only or best way,” Liu told Sixth Tone.
Whether employees enjoy their year-end parties depends on how they are treated by management during the rest of the year, Liu added.
For instance, Chen Dianhai, from the southern city of Shenzhen, enjoys her company’s year-end parties because management does not make participation mandatory.
The 23-year-old, who will perform a compilation of viral internet dances at this year’s party with five colleagues in late January, also wants to win some of the prizes on offer, including cash and free meals.
Wang Jia, a team leader in the Shanghai branch of a biotech firm, believes year-end parties that focus on having fun, rather than have them compete or perform demanding routines, are better for morale.
“If we set simpler goals and focus on having fun without any ulterior motives, the experience will be better for everyone,” she said.
Additional reporting: Yang Caini; editor: Vincent Chow.
(Header image: A still from “Johnny Keep Walking!” From Douban)