Chinese New Year Red Envelopes

A red envelope (red packet or red pocket), lucky money, hong bao in Mandarin, or lai see in Cantonese, is commonly used as a monetary gift during holidays or special occasions in China, especially during the Chinese New Year.

Why do People Give Red Envelopes?


It is said that there is Sui (祟 suì) in ancient times besides Monster Nian. Sui would come out and pat sleeping children's heads on every Chinese New Year's Eve. The child who was patted by Sui would be scared and have a high fever.

In order to prevent the touch of Sui, people in the past did not dare to sleep on Chinese New Year's Eve, this behavior is called 守祟 shǒu suì (stay up entire night for Sui).

By chance, people found that putting a coin wrapped with a red packet under the pillow could scare evil spirits away. In order to keep children safe and bring good luck, giving red envelopes to the younger generation on Chinese New Year's Eve becoming a tradition.

The lucky money is called Ya Sui Qian (压岁钱 yā suì qián), which evolved from the homophone "压祟钱" (meaning "money to put pressure on Sui").

What do People Put in A Red Envelope?

Red envelope has had a long history in China.

  • During the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), the coins in red envelopes were only ever cast into ornaments to ward off evil spirits, not used as currency.
  • During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), elders would give lucky money to newborn babies as amulets, to protect the babies from evil.
  • After the Song (960-1279 AD) and Yuan dynasties (1279-1368 AD), the custom of giving money to children on Spring Festival Day evolved into the tradition of giving coins strung on a red line.
  • During the Republic of China (1912-1949), elders covered 100 coins with red paper and gave them to those who were younger, conveying the wish they would live to a ripe old age.
  • Nowadays, red envelopes are usually filled with cash. Typically, they are distributed by older generations to younger generations with best wishes during the Chinese New Year.

In addition to the Chinese New Year, Chinese people also give red envelopes as gifts for other special occasions like weddings, birthdays, funerals, house-moving, or beginning school.

Who Will Get Red Envelopes?

Once an adult starts earning money, he/she will be expected to give red packets not only to children but also to parents and grandparents to show respect and a grateful heart.

  • Children: The red envelopes are traditionally given from the older generation to the younger generation (children and unmarried family members).
  • Elders: Adults with income will give red envelopes to their parents as a gift or living expenses.
  • Employees: The "start back to work" packet which is given on the day employees back to work from holiday is called 利是 (Mandarin: lì shì; Cantonese: lei6 si6).

Nowadays, you can give red envelopes to practically anyone if you like.

How Much Should a Red Envelope Be?

There are no set rules for the amount of lucky money wrapped in the red envelopes. It generally depends on your income. Whole numbers or traditional lucky numbers (such as 6 and 8) are favored.

There is a widespread tradition that luck money should not be given in fours, such as in 40, 400, and 444, as the pronunciation of the word four (四 sì) is the same as the word death (死 sǐ) which definitely should be avoided during the New Year.

Tips for Giving Red Envelopes

1. The envelopes are supposed to be color red as red symbolizes vitality, happiness, and good luck in Chinese culture.

2. With the blessing of hopes for a new start, it is best to put new cash instead of a crispy or dirty one in the envelope. Before the Chinese New Year, there are always many people waiting at banks to exchange cash for the new one.

3. You'd better put different denominations in differently designed red envelopes so that you can quickly and tactfully discern whether you're giving away 10 yuan or 100 yuan.

Tips for Receiving Red Envelopes

1. Receive red envelopes with both hands.

2. Express thanks and greet the giver with auspicious words when you receive red envelopes. See New Year Greetings.

3. Do not open the envelope in front of the giver.

An interesting fact is that most children's lucky money basically goes into the hands of their parents in the end. Parents would think "for safekeeping, children should not keep too much money themselves".

WeChat Red Envelope

2014 Chinese New Year marked the advent of digital red packets on WeChat - the most popular messaging app in China. While watching CCTV New Year Gala, audiences have chances to win cyber red envelopes by shaking their phones ceaselessly. Overnight, WeChat red packets became surprisingly popular nationwide. Instead of the traditional paper envelopes, young people prefer to transfer lucky money directly to their friends and families by smartphone.

Since then, almost all online businesses in China use cyber red packets as a marketing strategy. Spring Festival, a grand occasion for all Chinese, has undoubtedly become a "battleground" for web giants in China, such as Alipay (a major Chinese payment platform established by Alibaba), Tencent (which operates WeChat), and Baidu, making it an annual carnival for people to "grab" digital red envelopes.

The change whereby red envelopes have moved from the real world into digital space has brought new colors to the old tradition of Chinese New Year.

It's amazing that sometimes just a few yuan (Chinese currency) or even a few cents in the digital red packets can help bring people closer to each other. And even in daily life, the Chinese youth love to exchange red envelopes via smartphones, just for fun.

Despite this, the advent of digital red envelopes is just a marriage of ancient customs and modern technology, rather than a complete divorce from the old tradition.

Spend a New Year in China

Visiting China during the Chinese New Year period, you will see the streets filled with lanterns and Spring Festival rhymes and riddles, representing good luck, to show people's happiness. From jungle-covered mountains to modern metropolises to ancient cities, the New Year brings all of China together, seeing it for yourself is an unforgettable experience.

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