Chinese New Year Red Envelopes

Written by Sally Guo Updated Mar. 15, 2023

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.

The Meanings of Red Envelopes

Monster Nian

Red is the lucky color in Chinese culture. Money in the red packet (red envelopes) symbolizes best wishes and good luck.

During the Lunar New Year, giving red envelopes to younger generations is a way of sending wishes and good luck to them.

The Origin of Red Envelops

It is said that there was a beast called 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 (staying up the entire night for Sui).

By chance, people found that putting a coin wrapped in 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").

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.

How Much Money Should You Put in a  Red Envelope?

traditional red packet

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.

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.

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

Etiquette 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 hope 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. Read New Year Greetings to learn some popular sayings.

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

WeChat 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.

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