A red envelope, red packet, lucky money, lai see in Cantonese or hong bao in Mandarin, is commonly used as a monetary gift from the older generation to the younger generation during holidays or special occasions in China, especially Spring Festival.
In ancient times, a demon called "祟su" came to harm sleeping children on New Year's Eve. By chance, a couple discovered that copper coins in red envelopes under their child’s pillow could scare evil spirits away.
The next day, the couple let everyone know the news, so more and more families used red envelopes containing copper coins to protect their children.
With the passage of time, today’s red envelopes became a tradition. That’s why the Chinese New Year envelopes are commonly referred to as Ya Sui Qian (压岁钱)
, which evolved from “压祟钱” (meaning ‘money to put pressure on Su’).
History and Development
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 theTang Dynasty (618-907 AD), the dispersal of money was prevalent in the imperial palace on Spring Festival Day. Besides, 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 Chinese New Year.
An increasing number of young people give lucky money to children and their close friends. Even some companies hand out New Year’s red envelopes to employees.
- In addition to Spring Festival, Chinese people also use red envelopes as gifts for other special occasions like weddings, birthdays, house-moving, or beginning school.
Rules and Customs for Red Envelopes
Giving Red Envelopes
1. The envelopes are supposed to be red since in Chinese culture, red symbolizes vitality, happiness and good luck.
2. It would be best to put new cash in the envelope with the blessing of hopes for a new start. Before Spring Festival, there are always many people waiting at banks to exchange their old or crumpled cash for new notes.
3. The amount given in lucky money should avoid the number “4” (including 40 or 400), because the pronunciation of “FOUR” sounds like death in Chinese, which is of course considered to be unlucky.
Receiving Red Envelopes
1. Your red envelopes should be received with both hands.
2. It’s rude if you don’t express thanks and greet the giver with words of blessing when receiving a red envelope. See New Year Greetings.
3. It is impolite to 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, “for safe keeping, for they should not keep too much money themselves”.
Lucky Money Goes Digital
Spring Festival in 2014 marked the advent of digital red packets on WeChat, China’s most popular mobile chat app. Overnight, this became surprisingly popular nationwide. Instead of the traditional paper envelopes, people sent cyber red packets by messaging apps or transferred lucky money directly to their friends’ and families’ phones.
- On New Year’s Eve in 2015, WeChat cooperated with the CCTV Spring Festival Gala, the world’s most-watched show, and distributed digital red envelopes to the total sum of ￥500,000,000 to attract customers. Everyone watching the show got the chance to share the online lucky money, by constantly shaking their mobile phones.
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 color 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.