Red pocket, red packet, red envelope… what is this magical red thing? Regardless what term you use, 红包 (hóng bāo) are great because they contain money. The money in red envelopes is also known as 压岁钱 (yā suì qián). Literally, it is “money to anchor the year(s).” It is also known as “lucky money” or “New Year’s money.”
A lot of thought is put into these red pockets. By giving the money to children, elders are hoping to pass on a year of good fortune and blessings. Another version is given by the younger generation to their elders as a blessing of longevity and a show of gratitude.
In some regions of China, rather than between generations, married couples will give red envelopes to their unmarried friends to transfer some luck.
According to legends, there was a monstrous creature named Nian (年). Once a year, it would come out of the forest at night and devour entire villages. The steps of protection against Nian during New Year’s Eve transformed into the Spring Festival celebration.
Parents would also give children money that night. This way, the children would have something to bribe the monster or other evil spirits with.
In another popular story, there is a demon called Sui (祟). On New Year’s Eve, it would come and pat children’s head while sleeping. His touch was tainted. To protect their children, parents would stay up the entire night, guarding them.
One couple gave their child a coin to play with. When he fell asleep, they placed the coin next to the pillow. At midnight, an eerie wind snuffed out the candle. When Sui reached for the child, the coin flashed in the darkness and scared him away. The next day, the couple wrapped the coin in red paper to show their neighbors.
The lucky money tradition began in the Han dynasty. Rather than real money, they were small collectibles in the form of coins to ward off evil spirits. Auspicious phrases and symbols were engraved onto the surface. “Worldwide peace” (天下太平—tiān xià tài píng), “Longevity and fortune” (千秋万岁—qiān qiū wàn suì), dragons and phoenixes were common.
In the past, currency was in the form of coins similar in shape to donuts.
These coins were tied together with red string. The practice transitioned to be wrapped in red paper and now, put into red envelopes.
As aforementioned, there are two main types of Spring Festival red pockets. If you’re a young or middle-aged adult, you’ll have to give both: for children and for your parents and elders.
Regardless the age, this activity is traditionally between close family and friends. Nowadays, you can give red envelopes to practically anyone.
Giving red envelopes to your co-worker’s or higher-up’s children is used for social networking. It’s just for fun between friends and politeness between acquaintances.
Red packets are given when you pay a New Year’s visit (拜年—bài nián). Usually the grandparents will sit in the back of a room. All of their children and grandchildren will perform 3 kowtows.
Kowtow (磕头—kē tóu) literally means to knock your head (against the floor.) To do so, kneel and place your hands on the ground before you. Bend over and rest your head between your hands. This is the ultimate show of respect.
Then you will get your red packet!
For children in less traditional families, there’s also another way of asking for the money.
The phrase is: 恭喜发财，红包拿来 (gong xǐ fā cái, hóng bāo ná lái)
It means “wishing you wealth and prosperity, hand over the red envelope.” Said with a cheeky grin, it melts hearts and opens up wallets.
If you’re the one handing out red pockets, try not to be so blunt. Chinese culture emphasizes soft and suave tactics.
Rather than saying “here’s your lucky money,” try telling the child:
- Happy New Year!
- Wish you success in school!
- Hope you have a great year!
It’s best to make sure the parents see you give the money. Some parents like to take their children’s lucky money and put it in savings accounts. It prevents children from wasting or losing it.
Be genuine when giving red envelopes to your own parents. Wish health and longevity on them and thank them sincerely.
During the Minguo period (20th century), it was custom to wrap 100 cents in red paper. It represented living until 100 years old (长命百岁—chǎng mìng bǎi suì). When the currency changed to paper money, a new tradition appeared. Parents would choose bills of continuous numbers to represent continuous success (连连高升—lián lián gāo shēng).
After WWII, the amount acceptable followed the economy. In the 50s, children were ecstatic if they received 5 or 10 cents! As China’s economy improved, lucky money went from cents to dollars and now, hundreds.
Like birthday money, there are no set rules.
For immediate family and close relatives, lucky money ranges anywhere from 200-1000 CNY. The closer they are, the heftier the sum. Most reserve the thickest envelope for their parents. (Chinese parents usually don’t like taking money from their children though.)
You can give around 10-50 CNY for acquaintances, coworkers, or your friends that are too close to care. But if you’re trying to impress your boss or significant other’s family, you might want to give out even more. After all, the Chinese value their “face” and reputation. But in the end, you must take your bank account into consideration.
For the people who truly matter, it’s always the thought that counts.
Regardless the amount of lucky money, the number is still very important. In Northern China, whole numbers (50s and 100s) are favored. In the South, traditional lucky numbers are the way to go. Those are numbers that include 6 and 8. Six (六—liù) is seen in六六大顺 (liù liù dà shun), a phrase about smooth success. Eight (八—bā) rhymes with 发 (fā), or “gaining wealth.”
Things are a little different in expat communities. Many emigrated from China during the mid-90s, bringing with them the customs from that era.
For example, Chinese Singaporeans usually only give around 10-20 SGD. The same goes in Chinese American families where 20 USD would suffice.
Any type of Chinese Yuan is also a unique gift for someone who rarely sees Chinese currency.
Nowadays, thanks to technology and platforms like WeChat and Alipay, digital red envelopes are the new trend. Even the government-sponsored Spring Festival Gala (televised night of performances) has digital red pocket activities.
Since they’re digital, you can also send to friends far away, or multiple ones at once. When one is sent to a group chat, an intense race usually ensues.
Because of this ease, red pockets have become an everyday thing. You can send them to thank somebody, as a surprise gift, or even as a bribe to like your post on Moments (similar to Facebook.)
Some complain that the tradition of Spring Festival red pockets have become too materialistic and frivolous. Depending on how you look at things, it may be true.
But no matter what, red pockets still bring joy and happiness to children and adults alike. It is a show of love and gratitude to each other.
And after thousands of years, the Chinese are still continuing this tradition. Even in the digital age, much of this custom has evolved but persisted—a true feat. And whatever happens, remember that it’s the thought that counts when it comes to gift giving. Happy Lunar New Year to all my Chinese readers!
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