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Hóngbāo: The Chinese Red Envelope of Lucky Money

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One concept that would remain for as long as humans exist is gifting. For birthdays, weddings, holidays, and even funerals, everyone has in one way or another other given or received gifts.

Chinese take it a step further with hóngbāo – an ornate red envelope with a cash gift inserted in it to signify good luck.

It’s tradition to give a hóngbāo at Lunar New Year to send good wishes for the new year ahead, but they are also given to friends and family on some important occasions, such as birthdays, and weddings.

Not funerals though. 

White envelopes are given at funerals in China and some other East Asian countries. So it’s really not about the cash inside, but the colour of the envelope.

In Chinese culture, red symbolizes energy, happiness, and good luck. Traditional red envelopes are often decorated with Chinese symbols and calligraphy.

Apart from being a gift to friends and family suited for special occasions, Hóngbāo is mostly given to children and specifically at Lunar New Year, and it’s not just random. There’s a whole story behind it.

Origin of The Chinese Red Envelope 

The Chinese legend narrates that a demon known as ‘Sui’ went around to terrorize children while they slept on Chinese New Year’s Eve. Because of this, parents would keep awake all night, light candles and stay with their children to keep Sui away.

One New Year’s Eve, a child was given eight coins to play with in order to keep him awake. While playing, the child wrapped the coins in red paper, opened them, rewrapped it, and reopened it until he got too tired and fell asleep. The red wrapper of eight coins remained on his pillow.

When Sui appeared and tried to touch his head, the eight coins (representing the eight immortals in Chinese mythology) emitted a strong bright light that scared Sui away. 

Today the envelope, symbolic of the coins, is sometimes known as the ya sui qian, or “suppressing Sui money”.

6 quick interesting facts about Hóngbāo 

  1. The average amount of money put in the red envelopes is 20 – 1000 yuan ($5-$200) depending on your relationship with the person. It varies from your children to close relatives’ children, and even to your employees. Employees are typically given their red envelopes on the last working day before the New Year.
  2. Red envelopes should never contain money with the number 4 in it. Four is considered an unlucky number because its translation sounds like “death” in Chinese. Money with the number 8 is preferred because it symbolises good luck. So 800 yuan is better than 400, although it would be fun to see someone dare to give 84 yuan – just to see what happens then lol.
  3. The hóngbāo is received with both hands. It is impolite to accept a red envelope with just one hand. It’s also rude to open it in front of the giver. It should be opened in private.
  4. Red envelopes are traditionally only given out to children by married couples. However, singles can give them unceremoniously as a symbol of good luck.
  5. Only clean, crisp notes should be put into a hóngbāo. Giving old or crumpled ones is frowned upon. Coins are avoided too. In the week leading up to New Year’s, there are often long queues at banks as people try to exchange their old bills for new ones.
  6. Although I think it’s more memorable giving or receiving a hóngbāo in person, these days, red envelopes can be sent virtually by some apps and websites. People even send to their favourite stars.

This money culture has moved on to become a major influence in the green envelope exchange that happens during Eid al-Fitr amongst Muslims in South East Asia. It has also been celebrated in big cities like New York and London.

Does this feel familiar to you?

Hóngbāo might be culturally relevant in the South East Asian context, but its adaptation is also popular in Nigeria.

Major holidays while growing up usually had big uncles and aunts “squeezing” money in your hands for you to “take and buy sweets”. These days, the number of envelopes being exchanged has reduced, and nobody is talking about it. 

These are the things. These are the issues. And these are the cultures we love.

We loved it here in China, but we have to leave now. Can you guess our next Money Map stop? No hints this time.

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