The story of hóngbāo
At Lunar New Year, it’s tradition to give the gift of a bright, beautiful red envelope (known as 紅包, hóngbāo) to your friends and family. But not just any old envelope. These are filled with money - and symbolize good wishes and luck for the new year ahead.
The importance of the hóngbāo isn’t the cash held inside; it’s actually the envelope itself. The red color symbolizes good luck and prosperity in Chinese (and other East Asian) cultures.
Here are 8 facts you should know about the historic red envelope...
The custom of giving red envelopes originates in some of the oldest stories of Chinese New Year. As the legend goes, a demon known as 'Sui' terrorized children while they slept on New Year’s Eve, and parents would try to keep their children awake all night to protect them. One New Year, a child was given eight coins to play with to keep him awake, but he couldn't keep his eyes open and eventually drifted off with the coins on his pillow. Sui appeared, but as he went to touch the child, the coins (actually the Eight Immortals in disguise) produced a powerful light that drove the demon away. Today the envelope, symbolic of the coins, is sometimes known as the yasui qian, or "suppressing Sui money".
While the tradition centers on children, red envelopes are given to friends, family, colleagues and many other relatives - and different amounts of money are customary for each relation. For example, parents and grandparents get the most, but employees and even casual acquaintances can expect a red envelope.
There are rules and customs to red envelope-giving. For example, only clean, crisp notes should be put into a hóngbāo. In the lead-up to New Year’s, there are often long queues at banks as people try to exchange their old and crumpled bills.
In the 21st Century, many people exchange digital red envelopes instead of the traditional paper ones. These are virtual packets of very real cash, transferred directly to friends’ and family’s smartphones. Users can even send digital hóngbāo to their favorite celebrities.
The amount given in red envelopes never includes the number ‘4’ - that means no 4, 40, or 400 amounts - as the pronunciation of ‘four’ in Chinese sounds like the word for death. However, amounts including the number ‘8’ will bring good luck and prosperity. Go ‘8’!
There are rules on how to properly receive an envelope. Traditionally, children would kneel to receive their hóngbāo from older family members, and this is still practiced in some areas of China. Red envelopes are also always given and received with both hands, and should never be opened in the presence of the present-giver. Worth remembering if you ever receive a red envelope!
While red envelopes are most commonly associated with New Year, they also turn up as part of many other occasions as a way of sharing good luck and blessings, like births and weddings. But color matters: white envelopes will often be exchanged at funerals.
The tradition has crossed cultural and religious boundaries, and green envelope-giving has even become a practice during the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr across Southeast Asia. It is also widely practiced by the Chinese and Southeast Asian diaspora across the world, with large-scale celebrations in London and New York. Red envelopes have gone global!