Red envelopes have been a staple of Chinese New Year for as long as anyone can remember. No matter whether you celebrate the holiday or not, you’ve probably wondered why your Asian friends receive red envelopes filled with cash every year. Heck, many recipients of red envelopes don’t know why either.
Unfortunately, there is no one consensus on where the red envelopes came from. One popular story dates back to the Qing Dynasty, where the elderly would thread coins with a red string. This money was called yāsuì qián, meaning “money warding off evil spirits,” and was believed to protect elder people from sickness and death. As the printing press became more common, the yāsuì qián was replaced with red envelopes.
Another legend tells of a village where a demon would terrorize children at night. It was believed that the demon would touch the children’s heads while they were asleep, causing serious illness or death. From there, a theory emerged that when they prayed, God would send eight fairies to protect the child. The fairies would disguise themselves as eight coins and hide under the child’s pillow. When the demon would get close, the coins would began to shine very bright, blinding the demon. Word began to spread and the villagers started giving out red envelopes filled with coins to each other to put under their pillows at night. As time passed, red envelopes became a way to bring good luck and prosperity to the receiver.
How much do you get?
The amount of money depends on the occasion, but the amount typically ends with an even digit, as odd numbers are traditionally associated with funerals. Additionally, it is believed that money should never be given in fours, nor should the number “4” appear in the amount (i.e: 400, 444, 4004), as the chinese word for “four” sounds similar to the word “death.”
Who gets them?
During Chinese New Year, red envelopes are typically given by the married to children and the unmarried. The red symbolizes good luck and the money wishes the recipient good fortune for times to come. The red envelopes are also used to fend off bad spirits. It’s not uncommon for red envelopes to be given during birthdays and other special occasions as well.
Chinese weddings are also occasions when red envelopes come into play. The amount given is supposed to cover the cost of the attendees and as a way to wish the newlyweds good luck. While red envelopes shouldn’t be opened in front of the giver, it’s different during weddings. During Chinese weddings, there is a table at the front of the wedding reception where guests can drop off red envelopes as gifts and sign their names on a large scroll. The envelopes are then immediately opened, counted and then recorded to show how much each guest gave. Why? It’s mainly to bookkeep and to make sure the money matches with what the guests brought at the end of the night. Another reasons is that when single guests finally get married, the bride and groom are expected to give the guest more money than what they received at their own wedding.
At work, it’s a tradition that Chinese companies give away red envelopes to their employees on the eve of Chinese New Year. Alibaba has participated in the tradition before, however, according to Fortune, CEO Jack Ma recently announced that they will not give away red envelopes this year due to mediocre performance.
You’re also supposed to avoid putting coins in the envelopes, which makes it difficult for people to gauge the amount before opening. Also it’s tradition to put crisp, new bills inside, which explains why my grandma always went to the bank to switch old bills with new ones every year.
So, there you have it… Happy Chinese New Year!