Where do red envelopes come from?

By Nan Nan Liu
Northwest Asian Weekly


Image by Han Bui/NWAW

Firecrackers, feasts, and exhilarating lion dances — Chinese New Year has many interesting traditions. However, one of the most appealing traditions, especially for young ones, is the red envelopes.

Known in China as “hong bao,” red envelopes are passed out by the elderly and married couples to children and young single adults. The envelopes always contain money in an auspicious amount, and are never marked by presenters’ names. In essence, they are like Christmas presents in what they represent — cheery ways to celebrate the holidays. They are tokens of love between families and close friends.

“When I was a kid, I received an average of 20 to 30 red envelopes from my grandparents, parents, relatives, and my parents’ close friends every year,” said Joyce Hsu, who came to the United States from Taiwan. “I didn’t need to do anything to receive them in general except that all the kids did prepare a performance as a group and as an individual in front of my grandmother at New Year’s Eve.”

“It [didn’t] matter what kind of performance,” added Hsu. “It could be anything — sing a song, tell funny jokes, magic shows, dance, play piano … then she gave the New Year wish and a red envelope to each of her grandchildren.”

The tradition of red envelopes has wide-spread popularity all over Asia, not only in China.

Vietnam, and Japan, for example, have similar practices. It has even reached the United States, where immigrant and racially mixed families celebrate Lunar New Year.

The legend of Ang Pow

Like any age-old tradition, red envelopes trace their history back many years — so long ago that there’s no documented literature on how the practice started.

“There is no direct information [on the origin of red envelopes],” said Peter Lee, a Boeing engineer who grew up in China.

But according to folklore from the Song dynasty, the red envelopes’ origin lies in the Legend of Ang Pow.

In the legend, the people of Chang-Chieu village suffered from an evil, dragon-like creature. No one was able to defeat it, and villagers lived under constant fear until a young man named Ang Pow came along. Ang Pow, with a magic saber named Ma Dao, waited for the creature to appear, slayed it, and saved the entire village.

The villagers were so overwhelmed with happiness that the elders presented Ang Pow with a red packet filled with money. They believed that by giving him a red packet, they would forever ward off evil.

From that day on, red envelopes were viewed as a way to fight inauspicious spirits.

Tradition of red envelopes

http://nwasianweekly.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/31_05/redenvelope1.jpgAccording to various sources, such as Holidays.net, the tradition of giving red envelopes on New Year’s traces back to the Qing Dynasty.

The Qing Dynasty was founded by Jerchen Aisin Gioro clan leader Nurhachi, who united the Manchu people in Northeast China. At the time, China was under Ming Dynasty rule, and the general population was of the Han clan. In 1644, the Ming capitol in Beijing was overtaken in a peasant uprising, which issued in the short-lived Shun dynasty. Shun was quickly overtaken by Prince Dorgon, son of Nurhachi, of Qing.

Over the next few hundred years, the Qing dynasty integrated Han traditions, appointing Han civil servants and officials who celebrated the New Year.

During that time, coins (that were round in shape with square holes in the middle) were used as money, and the printing press was not yet common. For New Year’s, elders gave children coins tied together by a red thread. This practice eventually led to red envelopes.

Red envelopes today

Today, envelopes are used for the coins. They are red and have auspicious decorations like “double happiness” and “good fortune” symbols.


Photo by Han Bui/NWAW

“In general,” said Hsu, “red is the symbol of luck and fortune in Asian society.”

“Red will bring instant happiness,” added Lee.

Hsu, whose husband is not Chinese, wishes absolutely to continue the tradition for their son.

“Yes, for sure,” said Hsu, “when he is a little bit older.”

Rachel Wu, who also works for Boeing and grew up in China, also wants to continue Chinese New Year traditions in her family, even though her children are completely Americanized.

“[We give] two envelopes for each kid. One envelope from me and one from my husband,” said Wu. “We usually celebrate our gathering prior to the first day of Chinese New Year … with some traditional foods [like] whole chicken, lettuces,  sweet-candy, and vegetarian dishes the night prior to first day of the New Year.”

“[My kids] are very excited. We give them some for buying their toys and foods, and the rest we put it in their bank account,” continued Wu. “I think it is important to keep the traditions and know where we come from.”

“Knowing your culture background will enrich the life of individuals,” said Lee. (end)

Nan Nan Liu can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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