The following article has been extracted from the document ‘The Definitive Guide to Red Envelopes‘.
The tradition of giving and receiving Red Envelopes has been practiced by millions of Chinese for hundreds of years. The tradition is passed on from generation to generation and is still strong today. However, it is difficult to locate any history of this tradition in English. The purpose of this document is to provide some background on some of the important facts like the significance of the various designs, how to give and receive a Red Envelope and some guidance on how much money to give.
As there is little evidence of this tradition, much of the information presented is anecdotal and based upon accounts and experiences of individuals who are familiar with the Red Envelope tradition. For this reason and contrary to the title, this document is not definitive in the true sense of the definition of definitive. The term definitive has been used loosely to establish a document that collates many of the different ideas and concepts that exist about Red Envelopes, but have not til now been presented in a single document. Enjoy the reading and hopefully it will give you some insight to this wonderful tradition.
Note that the Chinese used throughout this document is largely Cantonese with Chinese characters written in traditional Chinese.
2. What is a Red Envelope?
A Chinese Red Envelope is a traditional gift in Chinese culture whereby money is presented in an envelope that is red in color. The envelope is generally rectangular in shape with red as the main color. The envelope is usually decorated with images or symbols that bestow luck, health and prosperity to the receiver.
In China where Mandarin is the national language, the Red Envelope is known as hong bao. Across South-East Asia where many Chinese have emigrated to, the Red Envelope has embedded into the local language. Below is a table outlining the other countries that also give Red Envelopes.
|Mandarin||China, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia||hong bao|
|Cantonese||Hong Kong||lai see|
|Hokkien||Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia||ang pow (ang bao)|
|Korean||Korea||Sae Bae Don|
The term Red Envelope is also commonly known as Red Packet or Red Pocket which are closely related to the hong bao or ang pow terms.
There is no definitive documentation of the origin of the Red Envelope. One theory is that around the time of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), the idea of threading gold coins through a red string was prevalent amongst elderly people as it was believed to provide protection from sickness and death.
Another theory that has been loosely documented is the legend of the demon that terrorized a village called Chang-Chieu during the time of the Sung Dynasty (960-1279). The story goes that a massive demon prevailed in this village because it could not be defeated. All the brave warriors of the land had tried, but all had failed. One day a young man who happened to be passing through the village, came across the demon. This was no ordinary man as he brandished a magical saber that he had inherited from his ancestors. The young man was brave and battled valiantly with the demon and finally defeated it. The villagers were very delighted to be ward of this evil spirit. The village elders believed that they were blessed with the presence of this young man and so presented the man with a gift of a Red Packet containing gold as a showing of their gratitude. The belief was that by giving this gift to the young man, he too would be blessed. This concept then became the tradition of giving Red Envelopes to share one’s happiness and prosperity.
Another myth passed from parent to child is the tale of an evil spirit that appeared on the New Year’s Eve. This demon would search the village for children that were sleeping and any found would go crazy upon the demon stroking their head. To prevent this from occurring, parents would keep their children awake on that night and put gold coins of money wrapped in red paper underneath the child’s pillow. The money was referred to as yāsuì-qián which means ‘money warding off evil spirit’. The shimmer of the coins was thought to repel the demon and thus protect the child. The notion that the color red is symbolic of protection against evil spirits is closely linked to this tale and so is the common practice of giving a Red Envelope to young children at Chinese New Year.
The Red Envelope that is commonly used is rectangular in shape. This is thought to have originate from ancient shields which symbolize protection. The size does vary from the typical small envelope which are sized to have folded notes and to fit a pocket. Also common is the full sized envelope which can fit unfolded notes and is commonly used when giving larger amounts.
The two main colors used for Red Envelopes are red and gold. Red is almost always the dominant color of the envelope and is where the term ‘Red Envelope’ is derived. The color red symbolizes good luck/fortune, but is also used to repel evil spirits and demons. Gold is commonly used because it represents prosperity and wealth which the giver will wish upon the receiver and hopefully get some back.
The Red Envelope tradition is to give a gift to share one’s happiness and prosperity and to bring luck to the receiver as well as the giver. Therefore, all envelopes will have an image or Chinese character (or a combination of both) on the front to express a particular special occasion. Below is a table outlining common graphics used on Red Envelopes.
|Fish (or carp)||Literal meaning a plenty which represents abundance. This means there will be abundance of everything every year.|
|The Three Immortals (three elderly men)||Fuk, Luk and Sau. Fuk is the deity of wealth and prosperity, Luk symbolizes power and authority, and Sau symbolizes longevity.|
|Young boy and girl||Seen on Chinese New Year Red Envelopes. The children are expressing joy and excitement in receiving Red Envelopes|
|Phoenix and dragon||Seen on wedding Red Envelopes. Represent Yin and Yang (feminine and masculine) and symbolize blissful relations between husband and wife.|
|Chinese Zodiac Animals||12 animals based upon 12 lunar year cycle. See 1.4 below.|
|Mandarin Citrus Fruit (looks like orange)||In Cantonese, this fruit sounds like ‘gold’ so symbolizes wealth.|
|Double ‘He’ (囍)||Double instance of the Chinese character joy (喜) referred to as the double happiness symbol. Mainly used as wedding decoration to represent double the happiness.|
|‘Fook’ (福)||Good Fortune|
|‘Gong He Fat Choi’ (恭喜發財)||Literal meaning – Congratulations and Prosperity. Generally means wishing you prosperity.|
|‘San Nian Fai Lok’ (新年快樂)||Happy New Year|
|‘Nian Nian Yo Yu’ (年年有餘)||Wishing you prosperity every year.|
|‘Ya Sui Chin’ (壓歲錢)||Money warding off evil spirit|
Unlike western envelopes and cards, it is not common to write any greeting or one’s name on the Red Envelope. The general exception is for weddings where the giver may write their name on the envelope to enable the wedding couple to identify the amount each guest has given.
Chinese Zodiac Animals
The 12 Chinese Zodiac animals are derived from Chinese astrology which depict on a circular chart the 12 different animals representing the 12-year cycle of the Chinese lunar calendar. Along with the 12 Zodiac animals, the Chinese Zodiac has 5 elements: metal, wood, water, fire and Earth. The 12 Zodiac animals and the 5 elements actually combine to create a 60 year cycle. The table below shows the 12 Zodiac animals and what they represent.
|Rat||Forthright, tenacious, intense, meticulous, charismatic, sensitive, intellectual, industrious, charming, eloquent, sociable, artistic, and shrewd. Can be manipulative, vindictive, self destructive, envious, mendacious, venal, obstinate, critical, over-ambitious, ruthless, intolerant, and scheming.|
|Ox||Dependable, ambitious, calm, methodical, born leader, patient, hardworking, conventional, steady, modest, logical, resolute, tenacious. Can be stubborn, dogmatic, hot-tempered, narrow-minded, materialistic, rigid, demanding.|
|Tiger||Unpredictable, rebellious, colorful, powerful, passionate, daring, impulsive, vigorous, stimulating, sincere, affectionate, humanitarian, generous. Can be restless, reckless, impatient, quick-tempered, obstinate, selfish, aggressive, moody.|
|Rabbit||Gracious, good friend, kind, sensitive, soft-spoken, amiable, elegant, reserved, cautious, artistic, thorough, tender, self-assured, shy, astute, compassionate, lucky, flexible. Can be moody, detached, superficial, self-indulgent, opportunistic, stubborn.|
|Dragon||Magnanimous, stately, vigorous, strong, self-assured, proud, noble, direct, dignified, eccentric, intellectual, fiery, passionate, decisive, pioneering, artistic, generous, loyal. Can be tactless, arrogant, imperious, tyrannical, demanding, intolerant, dogmatic, violent, impetuous, brash.|
|Snake||Deep thinker, wise, mystic, graceful, soft-spoken, sensual, creative, prudent, shrewd, elegant, cautious, responsible, calm, strong, constant, purposeful. Can be loner, bad communicator, possessive, hedonistic, self-doubting, distrustful, mendacious, suffocating, cold.|
|Horse||Cheerful, popular, quick-witted, changeable, earthy, perceptive, talkative, agile—mentally and physically, magnetic, intelligent, astute, flexible, open-minded. Can be fickle, arrogant, childish, anxious, rude, gullible, stubborn.|
|Sheep/goat||Righteous, sincere, sympathetic, mild-mannered, shy, artistic, creative, gentle, compassionate, understanding, mothering, peaceful, generous, seeks security. Can be moody, indecisive, over-passive, worrier, pessimistic, over-sensitive, complainer, weak-willed.|
|Monkey||Inventor, motivator, improviser, quick-witted, inquisitive, flexible, innovative, problem solver, self-assured, sociable, artistic, polite, dignified, competitive, objective, factual, intellectual. Can be egotistical, vain, arrogant, selfish, reckless, snobbish, deceptive, manipulative, cunning, jealous, suspicious.|
|Rooster||Acute, neat, meticulous, organized, self-assured, decisive, conservative, critical, perfectionist, alert, zealous, practical, scientific, responsible. Can be over zealous and critical, puritanical, egotistical, abrasive, proud, opinionated, given to empty bravado.|
|Dog||Honest, intelligent, straightforward, loyal, sense of justice and fair play, attractive, amicable, unpretentious, sociable, open-minded, idealistic, moralistic, practical, affectionate, sensitive, easy going. Can be cynical, lazy, cold, judgmental, pessimistic, worrier, stubborn, quarrelsome.|
|Pig||Honest, gallant, sturdy, sociable, peace-loving, patient, loyal, hard-working, trusting, sincere, calm, understanding, thoughtful, scrupulous, passionate, intelligent. Can be naïve, over-reliant, self-indulgent, gullible, fatalistic, materialistic.|
Source: Wikipedia – Chinese Zodiac
3. When Are Red Envelopes Given?
Red Envelopes are generally given on special occasions during the year. Perhaps the busiest time of the year for giving Red Envelopes is Chinese New Year which usually occurs towards the end of January or early February depending on the lunar cycle. Other important occasions for giving of Red Envelopes include for weddings, birth of a baby, graduations, birthdays, or simply to share one’s happiness or prosperity. It is also common for employers to give employees Red Envelopes as a yearly bonus (in some countries this may equal to one month salary).
4. Who Are Red Envelopes Given By and To?
Red Envelopes are usually given by married people to unmarried people. Children are often excited by the prospect of receiving a Red Envelope and can be heard to recite the rhyme ‘Gong Hei Fat Choi, Lai See Dou Loi’ meaning ‘wishing you prosperity, give me Red Envelope’. A married person would usually give a Red Envelope upon request otherwise they run the risk of being ‘out of luck’ for the new year.
It is also common for adult children or children earning income to give a Red Envelope to their parents as a show of respect and appreciation (filial piety). This is usually also in response to the sacrifices the parents may have made and the hard work they have put in to ensure their children have a good future or good prospects.
In some countries like Hong Kong, unmarried people of a certain age can also give Red Envelopes. They are however, not referred to by the usual term ‘Lai See’, but rather by a special name ‘Hor Lai‘. This special envelope can be used for all occasions where a Lai See is given, but is generally used for weddings and referred to as a ‘wedding check or certificate’. Nowadays, the ‘Hor Lai’ tends not to contain notes, but rather a bank check made out to an auspicious amount.
5. How to Give a Red Envelope (or Business Card)?
The tradition in giving and receiving of a Red Envelope follows a strict etiquette. This is especially so if intending to give to Chinese business men and women. When giving a Red Envelope, one must present the Red Envelope with both hands holding the top of the envelope. The receiver will then accept the envelope with both hands on the bottom. This will enable the Red Envelope to be upright when the receiver accepts it. Both parties should make eye contact during the exchange and it is courteous for the receiver to nod the head and offer their thanks. In Mandarin thank you is ‘Xie Xie’ (pronounced Shieh Shieh, 谢谢). In Cantonese thank you when receiving a gift is ‘Dor-Jeh’ (多謝). In Hokkien thank you is ‘kam siah’ (感謝).
The etiquette of giving a Red Envelope is the same when exchanging business cards with Chinese business people.
6. How Much to Give in a Red Envelope?
The amount to give in a Red Envelope differs depending on various factors. The key matters to consider is the person’s age, the relationship between the giver and receiver, and the generosity/wealth of the giver. Generally the more wealthy the giver, the more they are likely to give (of course this is assuming they are not stingy). Finally, when giving to children, the amount to give will also depend on how many children there are in one family. It is common to give a family with a single child more than where there are multiple children in one family. The more children the less per child is given. At the end of the day though, it depends on the generosity of the giver, but no matter how much is given, the receiver should always show gratitude when accepting the gift.
Age comes into the equation usually when giving Red Envelopes for Chinese New Year. Is there a rule of thumb? No. The amount varies. For a five year old one might give ten or twenty dollars. For a fifteen year old it might be fifty dollars. The point to consider is what each child is likely to do with the money. The older children will likely use the money to purchase something and the amount given will need to be enough to buy say a DVD or video game.
If there is more than one child in a family it is common to divide the amount one would give a family with a single child, by the number of children in that family. For example, if you are giving one hundred dollars to your brother’s only child, you may consider giving fifty dollars each to your sister’s two children. Both amounts equal one hundred dollars.
When giving a Red Envelope to unmarried adult children, the amount to give is really up to the generosity of the giver. Sometimes the amount is a token amount of say twenty dollars as the adult children may already be earning an income.
When an adult child gives a Red Envelope to parents it is usually a higher amount. Giving between two hundred to five hundred dollars is not uncommon and can be much more if the adult child is still living at home with the parents.
RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN GIVER AND RECEIVER
Usually the closer the relationship between the giver and the receiver the more one is likely to give. It is common to give your children more than your nieces and nephews. In turn, your nieces and nephews will get more than your friend’s children. This is very relevant when giving a Red Envelope at a wedding. It is common to give family members getting married a big amount for their wedding compared to say a distant cousin. However, closeness of relationship is not necessarily the driver. It is the value one puts on the relationship that really matters. You might give more money to the children of your best friend than to your nieces and nephews if you value the relationship with your best friend more than with immediate family.
There is anecdotal evidence that some countries have attempted to categorize the strength of a relationship with the amount to give. For example, in Taiwan, the amount to give at a wedding may be based upon the seven levels of relationship with the bride or groom.
|Relationship Level||Description of Relationship||Amount to Give ($TWD)|
|1||No usual contact. Obligated to give a Red Envelope as you have received invitation, but do not intend to attend the wedding.||Between 600-1000|
|2||Acquaintance or work colleague. Tend not to socialize with.||Up to 1200|
|3||Friend that you sometimes socialize with. Might go to dinner or shopping with them once in awhile.||Up to 1600|
|4||Closer friend. Socialize more often. Can have more meaningful conversations with.||Up to 2000|
|5||Close friends that you socialize with commonly and call good friends.||Up to 2600|
|6||Close relatives and friends that you would treat like brothers or sisters||Up to 3600|
|7||Family members (immediate)||From 6000 up|
NUMBERS TO NOTE WHEN DECIDING ON AMOUNT TO GIVE
Chinese are traditionally very superstitious and there are certain numbers to avoid and certain numbers which are good to use. The number four (4) is the key number to avoid as the pronunciation of four in Chinese sounds like ‘death’. Cantonese people give double Red Envelopes because the single number one is not favorable and double instances are always more favorable like the ‘Double Happiness’ character used for wedding decorations. Even numbers are better to use than odd numbers which are used for funerals. The exception is four as mentioned above. The amount given should not end with an odd number. Eight is a good number to use as it sounds like ‘fortune’. Nine is also a good number as it represents longevity and whenever multiplied with another number, the sum can be added to equal nine. For example, 9×3=27 (2+7=9), 9×7=63 (6+3=9). Seven is unfavorable and is associated with funerals because the funeral meal contains seven dishes. The link to funerals make sit a ghostly number.
|Even number||Odd number|
|Eight (8) = sounds like fortune||Amount ending with odd number|
|Nine (9) = represents longevity||Four (4) = sound like death|
|Seven (7) = ghostly number|
7. Occasions for Giving a Red Envelope
CHINESE NEW YEAR
The amount to give for Chinese New Year is generally based on the generosity of the giver. Beside weddings, Chinese New Year is a time when the amount given is likely to be greater than other occasions because Chinese New year is an auspicious time of the year and spreading one’s happiness and prosperity will increase one’s good fortune for the new year.
Employers will give a Red Envelope at this time of the year to employees similar to a bonus. The amount is usually large and can often equate to one month’s salary. The generosity of the employer is reflective of the success of the business in the past year much like how a bonus works.
The purpose of giving Red Envelopes as a wedding gift in Chinese culture is to assist the wedding couple to pay for the wedding or to go towards helping them establish their future together. It is common to determine the amount given with how elaborate the banquet/reception will be. For example, if the banquet/reception is likely to be one hundred dollars per person, then it would be appropriate to give at least equal to this amount. If this is not known, then the amount given should be based on where the banquet will be held. This should give an idea of whether it is a basic or expensive banquet.
The amount of money given for a birthday is usually less as it is not seen as an important event as weddings or Chinese New Year. However, the amount does increase with age until the receiver has started earning income. The exception is for a new born baby where the amount given may be higher as this is seen as a blessing. However, it is also common nowadays to give presents for birthdays and for new born babies.
STUDYING HARD AND GRADUATIONS
Throughout history, the Chinese have placed great significance in education and study as this is seen as the path to future success. For this reason, there is great focus and attention placed on educational achievements and the biggest achievement is to celebrate a graduation. This is a reward to the student for studying hard and working towards achieving the goal of graduating. It is also common to give a Red Envelope to a student who has studied hard and shown dedication to their studies.
8. Where to Buy Red Envelopes?
A trip to your local Chinatown would be an easy way to track down a shop that sells Red Envelopes. Look out for the Chinese bookshop/newsagent or the Asian grocery store. Around Chinese New Year, there will also likely be temporary stores set up in Chinatown to sell all things Chinese New Year.
Alternatively, you can jump online to purchase Red Envelopes. Search for Chinese Red Envelopes on Amazon or ebay and you should find a range there.
If you would like to send a Red Envelope to a relative or friend, but can’t due to distance, then try the service at www.bunyee.com. Bunyee has digitized the timeless tradition was giving a Red Envelope so you can now send one online. There are great designs for all occasions so you should be able to find the right one to share your happiness or prosperity.
The author would like to acknowledge the following websites for providing some valuable information in researching this article.
1. http://www.chinatown.com.au/eng/article.asp?masterid=97&articleid=391 last accessed 12/12/10;
2. http://chineseculture.about.com/od/chinesefestivals/p/Chinese-New-Year-Red-Envelope.htm last accessed 12/12/10;
3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_envelope last accessed 14/12/10;
4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_zodiac last accessed 14/12/10;
5. http://gohongkong.about.com/od/chinesenewyear/a/laisee.htm last accessed 21/12/10;
6. http://www.char4u.com/article_info.php?articles_id=68 last accessed 21/12/10;
7. http://www.fengshuiweb.co.uk/advice/redenvelope.htm last accessed 21/12/10;
8. http://www.helium.com/items/1762731-red-packets last accessed 12/12/10;
9. http://www.absolutelyfengshui.com/library/red-envelope.php last accessed 12/12/10;
10. http://www.infobarrel.com/The_Red_Envelope_-_A_Traditional_Chinese_Gift last accessed 15/1/11;
11. http://chinapedia.chinaassistor.com/2009/0129/Red_Envelope_21424.html last accessed 15/1/11;
12. http://www.nancydadami.com/envelope.html last accessed 15/1/11;
13. http://www.squidoo.com/red-packets last accessed 22/1/11; last accessed 22/1/11;
14. http://blog.sina.com.tw/luckylight117/article.php?pbgid=39757&entryid=411782 last accessed 20/1/11;
10. Other Links
1. If you are interested to see some really nice Red Envelopes, visit draik who has a fantastic blog article on Red Envelopes. Here is the link http://www.squidoo.com/red-packets
2. For another website for great traditional, yet elegant Red Envelopes, visit www.chineseredpacket.com. This website is in Chinese, but the range of envelope designs are worth having a look.