To celebrate the Chinese New Year, people hand out money in red pockets called hóng bāo (红包). The money inside a red pocket is referred to as yā suì qián (压岁钱), which literally means “money to anchor the year,” but is also known as “lucky money” or “New Year’s money.”
Elders give out red pockets to children hoping to pass on a year of fortune and blessings. On the contrary, young people give out red pockets to elders to show gratitude and as a blessing of longevity.
In some regions, unmarried individuals are given red pockets by their married friends to transfer luck. Others would use the money to buy delicious Chinese New Year food or get drunk on Chinese New Year drinks. Regardless of its purpose, you are surely going to find the origin story of the red pocket has a very fascinating.
The Legend of the Red Pocket
The tale of the red envelope involves Sui (祟), an evil spirit with a tainted touch. On New Year’s Eve, Sui would enter the rooms of children to pat their heads three times. The children would wake up the following day with a severe fever. Parents would stay up all night to protect their children from the touch of Sui.
One New Year’s Eve, a couple gave their child a coin to play with. When the kid fell asleep, the coin was positioned just beside a pillow. At midnight, Sui entered the child’s room and snuffed out the candle. As the monster reached for the child, the coin flashed and scared it away. If you want to learn more about Chinese folklore, check out our list of interesting Chinese New Year myths.
The Evolution of the Red Pocket
The New Year’s money tradition started during the Han Dynasty. At the time, coins engraved with auspicious phrases and symbols were used to ward off evil spirits.
Tiān xià tài píng (天下太平) and qiān qiū wàn suì (千秋万岁) were common expressions found in these coins. They stand for “worldwide peace” and “longevity and fortune.”
Red strings were used to creatively tie these coins together. As the practice developed, new materials were used. The red paper was used to wrap these coins until, eventually, red envelopes became the popular medium.
This practice is traditionally between close family and friends. Today, red pockets are given out to workmates for social networking and even acquaintances to show politeness.
How to Show Courtesy when Receiving a Red Pocket
Elders usually hand out red pockets when young relatives come over for bài nián (拜年) or New Year’s visit. When given a red pocket by an elder relative, you are traditionally expected to perform three kē tóu (磕头). You are to kneel and place your hand on the ground in front of you, bend over, and rest your head between your hands. Do this three times to receive blessings and show respect.
For less traditional families, children use the phrase gong xǐ fā cái, hóng bāo ná lái (恭喜发财，红包拿来), meaning “wishing you wealth and prosperity, hand over the red envelope.” If you say it with enough conviction, it should melt hearts and open pockets! If you want to learn more about traditional Chinese customs, check out our article on Chinese New Year greetings.
What to Say When Giving Out Red Pockets
If you are rather old and in the position of giving out red pockets rather than receiving them, try to be soft and suave when handing them over. With a smile on your face, tell the recipients “happy New Year!,” “wish you success in school!” or “hope you have a great year!” instead of just “here’s your lucky money.”
It also best to make sure that the parents see you handing out a red pocket to their child. That way, you prevent children from wasting or losing money. When giving red envelopes to your elder loved ones, thank them sincerely and wish them good health and longevity.
The Right Amount of Money to Place in a Red Pocket
In the 20th century, 100 cents were wrapped in red paper to represent living up to 100 years old chǎng mìng bǎi suì (长命百岁). When paper currency was established in China, people would pick out bills with successive numbers to symbolize continuous success.
After the Second World War, as China’s economy plummeted, the amount of money placed in red pockets significantly decreased. Children were happy to receive five cents. As the economy improved, the value of luck money also increased.
There are no set rules as to how much you should give. For immediate family and close relatives, New Year’s money can range from 200-1000 Chinese Yuan (CNY) depending on how close you are.
The most money is usually reserved for parents, but Chinese parents generally do not like taking money from their children. For acquaintances and coworkers, you can dole out around 10-50 CNY. You should, however, give out more if you want to impress your boss.
The number should also be taken into consideration. People in the Northern region of China favor whole numbers such as 50 or 100. For Southerners, lucky numbers like six and eight are important. Six or liù (六) is used in liù liù dà shun (六六大顺), a phrase about smooth success. Eight or bā (八) rhymes with fā (发), or “gaining wealth.” Regardless of who you are giving luck money to, you should put your bank account into consideration.
The Rise of Digital Red Pockets
Thanks to advancements in technology, platforms like WeChat and Alipay are the new means of giving out luck money on Chinese New Year. Even the government-sponsored Spring Festival Gala has activities that involve the use of digital red pockets.
Because of their ease and accessibility, digital red pockets have become increasingly popular. They also allow you to send luck money to family and friends from far away.
Others argue that the luck money tradition has made the celebration of Chinese New Year too materialistic. You may agree with their postulation, but one thing is certain: red pockets bring happiness to children and adults alike.