What Does the Red Envelope Symbolize: Traditions and Meanings

For many Westerners, the red envelope is nothing more than a cute decoration or a piece of packaging for a gift card. But in Chinese culture, these small, bright red envelopes hold a much deeper meaning. Known as hongbao in Mandarin, these envelopes are typically given during important events such as weddings, Chinese New Year, or birthdays. Inside, they contain money, often in even amounts, since odd numbers are considered unlucky in Chinese tradition. Like much of Chinese culture, the hongbao has a rich history and is steeped in symbolism.

At its core, the red envelope symbolizes good luck, prosperity, and happiness. These are values that are highly prized in Chinese culture, and the act of gifting a hongbao is seen as a sign of goodwill and generosity. It’s also a way to show respect and gratitude to elders and superiors. Although the custom has changed over time (in the past, hongbaos were typically given to children by their parents or grandparents), it remains an important tradition that is observed by many Chinese families and communities around the world.

But there’s more to the hongbao than just the money inside. The color red is also significant in Chinese culture, symbolizing good fortune and happiness. It’s often associated with weddings and other festive occasions, and is said to ward off evil spirits. The messaging on the outside of the envelope is also important, with phrases such as “Good luck” or “Congratulations” often written in Chinese characters. By giving a red envelope, the giver is not only sharing wealth, but also extending well-wishes and good intentions to the recipient.

Origins of the red envelope

The practice of giving money in a red envelope, or hongbao in Mandarin, has a rich history in China, dating back to the Qin Dynasty (221–207 BC). The traditional hongbao was originally used as a way to ward off evil spirits, as the color red was believed to have a protective power in Chinese culture. It was also seen as a way to bestow blessings upon the recipient.

The use of red envelopes specifically for the Lunar New Year can be traced back to the Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD). During this time, people would wrap coins in red paper and attach them to a string of coins called ya sui qian, which translates to “suppressing age money.” This practice was believed to ward off misfortune and ageing for the recipient. Over time, the ya sui qian evolved into the hongbao, and the tradition has since spread throughout East and Southeast Asia.

The significance of the number of coins or bills in the red envelope

  • The number 8 is considered lucky in Chinese culture because it sounds like the word for wealth and prosperity. Therefore, it is common to give an amount of money that includes the number 8, such as 88 or 888 yuan.
  • The number 6 is also considered lucky because it sounds like the word for smooth and easy. It is often given as a gift to newlyweds or as a way to wish someone a smooth, successful future.
  • On the other hand, the number 4 is considered unlucky because it sounds like the word for death. It is generally avoided in gift-giving, and it is especially important not to give an amount that includes the number 4.

Variations of the red envelope tradition in different countries

The tradition of giving red envelopes has spread beyond China and is now a common practice in countries such as Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. In Japan, for example, it is customary to give money in a small decorative envelope called a pochibukuro. In Korea, the red envelope is called a poh-yeon-ji and is given on special occasions such as weddings and first birthdays. In Vietnam, the tradition is known as li xi, and the money is placed in a colorful envelope decorated with gold or silver foil. While the practice may have evolved differently in each country, the underlying meaning of giving a gift of money in a red envelope remains the same.

The modernization of red envelopes

In recent years, the tradition of giving red envelopes has gone digital. Websites and mobile apps such as WeChat and Alipay in China and Line in Japan allow users to send virtual hongbao to their friends and family. While the digital versions may lack the tactile experience of opening a physical envelope, they have become a popular way to connect with loved ones during the Lunar New Year, especially for those who are unable to physically be together.

Country Red Envelope Name Occasions
China Hongbao Lunar New Year, weddings, birthdays
Japan Pochibukuro New Year, weddings, other celebratory occasions
Korea Poh-yeon-ji Weddings, first birthdays, other celebratory occasions
Vietnam Li xi Tet (Lunar New Year), weddings, other celebratory occasions

The digital age has also given rise to new traditions, such as the giving of virtual hongbao during live streams or online games. Whatever form the red envelope takes, its significance as a symbol of good luck and prosperity remains a cherished tradition throughout Asia.

Chinese New Year

One of the most important traditional holidays in China is the Chinese New Year. It’s also known as the Lunar New Year or Spring Festival and is celebrated in January or February, depending on the lunar calendar. The festivities last for 15 days and are a time for family reunions and paying respects to ancestors.

What does the red envelope symbolize?

  • The red envelope, also known as the “lucky money” envelope, is a traditional gift given to children and unmarried adults during Chinese New Year.
  • The color red symbolizes luck, happiness, and prosperity, which makes it an appropriate color for the envelopes. The money inside the red envelope is also lucky, as it’s believed to bring good fortune in the coming year.
  • It’s customary for married couples or elders to give red envelopes filled with money to younger family members as a way of sharing their blessings and wishing them good luck in the new year.

Other traditions during Chinese New Year

Aside from giving out red envelopes, there are other traditions that people observe during Chinese New Year:

  • Cleaning the house thoroughly to get rid of bad luck and make way for good luck.
  • Decorating the house with red lanterns, banners, and other decorations to bring in good fortune.
  • Preparing and eating traditional foods like dumplings, rice cakes, and sweet rice balls.

Chinese Zodiac and the Lunar New Year

Each year of the Chinese New Year is associated with one of the twelve zodiac animals: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. These animals cycle through every twelve years, and the year you’re born in is thought to influence your personality and fortune.

Zodiac Animal Birth Year
Rat 2020, 2008, 1996, 1984, 1972
Ox 2021, 2009, 1997, 1985, 1973
Tiger 2022, 2010, 1998, 1986, 1974
Rabbit 2023, 2011, 1999, 1987, 1975
Dragon 2024, 2012, 2000, 1988, 1976

People born in the same zodiac year are said to share certain personality traits and are compatible with certain zodiac animals. The year of your zodiac sign is believed to be an important factor in determining your fortune in the coming year.

Traditional symbolism of the color red in Chinese culture

In Chinese culture, red is a highly auspicious color that symbolizes good luck and prosperity. It is commonly used in festivals, weddings, and other celebrations, and is believed to bring good fortune and ward off evil spirits. Here are some traditional symbolism associated with the color red in Chinese culture:

The Number 3

  • The number 3 is considered lucky because the Chinese believe that good things come in threes. This is why many buildings in China have three doors, and why certain traditional Chinese dances are performed in groups of three.
  • Three is also associated with the three gods of happiness, wealth, and longevity. These three gods are often depicted together and are believed to bring prosperity and good fortune.
  • When it comes to red envelopes, giving three coins or bills is a common practice, as it is believed to triple the good luck of the recipient.

Other Symbolism

In addition to the number 3, there are other traditional symbols associated with the color red in Chinese culture:

  • The phoenix, a mythical bird that symbolizes luck and happiness, is often depicted in shades of red.
  • The dragon, another important symbol in Chinese mythology, is also associated with the color red. It is believed to bring power and good fortune.
  • In Chinese astrology, the year of the rooster is associated with the color red, as roosters are believed to bring good luck and prosperity.

Red Envelopes

Red envelopes, or 红包 (hóngbāo), are a prevalent aspect of Chinese culture. These red envelopes are commonly used to give money as a gift for special occasions, such as weddings, birthdays, and Chinese New Year. The significance of the red envelope lies not only in the amount of money contained within, but also in the color of the envelope itself. The color red is believed to bring good fortune and expel evil spirits, making it the perfect choice for such an occasion.

Occasion Amount of Money
Chinese New Year An even number ranging from 6-8 or 88 is considered lucky
Weddings An even number ranging from 8-88 is considered lucky
Birthday An even number ranging from 18-88 is considered lucky

Overall, the red envelope symbolizes good fortune, prosperity, and joy in Chinese culture. It is a symbol that continues to hold great significance and remains an important part of many traditional celebrations.

The Significance of Money in Chinese Culture

In Chinese culture, money plays a significant role and is considered an important aspect of daily life. It has a deeper meaning beyond its practical value of facilitating transactions. It is believed that the way people handle and perceive money reflects their character and values.

The Number 4

In Chinese culture, the number 4 is considered one of the most unlucky numbers because it is pronounced similarly to the word “death.” As a result, Chinese people try to avoid using or associating themselves with this number as much as possible. This is especially true when it comes to money as they believe that having the number 4 on bills or in bank account balances will bring bad luck and financial misfortune.

  • Many buildings in China do not have a fourth floor or any floor numbered 4 at all. This is because it is believed that people who live or work on the fourth floor will have shortened lifespans or encounter accidents and illness.
  • Some wealthy Chinese businessmen and investors will even go as far as paying extra to obtain license plates for their luxury cars that do not have any number 4 in them.
  • When giving gifts of money or making transactions, Chinese people will avoid giving or receiving amounts that contain the number 4. Instead, they prefer numbers with positive meanings such as 6, 8, and 9, which are considered lucky.
Number Meaning
6 Sounds like “smooth” and represents good fortune and happiness.
8 Sounds like “wealth” and “prosperity,” making it a popular number for business and financial transactions.
9 Sounds like “long-lasting” and is associated with longevity and a harmonious life.

Overall, the number 4 holds a significant amount of superstition in Chinese culture. It is important to understand and respect these beliefs when conducting business or interacting with Chinese people, particularly in matters related to money.

Giving and receiving red envelopes

Red envelopes, also known as hongbao or lai see in Mandarin and Cantonese, respectively, are a traditional Chinese gift given during special occasions, most commonly during the Lunar New Year. The red envelope symbolizes good luck, happiness, and auspiciousness, according to Chinese culture. The act of giving and receiving red envelopes has its own set of customs and etiquette.

  • Who gives red envelopes?
  • Parents, grandparents, and married couples are the most common givers of red envelopes. Children and unmarried individuals are the ones who receive them. Giving red envelopes to unmarried adults is a way to wish them luck in finding a partner. It’s also common for employers to give their employees red envelopes as a way to share the company’s luck and fortune.
  • When are red envelopes given?
  • Red envelopes are most commonly given during the Lunar New Year. However, they are also given during weddings, birthdays, graduations, and other celebratory milestones. Giving red envelopes during these occasions is seen as an act of generosity and respect.
  • How much money is in a red envelope?
  • The amount of money in a red envelope is not fixed and can vary depending on the giver’s financial situation and relationship with the receiver. It’s customary to give even-numbered amounts of money as odd numbers are associated with funerals in Chinese culture. Five (5) and 10 are the most common amounts found in red envelopes, as they represent the five elements (wu xing) and the 10 heavenly stems (shi tiangan).

The meaning behind the number 5

The number five (5) is a particularly significant number in Chinese culture, representing the five elements: water, wood, fire, earth, and metal. These elements correspond with the five essential organs in traditional Chinese medicine: the kidneys, liver, heart, spleen, and lungs. The number 5 is also associated with the five directions: north, south, east, west, and the center. Each direction is symbolized by a different element, with the center representing a mix of all five elements.

Character Pin Yin Element
Jin Metal
Mu Wood
Shui Water
Huo Fire
Tu Earth

The number 5 is also significant in Chinese divination, such as feng shui and I Ching, where it represents balance and harmony. It is believed that having a balance of the five elements in one’s life leads to good health and prosperity. This is why the number 5 is commonly found in Chinese wedding decorations and gifts, as it represents a harmonious union.

Traditional etiquette of red envelopes

Red envelopes are an important part of Chinese culture. These envelopes are usually given during the Chinese New Year, weddings, births, and other special occasions. The act of giving red envelopes is called “hongbao” in Chinese. They are given in a spirit of good wishes, and they symbolize prosperity, happiness, and good luck. Red envelopes are usually given to children and young unmarried adults, but they can also be given to older adults as a sign of respect.

  • Red envelopes are always given in even numbers, and the amount of the money inside should also be in even numbers. This is because odd numbers are associated with funerals and are considered unlucky.
  • The amount of money inside a red envelope should also be an auspicious number. The number 6 is considered lucky because it sounds like the Chinese word for “flow” and is associated with good luck and prosperity.
  • When giving a red envelope, it is important to use crisp, new bills as a sign of respect for the recipient. The bills should be placed inside the envelope with the design facing up, and the envelope should be sealed.

During Chinese New Year, red envelopes are usually given by elders to children and young unmarried adults as a way to wish them good luck and prosperity in the new year. In return, the recipients express their gratitude by wishing the giver a happy new year and by offering tea or other gifts.

If you’re attending a Chinese wedding, it’s customary to give a red envelope to the couple with money inside. The amount of money given should be an auspicious number and should reflect your relationship with the couple.

Relationship to Couple Amount of Money
Casual acquaintance $50-$100
Friend or relative $100-$500
Close friend or family member $500-$1000 or more

Regardless of the occasion, giving a red envelope should always be done with good intentions and in the spirit of kindness and generosity. By understanding the traditional etiquette of red envelopes, you can ensure that your gift is well-received and appreciated by the recipient.

Evolution of red envelopes in modern Chinese society

Red envelopes, also known as hongbao in Chinese, are traditional gifts filled with cash and given during special occasions like Chinese New Year, weddings, and graduations. In modern Chinese society, the red envelope culture has evolved to become an important part of social interactions, social status, and online communities.

  • Monetary value: The amount of money inside a red envelope has become a symbol of status and recognition. In some cases, people will publicly share how much money they received in their red envelopes.
  • Variety of occasions: While red envelopes were traditionally associated with Chinese New Year, they are now given during other celebrations such as weddings, birthdays, and graduations.
  • Online communities: The rise of digital red envelopes through mobile payment platforms such as WeChat and Alipay has transformed the tradition into a social phenomenon that allows people to send and receive money instantly while expressing their emotions and creativity.

Overall, the evolution of red envelopes in modern Chinese society has created a deeper meaning to the tradition and has become a symbol of social status, recognition, and community.

The number 7

The number 7 is considered to be a lucky number in Chinese culture, making it a popular number for red envelopes. During Chinese New Year, it is customary to give red envelopes with amounts that contain the number 7, such as 77 or 777, which are believed to bring good luck and prosperity to the recipient.

Chinese Pinyin English Translation
jiǔ nine

In addition to the number 7, the numbers 8 and 9 are also considered lucky in Chinese culture. The number 8 is believed to bring wealth and fortune, while the number 9 is associated with eternity and longevity.

Overall, the use of lucky numbers in red envelopes is a reflection of the importance of symbolism and tradition in Chinese culture.

Use of Red Envelopes in Weddings

In Chinese culture, weddings are an important event and red envelopes play a crucial role in the celebration. The couples usually receive red envelopes filled with cash or some other gifts from their guests as a sign of good luck, blessings, and best wishes for their future. Red envelopes are also used in many other festive occasions such as Chinese New Year and birthdays.

One important aspect related to red envelopes in weddings is the number 8. In Chinese culture, the number 8 is considered a lucky number and it is believed to bring good fortune, success, and prosperity to the recipient. This is why it is a common practice to include cash gifts in the multiples of 8 in red envelopes.

Moreover, the number 8 also holds a special significance in Chinese language and culture. The pronunciation of the word “eight” in Chinese sounds very similar to the word “fortune” and “wealth”. Hence, the number 8 is associated with abundance and prosperity.

To give an example, a typical cash gift in a wedding red envelope would be around CNY 800, which is 8 multiplied by 100. However, the amount of cash gift can vary depending on the relationship with the couple, the financial status of the guest, and the region. In some areas, the amount of cash gift is even believed to reflect the guest’s social status and generosity.

In conclusion, the use of red envelopes in weddings is a very important aspect of Chinese culture as it symbolizes blessings of good luck and prosperity for the couple. The number 8 is a key factor in determining the cash gift amount, reflecting the cultural significance of this lucky number.

Number Chinese Pronunciation Symbolism
8 Good fortune, wealth, prosperity
88 Bā Bā Double blessing, double happiness
888 Bā Bā Bā Triple fortune, triple wealth, triple prosperity

As seen in the table above, the repetition of the number 8 intensifies its symbolism and significance in the Chinese culture.

Different Variations of Red Envelopes in Other Cultures

Red envelopes are not only popular in Chinese culture but also in other cultures. They are used to celebrate various occasions and to bring good luck and prosperity. Here are some examples:

  • Japanese: In Japan, a monetary gift called “Otoshidama” is given to young children during New Year’s celebrations. This gift is presented in “Pochibukuro,” a small decorated paper envelope that is similar to a red envelope.
  • Korean: Koreans celebrate Lunar New Year and Chuseok (thanksgiving) by giving gifts in red envelopes called “Pae-ssi-bo.” However, the significance of the red color in Korea is different from that in China, where it is associated with luck; in Korea, it represents happiness and a long life.
  • Vietnamese: The Vietnamese celebrate the Lunar New Year by giving “Lì Xì,” which is a red envelope filled with money. Vietnamese children also receive red envelopes on their birthdays, but they are called “Hong Bao” instead of Lì Xì.

The Number 9

In Chinese culture, the number 9 is considered one of the luckiest numbers. It is believed that the number 9 represents longevity and eternity. The word for “nine” in Chinese, “jiu,” sounds similar to the word for “long-lasting” or “forever,” which is why it is so auspicious.

When it comes to red envelopes, the number 9 is often used to represent good luck and blessings. A common practice is to put money in red envelopes in denominations of 9, such as 99, 999, or 9999 yuan. This is a way to wish the recipient good luck and prosperity.

Number Meaning
9 Longevity and eternity
99 Double luck and double happiness
999 An abundance of luck and wealth
9999 Endless good luck

The number 9 is also associated with the Chinese zodiac sign of the dragon, which is considered the luckiest sign. Dragons are believed to bring prosperity, good luck, and success. Therefore, giving a red envelope with 9 yuan to a person born in the year of the dragon is considered extremely lucky.

Overall, the number 9 is an important symbol in Chinese culture and is often used in red envelopes to signify good luck, blessings, and prosperity.

The Commercialization of Red Envelopes in Modern Times

While the red envelope has traditionally been a symbol of Chinese culture and tradition, in recent years, it has become increasingly commercialized. With the rise of globalization and the internet, companies have seen the potential of using the red envelope as a means of promoting their products and services. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the commercialization of red envelopes in modern times, exploring the ways in which they are being used as a marketing tool.

  • 1. The Popularity of Red Envelope Apps: With the widespread use of smartphones and mobile technology, many companies have developed red envelope apps that allow users to send digital red envelopes to friends and family. These apps are often tied to promotions and marketing campaigns, encouraging users to share them with others in order to earn rewards or discounts.
  • 2. Red Envelope Gifts: Many companies have also begun to offer red envelope gifts as a way of promoting their products and services. For example, a restaurant might offer customers a red envelope gift card that can be redeemed for a free meal or discount. Similarly, a retail store might offer customers a red envelope gift certificate that can be used toward future purchases.
  • 3. Branded Red Envelopes: Some companies have taken the commercialization of red envelopes even further by creating branded envelopes that feature their logos or products. These envelopes can be distributed as part of a marketing campaign or even sold as merchandise.

While some critics view the commercialization of red envelopes as a dilution of their traditional meaning and significance, others see it as a way of keeping the tradition relevant and accessible for future generations. Ultimately, it is up to individual consumers to decide whether they view the use of red envelopes for commercial purposes as appropriate or not.

As the tradition of giving red envelopes continues to evolve, it will be interesting to see how companies continue to incorporate them into their marketing strategies. Whether they are used to promote products, reward customers, or simply to celebrate important occasions, the red envelope remains an iconic symbol of Chinese culture and tradition.

Pros of Commercialization Cons of Commercialization
Keeps the tradition relevant for future generations Can be seen as a dilution of the traditional meaning and significance
Supports local and international businesses May be viewed as inappropriate or disrespectful by some consumers
Encourages creativity and innovation in marketing campaigns Could lead to oversaturation and fatigue among consumers

Overall, the commercialization of red envelopes reflects the ongoing evolution of Chinese culture in the modern era. While some may view it as a departure from tradition, others see it as a way of embracing change and making the tradition accessible to a wider audience.

What Does the Red Envelope Symbolize?

1. Why are red envelopes given during Chinese New Year?

Red envelopes, also known as “hongbao” in Mandarin, are given during Chinese New Year as a symbol of good luck and prosperity.

2. Who typically receives red envelopes?

Traditionally, red envelopes are given to children by married couples or elderly family members, but in modern times, they can be given to anyone as a sign of goodwill.

3. What is inside a red envelope?

The most common item found inside red envelopes is money, usually in the form of crisp new bills. The amount can vary but should always be an even number.

4. Can you reuse a red envelope?

No, it is considered bad luck to reuse a red envelope. Instead, dispose of it respectfully, or keep it as a memento.

5. Why are red envelopes red?

Red is an auspicious color in Chinese culture and symbolizes good luck, fortune, and happiness. That’s why the envelopes are always red.

6. Are there any rules for giving or receiving red envelopes?

Yes, there are a few customs and traditions to follow when giving or receiving red envelopes, such as presenting them with both hands and offering a polite message.

7. What if I don’t celebrate Chinese New Year, can I still give or receive a red envelope?

Yes, you can! Red envelopes have become a popular gift for various occasions in Chinese culture, such as weddings, birthdays, and graduations, as a way to share good fortune.

Closing Thoughts

We hope that this article has shed some light on the cultural significance behind the red envelope in Chinese tradition. It is important to understand and appreciate the customs and rituals of different cultures, and the red envelope is just one example of a beautiful and meaningful tradition. Thank you for reading, and we invite you to visit us again soon for more insightful content about different cultures and traditions around the world!