All About Red Envelopes in Chinese Culture

What is a Red Envelope?
Red Envelopes are parcels containing money, given as gifts to loved ones, and are a prominent part of Chinese culture. They may vary in decoration, as new and popular ones may have cute designs, but they are typically the same conservative size. As is popularly known, red is a color of good luck in China, and is therefore used on the envelopes as a gesture of good will, in addition to ward off evil spirits. Red envelopes are typically given out at social and family gatherings, such as weddings and the Chinese New Year in southern China. During the Chinese New Year, it is customary for older individuals to give red envelopes to younger relatives. Therefore, most commonly married individuals will give red envelopes to unmarried and often young children. However, they may also be presented to professional workers, such as doctors and teachers, who have performed excellently.

What are Traditions Surrounding Red Envelopes?
The amount of money enclosed in a red envelope must adhere to certain conditions, most of which are based in superstition. For one, the amount must be an even number if the occasion is happy, as odd amounts of money are tied with funerals. Secondly, the red envelope must not contain a number including four. This is because Chinese is a tonal language, and the word for “four” is also the word for “death” when pronounced differently. Thirdly, the notes enclosed are usually factors of nine, as this is considered a lucky number. A more practical tradition is for wedding guests to present newlyweds with a red envelope covering the cost of having hosted and fed them during the reception.

There are other traditions concerning the red envelope, including what sort of monetary notes to use and how they should be opened. It is customary to include a single note within the red envelope, to ensure everyone is given an identical size. This avoids assumptions that someone might have been given more money, or that the same total is divided into more than one note, as the first condition would imply favoritism and the second a lack of care. Also, red envelopes are not to be opened before relatives, as the amount given by one person may differ. You may be able to guess that it is customary red envelopes never contain loose change.

Ogden, Suzanne. China . Guilford, CT.: Dushkin Pub. Group/Brown & Benchmark, 1995. Print.

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