Chinese New Year (Spring Festival) (新年 Xīnnián | 春节 Chūnjié) is one of the most important festivals for Chinese people. It is celebrated not only in China but also in many other countries where either the lunar calendar is used or where a large Chinese or Chinese-speaking population live, such as in Vietnam, Korea, and many Asean countries. It marks the first day of the lunar calendar and signifies a new beginning. Each new year is characterized by one of the twelve animals that make up the Chinese zodiac. This year is the Year of the Ox, which symbolizes strength and determination.
Chinese New Year is a time for family gatherings, enormous feasts, and bustling flower markets. There are actually quite a few rules of etiquette to follow. Many things are loaded with auspicious meanings, from the words we exchange with one another, to the food we eat, the flowers we send, and the clothes we wear.
Being of Chinese descent myself, I have often heard many legends or stories about Mid-Autumn Festival, but have seldom heard of or paid much attention to any legends regarding Chinese New Year. This may have a lot to do with looking forward to receiving red pockets, enjoying long holidays from school, eating rice cakes(年糕 Niángāo) and tons of others snacks when I was a youngster.
Just last week, a friend of mine sent over a funny clip from Ronny Chieng, a famous Malaysian standup comedian, in which he was joking about how Chinese people love money. Well, Ronny was making fun of Chinese stereotypes. I did not take it too seriously as it was all done tongue in cheek, but it did however give me the idea to write this post about the origin of some traditions surrounding red pockets.
Red pockets, red packets or red envelopes, (红包 hóng bāo | 利是 lai see) contain money. The significance of red pockets is actually the red paper, not the money inside because the red color of the envelope symbolizes good luck and good fortune, and can ward off evil spirits.
So, why is money placed inside the red pocket instead of sweets or other items? Is it really just because the Chinese love money? The money in red envelopes is also known as 压岁钱 (yā suì qián) which can literally be translated as “suppressing Sui money”. As legend goes, a demon known as “Sui” often terrorized children while they slept on New Year’s Eve, and so parents tried to keep their children entertained all night as a way to protect them. Children were given eight coins to play with in a bag. However, most couldn’t keep their eyes open and would eventually fall asleep with the pocket and coins under their pillows. Then Sui would appear and try to touch their heads. However, the coins (actually eight Immortals Guards in disguise) protected them because they emitted a strong light that scared the monster Sui away. From then on, the tradition of giving red envelopes to children to keep them safe and bring good luck grew and caught on.
Wrapping lucky money in red envelopes is believed to bestow happiness and blessings on those who receive them. Red pockets are traditionally given out by elders and married couples to children and young single adults. However, the younger generation also give them out to their elders when they achieve financial independence as a way to give back and as a blessing of longevity and to express gratitude. Therefore, giving out red pockets can be considered an act of sharing and blessing.
While the tradition centers on children, red pockets are also given to friends, relatives, family, colleagues and even casual acquaintances who have provided assistance sometime in the past year. Since it’s an act of sharing and blessing, you can give red envelopes to practically anyone nowadays. Even cleaning ladies or security guards can expect one from you.
In the past, red pockets were given out when you visited someone over Chinese New Year (拜年 bài nián). Usually the grandparents would sit in the back of a room while their children and grandchildren performed three kowtows. Kowtow (磕头 kē tóu) literally means to knock your head (against the floor) and is the act of kneeling on the ground and bowing so deeply that your hands are also on the ground. It is considered the ultimate show of respect. Similar bows called (세배 sebae) are also performed in traditional Korean New Year celebrations (설날 Seollal).
An important point to remember is that traditionally the money that is put into the red pockets should be crisp, new bills. Giving dirty or wrinkled bills is considered bad. Also, putting four notes or bills in one packet is considered unlucky. This is because the number four in Chinese sounds like ‘death’. When you give and receive a red pocket, you should use both hands. It is impolite to accept a red envelope with just one hand. It is also considered impolite to open a red envelope in front of the person who has given it to you. You should smile as you give happily and receive joyfully. Last but not least, you should exchange blessings when you greet each other – this is very important. For children or teenagers, it is best to wish them every success in their studies.
- 学业进步 — May your studies progress well
- 学有所成 — Wish you can achieve your learning goals
As we all know, money and wealth are highly valued in Chinese culture and we are not shy to express that. I shall therefore finish my blog by giving you some suggestions for typical blessings. They are wishes for good fortune, success, peace, good health and immense happiness:
- 恭喜发财 (gōng xǐ fā cái | kung hei fat choy) – May you be prosperous and wealthy
- 财源广进 (cái yuán guǎng jìn) – May your fortune and treasures be plentiful
- 一本萬利 (yī běn wàn lì) – May you reap a huge profit from a small investment
- 吉星高照 (jí xīng gāo zhào) – May good fortune shine upon you
- 大吉大利 (dà jí dà lì) – May you have great luck and great profit
- 年年有馀 (nián nián yǒu yú) – Wishing you abundance and prosperity every year
- 心想事成 (xīn xiǎng shì chéng) – May all your wishes come true
- 万事如意 (wàn shì rú yì) – May everything go well for you
- 笑口常开 (xiào kǒu cháng kāi) – May your year be filled with joy and laughter
- 五福临门 (wǔ fú lín mén) – May you have five blessings (longevity, wealth, health, virtue, and a peaceful ending)
- 身体健康 (shēn tǐ jiàn kāng) – Wishing you good health
- 龙马精神 (lóng mǎ jīng shén) – Wishing you lots of energy and good spirit
- 出入平安 (chū rù píng ān) – Wishing you safety and peace wherever you go
- 一帆风顺 (yī fān fēng shùn) – May all that you do go smoothly
- 平步青云 (píng bù qīng yún) — May you get promoted quickly
- 马到成功 (mǎ dào chéng gōng) — May you endeavors meet with success
- 步步高升 (bù bù gāo shēng) — May you continuously get promoted