Skip to Main Content

Journey to the West: Lunar New Year (2016)

Hong Bao

Hong Bao (红包), which means "red envelopes," is a tradition the Chinese participate in for holidays and special occasions, such as the Chinese New Year. The red envelopes usually contain money which adults give to children as gifts.  While the most common time to give out red envelopes is during the Chinese New Year, the red envelopes are used for other special occasions too, such as births, birthdays, weddings, and funerals.   On New Year’s Day, children are given red envelopes with new, crisp money inside and in return, they pay respect to the oldest members of the family and the ancestors. 

Image Credit:

The tradition of Hong Bao is very old; however there are conflicting stories about its origins.   Most of the legends associated with it include a magical and evil entity that was defeated. The money may or may not have been part of the original tradition. Here are a few different theories and legends about the origin of the red envelopes:

  • They originated in the Sung Dynasty in China, when a young orphan defeated a huge demon terrorizing the village of Chain-Chieu.  Although the greatest of warriors of the time could not defeat this demon, the young orphan was able to kill the demon by using a magical saber. To show their gratitude, the elders of the village presented the orphan with a red envelope filled with money.
  • The red color of the envelopes stems from when people used to paste red paper couplets on their doors to scare away Nein, a ferocious beast that eats people on New Year’s Eve.
  • The red envelopes dates back to the Quing dynasty when the elders of a family traditionally gave the children one hundred coins weaved into the shape of a dragon. The hundred coins proved to be inconvenient to give out though, and this tradition eventually evolved onto the modern tradition of giving paper money in red envelopes.

Whether or not any of these legends are factual, it is true that the color red plays a very significant role in Chinese culture and therefore in the Chinese New Year. As the color of blood, it symbolizes the positive aspects of life such as happiness, wealth and fame.  Long considered the most auspicious of colors, red is also a sign of good luck because of its symbolic association with fire, sun, brightness, life energy (the yang of yin and yang), and blood.  Because of these positive connotations, red is the color of choice for décor, clothing, and envelopes during all special occasions and most especially for Chinese New Year.  During Chinese New Year’s Eve, houses will be illuminated with red candles so bad luck can’t wander into the corners during the long night and people prepare for the New Year festival by writing happy wishes and asking for good luck on red paper with gold ink, which is then hung at their doorways.

There is even an ancient legend which explains how the color red became so significant to the Chinese people for New Year’s celebrations.   As the story goes, a demon, called the Nian, used to terrorize villagers at the end of the year. This demon was believed to have three weaknesses: it was frightened by noise, it disliked sunshine, and it was terrified of the color red.  So to vanquish the demon, the villagers wisely exploited these weaknesses by building a huge bonfire outside the village, setting off hundreds of firecrackers, and painting the doors of their homes red.  Upon seeing the commotion, the Nian monster became so panicked that it covered its head in fear and ran away.  And this, according to the legend, is how bright red became the color of the New Year.

Image Credit:

While the origin theories may differ, one thing remains certain and that is the tradition of giving money in red envelopes still continues today during the Chinese New Year celebrations.

Works Cited

Works Cited

Black, Brandon, et al. “Red Envelopes: An Old Chinese Tradition.” Anthropology at UCI.  University of California, Irvine, n.d. Web.

          21  Oct. 2015.

“Chinese Customs, Superstitions and Traditions.” Ministry of Commerce, PRC. The Economic and Commercial Counselor’s Office of

          the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United States of America, 29 Nov. 2004. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.

Naumann, Sarah. “Giving Hong Bao (Red Envelopes) at Chinese New Year and Other Occasions”. China Travel., n.d.

          Web. 21 Oct. 2015.

Otto, Carolyn. Celebrate Chinese New Year. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2009. Print.

Stepanchuk, Carol, and Charles Wong. Mooncakes and Hungry Ghosts. San Francisco: China Books, 1991. Print.

The content of this page was made possible by the hard work of Associate Librarian Alexandra Doyle-Bauer.