More about red envelopes

What is a red envelope?

Red envelopes (also called hong bao or lai see) are a traditional gift in many East Asian and Southeast Asian countries. During special occasions, such as Chinese New Year, weddings, and birthdays, people frequently give red envelopes containing cash to friends and family.

Traditionally, during Chinese New Year, married couples gave red envelopes to unmarried family members as Chinese traditions emphasized marital status over age in giving gifts (People became adults after they got married – not when they turned 18!). Today, people also give red envelopes to their parents, the elderly, company employees, and other service vendors as a celebratory gift.

What is the history of red envelopes?

The history of red envelopes goes back thousands of years to the Qin Dynasty. Originally, the red envelope actually started as a red string. Parents and elders would thread Chinese coins with a string to give to their children. They believed a string of coins could ward off evil spirits and that the number of coins on the string would represent the number of years in a child’s life.

Over the course of centuries, the strings eventually became small packets of silk or cloth called li shi packets that held coins. Then, hundreds of years later, as the printing press and paper became more prevalent, the strings and silks packets were replaced with an envelope, and the coins were replaced with bills.

Moving into the 21st century, digital red envelopes have become very popular. In fact, in 2017, over 100 billion digital red envelopes were sent during Chinese New Year over WeChat and other messaging services. The Red Envelope Co was inspired to create a digital red envelope wedding registry to help couples who want to take advantage of both 21st century technology and a centuries-old Asian tradition.

Where do people give red envelopes?

Red envelopes are very popular in China and other places around the world with a large concentration of Chinese immigrants. In addition to China, however, red envelopes are prevalent across almost all of East and Southeast Asia, though they may be known by different names. For example, in Cantonese, red envelopes are called lai see, in Hokkien, they are called ang pau, and in Khmer ang pav or tae ea. Red envelopes are also commonly used in Vietnam, South Korea, and in the Philippines.

There are also several countries that follow the traditions of red envelope gifting with different color envelopes. For example, in Japan, white envelopes are given as gifts during the New Year and for weddings, and in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, Muslims often gift green envelopes, which highlight the connection of Islam to the color green.

Tips for red envelope gifting

While the recipient of a red envelope will always be happy with the gift of a red envelope, there are a few things that you should pay attention to when you are gifting a red envelope:

  • Most importantly, avoid the number four at all costs! A $444 gift in Chinese would translate to death-death-death because the sound of the number four is the same as the word for death.
  • On the flip side, try to use the number eight! In Mandarin, the word for eight sounds like the word for prosperity or wealth, so people believe it is very lucky. So lucky that China started the 2008 Beijing Olympics started at 8/8/08 at 8:08:08 pm local time!
  • The amount of money given in a red envelope should be an even number because even numbers are lucky. In fact, in some countries, red envelopes are typically given in pairs because of the auspicious number two
  • One recent innovation that The Red Envelope Co loves is the inclusion of a meaningful poem or note within a red envelope. These can be included in both digital and physical red envelopes

Tips for receiving a red envelope

  • Typically, red envelopes are presented to the recipient with two hands. The receiver should reciprocate and use two hands to accept the envelope as well
  • Additionally, it is considered rude to open red envelopes in the presence of the person who gifted the envelope or show too much eagerness in receiving a red envelope
  • Make sure to thank the giver of a red envelope, and if it is a special occasion, respond with something like Gong xi fa cai (“wishing you a prosperous new year!”)