Kathy Chin Leong
*Included in the print edition
No color compares to the auspiciousness of red in Chinese culture. The color of success, the color of wealth, the color of happiness, the color of longevity– it is a catch-all for everything good in life. And that is why the Chinese money envelopes, known as hung bao, are red.
According to one Chinese myth, a monster would come out annually devouring livestock and people before Chinese New Year. To combat this rampage, the villagers lit red firecrackers and set out red lanterns to scare it away. The deafening racket and threatening color stopped the monster from appearing again, and the tradition of igniting firecrackers and hanging red lantern carries through today.
The red envelope history stems from the early dynasties of China when currency came in the form as coins with square holes in the center. During Chinese New Year, families gave out a chain of coins tied together with a red string. Later when bills were printed, it only made sense that red envelopes were used to hold the paper money.
Today, red envelopes signify wishes for blessing and prosperity. Chinese married couples distribute hung bao to elderly parents, single siblings, and children during Chinese New Year. And notes must be new and crisp, never used. In China and Hong Kong, employers hand out envelopes to their staff. Friends may even distribute them among peers. Guests typically give newlyweds a red envelope embossed with the double happiness character. Hung bao as baby gifts and birthday presents is also appropriate.
And when Chinese aren’t sure of what type of gift to buy, a red envelope stuffed with cash always seems to save the day.