Lunar New Year and the Giving of Hong Bao

sduncan post on January 29th, 2013
Posted in China and Taiwan Tags: ,

By Christianna Facey-Crowther

In Taiwan the Lunar New Year is the most important festival of the year, as it is for Chinese people around the world. The festival begins on the twenty-fourth day of the twelfth month of the lunar calendar, the day when it is believed that the house gods report to the Jade Emperor about the household activities of the past year (Cultural Taiwan, 2007). Taiwanese people celebrate the new year with family and friends and engage in symbolic meals and rituals that are meant to bring luck and prosperity for the new year.

Traditionally, on the day of the Lunar New Year, red envelopes are distributed that contain paper money. The packets are called hong bao in Mandarin which means “lucky money” and the act of giving them confers luck onto both the giver and the receiver. The rules about who gives and who recieves are simple: those with higher status give red envelopes to those with lower status. Married couples give red envelopes to children, people who are single and to elderly or those without income. Employers give red envelopes to employees as a New Year bonus. The amount contained inside the red envelope correspond to the strength of the relationships between the giver and receiver. Around the time of the Lunar New Year, Taiwanese people don’t leave the house without a small stack of red envelopes in case they encounter a worthy recipient.

According to Taiwanese legend, Nian, a ferocious beast would attack villages on Lunar New Year’s Eve. The beast was afraid of the color red and so people hung lucky phrases written on red paper on their doors for protection. Today, the color red is recognized as symbolizing luck, happiness and wealth and is the only color of envelope for hong bao (Siu, 2001).

The contents of the red envelope are always money and always in even numbers. The numbers 6 and 8 are auspicious and bring added luck, but the number 4 should be avoided since it’s pronunciation in Mandarin rhymes with the word for death. Taiwanese people form long lines at the banks before Lunar New Year to get new bills for their red envelopes since it is believed that old bills carry with them the bad luck of the past year (Siu, 2001).

Just as there are rules about what to give, there are also rules that direct the behavior of the receiver. In many Taiwanese households, the children ask for the packets as they wish their family members a happy New Year. The receiver must take the red envelope with both hands and bow their head in gratitude. The envelope should never be opened in the presence of the giver since this is considered very rude (Black, Levine, Oh, Wei, n.d.).

The giving of the red envelope at Lunar New Year is a tradition that has been practiced in Chinese culture for centuries (Siu, 2001). The value of the gift is greater than its monetary worth. The giving of the red envelope also confers luck and good wishes for a prosperous new year.

Works Cited

Black, B., Levine, D., Oh, J., Wei, A. (n.d.). Red envelopes: An old Chinese tradition. Retrieved from University of California Irvine website: http://www.anthro.uci.edu/faculty_bios/maurer/AnthroMoney/envelopes.html

Cultural Taiwan. (2007). Lunar New Year in Taiwan. Retrieved from Government Information Office, Republic of China (Taiwan) web site: http://www.gio.gov.tw/taiwan-website/5-gp/culture/lunar-NY/

Siu, K. Y. (2001). Red packet: A traditional object in the modern world. Journal of Popular Culture, 35, 103-125.

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