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A centuries-old tradition finds its way to the smartphone

Hóngbāo: Of demons and red envelopes

In China, as well as in many other East and Southeast Asian societies, a red envelope is a popular gift. It is filled with money and presented during the Chinese New Year and on special occasions such as weddings, school graduations or the birth of a child. In China, the tradition is known as Hóngbāo and this old and popular custom has since found its way into the digital age.

Also very popular outside China

When the Chinese New Year – the year of the dragon –  starts on February 10, 2024, not only will the usual pandemonium spread throughout the Middle Kingdom, also millions of red envelopes filled with money will be sent around as an expression of appreciation. Not only in China are the red envelopes are considered a welcome gift. In other countries too, even independently of the local Chinese minorities, similar practices have also become popular. Especially in Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Burma and Cambodia, the practice of giving a gift of money packed in a red envelope is widespread. Even in Korea and Japan, envelopes are offered for the New Year, although though these countries have their own traditions: white envelopes are used for Seollal, the Korean New Year, while in Japan colorfully decorated envelopes are given away for Shōgatsu.

The origin is unclear, but legendary

There are two legends about the origin of Hóngbāo. According to a story from the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), a Chinese village was once terrorized by a demon that no heroic warrior could defeat. Many years went by while the inhabitants continued to suffer under the demon. Only a young orphan armed with a magical sword that he had inherited from his ancestors volunteered to face the demon, and finally conquered him. As legend has it, the village elders rewarded the young hero with a red envelope filled with coins to thank him for his courage and bravery.


A demon that gives you a headache

A much older narrative, however, comes from the Qin Dynasty (221 to 206 BC). This story is about a little demon named “Sui” who always appears at New Year’s and touches the head of sleeping children. The children who have been touched feel anxious, get headaches and cry. This is why people did not dare to go to sleep on New Year’s Eve. According to the story, one elderly couple was afraid for their youngest son so they pulled out eight pieces of copper coins that night, hoping their son would play with the coins and thus stay awake. But when the child became very tired anyway, they finally let him go to sleep. However, they took a red paper bag, put the copper coins inside it and placed them under the child’s pillow. Suddenly the doors and windows were thrown open by a strange wind and the candlelight went out. They realized that Sui had come. When the evil demon tried to touch the child’s head, the pillow was illuminated by a golden light and this drove him away. According to legend, the news of this “protection” then spread throughout China.  


“Four” and “Death”

In Chinese culture the color red is usually the color of happiness. Artful decorations on the envelopes are often in yellow or gold. The amount of money given is frequently chosen according to Chinese numerology – a science in itself – to achieve lucky numbers. Usually even amounts are preferred over uneven ones and the number four is avoided whenever possible: in the Chinese language the pronunciation of the word “four” resembles that of the word for “death.” A total no-go in the Middle Kingdom.

These days, money envelopes are used in many ways

In the meantime, red envelopes are usually given by older people to youths and children, and by married couples to singles, regardless of age (in China, you are not considered adult until you are married). In some offices, bosses even pay for red gift envelopes for their employees out of their own pockets, to ensure happiness and wealth for the coming year. At the same time Hóngbāo is also often given as a gift at weddings and birthdays. Particularly at Chinese weddings, the red envelope has become an integral part of traditional customs. The bridegroom must symbolically fight his way to his future wife at the front door or “buy back” access. Among other things, this is done through presents or with a gift of money in a red envelope.


Hóngbāo goes digital!

In 2014, the use of Hóngbāo was modernized when Tencent, a large Chinese Internet company and inventor of the WeChat news platform, offered digital money envelopes via its mobile communication and payment platform. In WeChat, users can click on a virtual red envelope icon, add a message, and then enter an amount to be sent digitally to other users or to entire chat groups. According to analysts, just four years after its introduction more than 768 million people were using WeChat’s digital Hóngbāo function. Of course this great success has aroused the interest of the other large Chinese technology companies, and Alibaba and Baidu have now followed suit with their own services.


Happy chaos in group chats 

When a Hóngbāo is sent to a group chat, the sender indicates the total amount of his/her money gift. The retrieval of the envelope icon then becomes a fun game among the recipients. The first person to open the Hóngbāo receives the largest share of the amount sent. The second “opener” receives a slightly smaller amount – and so on until the amount of the present has been used up. The fear of being last and going empty-handed leads to a crazy chaos in many group chats round about the Chinese New Year. Friends physically sit in the same room, laughing and giving each other WeChat gifts to see who is most successful at collecting Hóngbāo.

WeChat - More than a messenger app

The digital Hóngbāo is just another example of China’s rapid transition to digital technologies and the population’s penchant for online payment methods. Above all, the trendy “WeChat” app offers a wealth of additional services. The popularity of the app is most comparable to the widespread WhatsApp in the West. 

With WeChat, users not only send messages, make calls and communicate via video telephony, but can also upload data online, post their “moments” on an Instagram-like social media platform, and manage their WeChat wallet. With WeChat’s wallet, users can transfer money free of charge, pay anywhere for goods and services using WeChat’s QR code, and even book flights, trains, and movie tickets. 

The ubiquitous presence of WeChat and Alibaba QR codes in shops on mainland China accounts for much of China’s growing cashless society and foreign observers are amazed at the extent to which it has penetrated everyday life. cargo-partner has also been on WeChat since November 2018 and, like numerous other service providers, is positioning itself in China’s gigantic online universe.