Handing out hóngbāo 紅包(“red envelop” in Mandarin) during the Lunar New Year is a Chinese tradition dating back to the Qin Dynasty (221 to 207 BC). According to legend, the practice started when the children of a rural village were being terrorized by an evil spirit at night. Answering the parents’ prayers, 8 fairies disguised themselves as coins and hid under the children’s pillows. When the evil spirit arrived, the coins shone so brightly that the spirit was scared away. Word spread and parents began giving coins in red envelopes to their children during the Spring Festival.
Nowadays, hóngbāo are given out at birthdays, weddings and especially Chinese New Year. Bosses give their employees bonuses in red envelopes on the last work day prior to the holiday. The red color of the envelope symbolizes good luck for the year ahead and they’re usually decorated with the Chinese characters for prosperity, happiness and luck. The money inside the envelope must be crisp bills and the amount should never include a denomination with the number 4. In Mandarin, the words for death and four sound very similar – so 4 is considered bad luck. Elevators in many Chinese buildings don’t have a 4th Floor button.There’s also a darker side to hóngbāo. Over the centuries, in order to curry favor with officials, people would give them red envelopes. This developed into a system in which, in order to do something for someone, people in power – from government officials to teachers – expected to receive a hóngbāo from the person needing the work done. Despite numerous crackdowns on corruption, the practice still continues to this day.
If you’re lucky enough to receive a hóngbāo during the New Year celebration – and not as part of a bribe 🙂 – follow the prescribed decorum. The envelope should be accepted with both hands. Express thanks for it, but don’t open the envelope in front of the person who gave it to you. That’s considered rude. Simply tuck it away and open it later in private.
Young Chinese still embrace the tradition. But, as with most everything else, they’ve taken it online. There are numerous apps and websites in China offering hóngbāo services to their customers. WeChat alone sends over a billion electronic red envelopes a year!
As part of our Chinese New Year Afternoon Tea Service, Indigo will be handing out hóngbāo to our guests. There won’t be any cash inside! But there will be free drinks, free tea services, gift cards and other surprises – it all depends on your luck of the draw! At the very least, you’ll start the Lunar New Year off with a bit of extra luck.