Red Envelopes and Marriage to a Ghost

Background: M.S. is a 18-year-old student at the University of Southern California studying Business Administration. While she was born in the United States near San Jose, California, both of her parents are from Taiwan, and Taiwanese culture is thoroughly engrained into her character. M.S.’s family believes in many of the superstitions and legends typical of Taiwan, and they have been passed down in her family from generation to generation.


Main piece:

M.S.: If there’s a girl who dies before she gets married or before she has a chance to get married, the parents or the family will often times still hope that she will still get married so they will leave a red envelope full of money on the ground somewhere or in the streets on the girl’s birthday and then they like wills stay there to see who picks it up and if it’s a guy who picks it up then they will like go up to the guy and say “you picked up our daughter’s red envelope, you have to marry her” – yeah – so the concept is like – ok because in traditional or ancient like – so basically in traditional Chinese culture – even now – the women, um, are basically in the family records or family tree like history almost, the women are put under their husband’s family they wouldn’t – because they don’t carry their birth family’s name – right –  it’s like their maiden name – they take on their husband’s name  – they are part of their husband’s family so the parents like because there is also a tradition to I wouldn’t say like worship…there’s a better word… but basically like worship your ancestors – honor – like when they pass – you would still go to the temple or you would have a little shrine to honor your ancestors and like remember them.


So basically what parents and/or families would be worried about is that if their daughters don’t get a chance to marry and they pass away, they’re not going to have anyone who would honor them in the future because they wouldn’t be included in their family’s history – in their records.  They are supposed to be in like – technically – her husband’s.  So which is why they want to find a husband for their daughter and so the guy who picks up that red envelope would have to go through this whole process to like marry her even thought she is obviously like dead and have her included in his family records so that in the future like that his family line – someone will still honor her.  Basically it’s the idea that if she weren’t included in one of those family histories and weren’t honored, she would just be this wild, they call it a “wild ghost” and she’s like just floating there on her own without a family or without anyone to remember her basically.  So this is why they want to have this guy like marry her in a sense.  But technically this guy – even though he is forced to marry this ghost girl in the future he is still allowed to marry someone in the future – for real.  But basically the whole purpose is to get the girl in the family tree so that she can be honored in the future and not just forgotten and if the guy who picks up the red envelope disagrees – like doesn’t agree to marry – like go through this whole process, it is said that he will have bad luck for the rest of his life.


Q: What happens on the man’s family tree? Is the dead wife and the living wife both written under his family tree?


M.S.: Yes – put together.


Q: And this has no effect on the living wife?


M.S.: Yes – it wouldn’t because it’s not like they would officially go to the government and register that he’s married to this ghost wife – it’s just like going through the actions and then like having her included in the family tree.


Q: What would the “actions” be?


M.S.: It’s not as like set but it’s like some of the marriage customs like going to the girl’s house and bringing her to his home – but something that would represent her.  This guy would go to the girl’s house and take her spirit to his home. Just whatever they choose to do but the point is that they would just include her in the family book but you wouldn’t formally register that I am married to this ghost girl.


But this is superstitious, it is not as common anymore.  It is only certain parents – most parents nowadays would just forget about it.  If this girl has like siblings – like brothers – have the brother’s kids honor her instead.  So nowadays people wouldn’t necessarily be like…So she’s saying the majority of people wouldn’t do this anymore but there would still be a minority of people who were superstitious that would do this if the situation.  Moral of the story is if you were walking along the streets and saw a red envelope or pouch full of money – don’t pick it up.


Q: What happens if a woman picks it up?


M.S.: If a woman picked it up, the family would say – this is not yours – we are looking for a man and they would take it and put it back on the ground.


Performance Context: The placement of a red envelope would be done by the family of a girl who had died before she had the chance to get married. This practice would occur in Taiwan, typically in small villages, and by superstitious families.


My Thoughts: This practice of finding a husband for a daughter, even after she has died, shows the importance in Taiwan of honoring your ancestors and also having future generations to honor you. For families who are superstitious, it is vital for them to find a “husband” for their deceased daughter to make sure that she will be honored in the future. Taiwanese society is also clearly patriarchal, given the fact that women’s names are written under the man’s name and on the man’s family tree.