Tag Archives: red envelope

Lunar New Year Origins

Context: the informant is a 21 year old USC student with two Taiwanese immigrant parents. She told me that this was the story behind Lunar New Year. I was unable to record her exact words, but I was given permission to paraphrase.

The story goes like this: a long long time ago, there was a village that was attacked on the same day every year by a monster named Nian, which is the Chinese word for year. Year after year, people would die and they couldn’t do anything about it. Somehow, the people found out that Nian was afraid of fire, and so before he came to attack the village that year, they hung up red lanterns, tapestries, and banners outside their doors, hoping the monster would mistake the red color for fire and leave them alone. That year, when Nian came, he saw the decorations and was frightened away; that was the first year that nobody died. Every year after that, on that specific day, they would put up red decorations, hang red lanterns outside the walls, and set off firecrackers at night to make sure that the monster would never come back. During the day, children would also be given red envelopes to put under their pillows for protection. After that first year Nian was driven away, he never came back, too scared of the red colors that he thought were fire. Now for Chinese New Year, everyone wears red and puts up red decorations as a tradition, but this is the way it started.

Analysis: From the definitions we work off of in class, this would be classified as a legend because, while it’s an origin story, it’s an origin story for a tradition rather than a people or a land. It’s clearly set in our world and isn’t necessarily sacred, so if anything, it would be a legend, considering its veracity cannot be verified and it seems like something that, though supernatural, has the potential to be true.

Considering the red is supposed to mimic fire, it seems in theory very similar to some points that Francisco Vaz da Silva made about chromatic symbolism. He argues that the use of the black/white/red tricolor symbolism was “part of a general encoding of cultural values in sensory based categories” and while his argument was in relation to womanhood, I would say that some of might still apply. Red, in his example, was more of a sign of blood or maturation in Europe, but he goes on to reference a paper on African color symbolism that considers red as associated with activity or life-giving, much in the same way that blood might function.

Here, it represents similar concepts — red is a marker of life-giving in the way that it is a symbol of protection and its presence means the continued existence of life. Fire, and by extension, red, are both connected to the idea of life, resulting in an association of fire with vitality. Fire also brings light, driving away darkness and fear, creating another association with life-giving and continued success/safety.

Fire is also among one of the first things children are taught about (usually in the context of safety) and considering few things in nature are that color, I wonder if there’s more association of red with fire rather than blood for children who grow up hearing this story.

Red Envelopes and Lucky Money on Chinese New Year

Main Text

Subject: So…I think the idea is that…the rule that my family uses is, if you’re still in school…you receive. And once you have a job, like a full-time job, then you give. Um. And then so, when we were kids, like, each set of parents would usually give an envelope to each kid. And I think when we were younger it was like…just like, pocket money, like, maybe five bucks, 10 bucks. And like, as we got older, maybe 20, 40.

Um. And then I think for…for all of us I think when we graduated high school it was like, a bigger sum?


The subject is a 22-year-old Taiwanese-American woman in her fourth year at USC. Her parents are immigrants from Taiwan, and celebrating Chinese festivals have been a family tradition since childhood.

The interviewer is a 21-year-old Taiwanese-American student in his third year at USC. As someone who is from the same folk group, he is familiar with most major Chinese festivals.


The subject was describing a ritual associated with the festival of Chinese New Year, called red envelopes (紅包), which contained lucky money (壓歲錢).

The subject additionally describes two contexts where lucky money was given. The first is a situation involving a family friend named Annie, who had been working this year and stated she wouldn’t be accepting any red envelopes. However, the subject’s parents still brought Annie a red envelope, causing “a little bit of conflict.” Annie ended up taking the envelope anyway. The subject reflects on the absurdity of the incident, thinking about her own future as a grad school student. She wonders if, by that point, the decision rule would still continue to make sense, given that she will probably be in school until the age of 30.

After the interviewer mentioned that there were lawsuits going around for children suing parents who had taken their lucky money, the subject laughed, and brought up an instance when her dad took her lucky money. During the sophomore summer year of high school, her family went to visit Taiwan for the first time in a couple of years. Her grandma on her dad’s side had given her a really big sum, supposedly for college. When her grandma gave the money to her, her dad told her that she had to turn over the sum of money to him, and afterwards, she “never saw a dime” of it.

Interviewer Analysis

These two contexts illuminate the purpose of red envelopes with relation to Chinese New Year. Chinese New Year is one of many festivals that celebrate the passage of time. In the instance of Annie, the red envelope serves as a rite of passage. One demonstrates that they have grown up, by demonstrating they have earned enough money to handle the financial obligation of giving red envelopes to the children who haven’t. The conflict for Annie arose because even though Annie had believed she had earned the right to play the grown-up role in the red envelope ritual, the subject’s parents disagreed, and still put her in the position of being a child receiver. The fact that Annie still ended up taking the red envelope shows her lower status with regards to the more established adults in the ritual.

The second instance in Taiwan further shows the purpose of red envelopes as a coming-of-age ritual. Parents, like the subject’s father who took her red envelope money for college, have reasonable anxiety over whether children have the financial responsibility to handle large sums of money. They feel that as adults, they have the duty to safeguard that money. Safeguarding the money is not only a financial practicality—it is a social signal. It demonstrates to other adults that the parents are fulfilling their social duties as financially responsible adults, and it also teaches children about their cultural status: adults are higher than children, and the way to attain that height, is through practicing financial responsibility.

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.

Chinese New Year in a Taiwanese-American home

“It’s just my nuclear family that’s here in America. So it’s my mom, my dad, sister, and me. So ‘family’ constitutes as, you know, those four and then just anyone who’s Taiwanese that we see, they’re considered family. So for Chinese New Year gatherings, we would gather together with like–probably like six other families, and we would do Chinese things.

So what we do as Taiwanese Americans… Normally you get together with every part of your family–like, mom’s, dad’s sides. But again, we’re just the four of us. So we just gather with these other families who are also just here by themselves. Um. So we all get together in one of our houses, like every year, we go to a different person’s house.

And, uh…there’s really no structure to it. Because I was a kid, so you know, you sit at the kids’ table, and then, um… So there’s food, there’s a lot of food. My family’s vegetarian…that’s–that’s the whole Buddhist part. So there’s…we go for the vegetarian option. But then the other families aren’t all Buddhist, so um…they…usually order take out. So part of it they cook, the other part is like, ‘too lazy, might as well just order.’

Um. And so, we usually just go and get food. And then the adults hang out upstairs and we hang out in the basement–like the lounge slash TV–wherever the TV is, the kids gravitate towards. So we play, like, video games.

And then there’s the transition after dinner, like when most people are done eating. Then we take turns, family by family, where you sit–the mom and dad on chairs, like in the lounge. And then you have the kids kind of sit and bow in front of them, and they kind of like–this is where you, like, ask for the red envelope. Where you have to earn it.

Which is–so, in Chinese New Year culture, you have the parents–I don’t know why we do this–the parents give a gift of monetary value in the form of a red envelope to the children. Um. Oh God, I don’t even know why. It’s probably–it’s a sense of good luck, and fortune. It means–it’s a metaphor for something. I don’t know what it is. I’m sure there’s a whole ritual for it, in China or Taiwan, but it’s like distilled down into, like: ‘Okay, the parents sit here. Okay, uh, ask for your red envelopes. In Chinese! In the broken Chinese that you have.’

And so you do that. And then there’s some hugging. And then, like…Asian families are a lot less vocal, about their emotions. It’s like, the love is just insinuated, like, “Oh yeah, I make food for you every night. I love you.” But here, it’s like, kinda awkward. You kinda wanna say it, but then it’s like… So. That happens. It’s, like, awkward. And, like…yeah.

So then each family does that. Oh, and when we were really young? They had us perform before that. So, like, there’d be a violin performance, and then another violin performance. And I think that’s about all we did. And then as we got older, it was just–go straight for it. Everyone just got too lazy.

And then after that, we would go back to eating and playing video games. And then cake. Because we would meet, like, once a month. So it was like, ‘Okay, all the–the January birthdays!’ and there would be a giant cake with candles on it. And you’d blow that out, and then we’d eat cake. And then play video games until our parents told us we had to go.

And that was Chinese New Year.

And all the other holidays seemed to be the same basic structure. Video games, some awkward ceremony…and cake.”

My informant moved to the US when he was five years old. He belongs to a Taiwanese-American Buddhist family, and he was very adamant about the fact that they were neither Taiwanese nor American, but a combination of the two. Because of this, he seemed unsure if the way that his family celebrates the Chinese New Year was “traditional” or bore any resemblance to the way other families celebrate the holiday.
The combination of the traditional (the red envelope ceremony – red for luck) and the modern (the kids all playing video games) seems to be the norm for many immigrant families. In my informant’s description of his Chinese New Year, it is evident that, as he explained, his family is both Taiwanese and American.
I found his aside about the way that his family shows love very interesting. They are tight-knit and obviously love each other, but as he describes it, it is much more demonstrative than stated outright. After all, what can be more loving than feeding your kids every day?

Red Packets

“During the Chinese New Year, I’m no sure about elsewhere in Asia, but in Singapore, the Red Packets are given from married people to single people. Red Packets are envelopes filled with money. Single in this case usually means younger folk. So the tradition is that the younger folk have to kneel in front of the older, married people, and say, “gong xi fa cai,” which is basically a congratulations. As they do this, they’re supposed to hand two oranges in outstretched palms facing upwards. You have to hand the orange to the elder respectfully. Then the elder will take the oranges and give you the Red Packed filled with money. It’s basically a favorite time of the year for all kids. You pretty much go family or house hopping during the two days we celebrate the Chinese New Years. Two days for us, and Hong Kong has like two weeks or something. And you collect money.”


My informant recollected this tradition with a lot of laughs and good memories. She remembers it as a time when she felt rich as a child with all the envelopes she received from her elders. Now it has a different meaning for her, since it is suppose to be a time for well wishes and respect. I understand this, as I grew up with a similar tradition. I also bowed to my elders and received money. When I was a child, I would be excited to receive the money and spend it on various things. Now, it is different in that I am more hesitant to take the money since I know the hard work that is required o earn the money. Instead, I look forward more to the advice they give. As they hand me envelopes, they usually also give me advice for the new upcoming year, as well as expectations. It is funny to compare what the elders said to me as a child and what they said to me now. Before they would tell me to behave and obey my parents. Now they speak about future spouses and jobs. I’m not sure where the tradition of receiving money for new years came about, but it is a time to show respect to elders through the bowing. You can see the joy on the faces of the elders as they watch their children and grandchildren bow to them, and how they happily give away the packets of money.