Upside down red envelope 🧧

The informant was a Chinese international student from Shanghai who goes to UC Santa Barbara. He describes a tradition in his household that takes place during Lunar New Year where his family puts a lucky red envelope (红包 – ang pau) upside down on their front door.

“The character on the envelope means prosperity or auspiciousness. Upside down (福 – fu) in Chinese is the same pronunciation as arrival. So putting it upside down is like saying that prosperity has arrived. People put that on their door during the New Year. Some people also choose to put that only inside their door to signify that the prosperity has entered the household. There’s also belief that the character at the front door should not be upside down since that upsets the prosperity but you can put the character upside down onto other things (like a closet) inside the house. It is a very common and significant cultural practice in China. And my family does that too. We typically put the character upside down outside the front door to our apartment.”

Because Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language where one word can have multiple meanings depending on what tone it is said in, there are many opportunities for word play like this instance. The disagreement between people whether putting the envelope upside down brings or upsets prosperity and whether putting it outside or inside the door is the correct way is interesting because it shows how different people interpret the wordplay differently and that there is no clear cut answer.

Nonetheless, using a lucky envelope to bring prosperity inside the home reminds me of how people across a lot of cultures have rituals to bring them luck for the new year (eating a select amount of grapes, kissing on midnight, etc.) and indicates that many people see it as a hopeful new opportunity to change their lives for the better.