For Chinese New Year, instead of wrapped-up presents, Chinese children are given cold hard cash inside red envelopes for good luck.

We are practical people.  And who doesn’t like money? 

The tradition of red envelopes comes from a story about a demon who was vanquished during the Sung Dynasty. A young man with a magic sword defeated a demon that was menacing a town. The grateful town presented him with money in a red envelope to reward him for his deed. The color red is associated with happiness and good luck in Chinese tradition. The money was called yāsuì qián (压岁钱), meaning “money warding off evil spirits”, and was believed to protect the kids from sickness and death.

Red envelopes are presented as gifts on occasions that range from birthdays to the Chinese Lunar New Year. They can also be presented at weddings, or simply given at the beginning of a new endeavor, such as starting college. In a professional context, Chinese employers will give their employees a year-end bonus in a red envelope.

I could still recall the excitement on Chinese New Year’s eve: after the big family dinner, my grand parents, uncles and aunties will hand me red envelopes with money filled inside. And my parents would always tell me to save it so I can use the money when I become a big girl.

Of course, every other adult that I meet during the 15 days Chinese new year holiday was expected to give me a red envelope, so there was times that I suddenly filled with a lot of money in my pocket and it became necessary for me to open a bank account for saving…my dreams then were to spend all of these money on some fancy/silly things one day….

The more red envelopes you get, the higher your net worth becomes, that is, until your mother takes them all away and telling you that “I will save it for you!”

Guess what? You will never see these money again.

When money is involved, things become a bit more complicated than usual. As a kid, you will develop a sense regarding who is your favorite aunt or uncle – the one who’s known to give out generous amount in their red envelopes. As soon as the holiday started, you will find ways to visit them by asking your parents indirect questions such as,

“When are we going to visit this or that uncle/aunt?”

And then deny vehemently when your mother accuses you of wanting to visit them simply for the big, fat red envelope you know you’ll be getting.

Later on, your parents will start to tell you that when you grown up, it will be your turn to give others the red envelopes. You also will try and hide your disappointment when your mother strikes some stupid deal with an aunt of yours to NOT give red envelopes to each other’s children.

In China, it was not polit to open the gifts in front of people, and of course you should not opening the envelopes in front of the relatives out of courtesy. Therefore I would stash the red envelopes away, in the pocket of my jacket, then spending the rest of that day thinking of those envelopes and HOW MUCH MONEY in each of them lingered. 

Nowadays, things are so different, I become the ones who will give out money and trying to figure out what is the right amount – when I did the Chinese New Year talk for the Swedish Club in Shanghai, this was a popular question. An even-numbered amount of money is seen as luckier than an odd-numbered amount. The number 4 should be avoided as it has the same sound as “death” in Chinese. In the past, it was okay to give RMB200 in the red envelope, but according to the news report this year, the amount increased to RMB600 due to the living increasing cost in Shanghai.

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