Red Pockets: A Gift of Generations
Written by Cathy Boscarino-Tse
Translated by Elaine J. Sun
Photography by T.H. Jackson Huang, Ikonica
Assistant: Yumiko Miyamoto
Art direction: Deborah Lau-Yu
Editorial Assistant: Carrie Yan
To receive a red envelope is to be bestowed with good health, blessings, prosperity and good fortune. A classic, auspicious gift deeply rooted within the Chinese culture, the red envelope remains an active gifting practice around the world today. Where do we begin dissecting its origins and aesthetic?
Let us first collect some general observations. “Lucky money” or lai see (利是) in Cantonese and hongbao (紅包) in Mandarin, are distinctive gestures of gifting during special occasions, particularly Chinese New Year, weddings, and birthdays, where good fortune and health is generously wished upon others. Over time, the style and illustrations that appear on the pockets have morphed, however the foundational colour of red is widely retained for it symbolizes good luck and protection from evil spirits. Money is always included inside a red pocket (it is never empty when gifted) and thus one will commonly hear the term “lucky money.”
During the celebration of the Lunar New Year, married couples specifically offer red envelopes to children and the unmarried adults in their generational rank and younger, wishing them good health and a prosperous year ahead. In a traditional Chinese wedding, red envelopes illustrated with a double happiness symbol on the face are given to the bride and groom only after the families have been served tea.
It is believed that those who help with serving the tea will be blessed with a happy marriage or abundant wealth. Red envelopes filled with money are also gifted to the ‘helpers’ or younger siblings and cousins of the bride and groom. As a guest, the etiquette for a wedding is that the amount you would gift in a red pocket should help offset your cost of the dinner plate with a little extra to help the couple financially.
Protection from Evil
Although the tradition of the red envelope has continued for centuries, there are no clear literary sources from which to authenticate the exact origin. That said, one popular story takes us back to the Qin Dynasty (221 to 206 BC), when the elderly would thread coins with red string believing that it would protect them from evil spirits that brought sickness and death. This was referred to as the yāsuì qián (壓歲錢), known as “money warding off evil spirits.” Once printing presses became available in 593 AD, it was replaced with the red envelope. Other myths historicize the tradition to a demon named Sui during the Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD). The demon would come out at night and terrorize sleeping children; those he touched would falter in health or end in quietus. This theory continued to haunt the village until one day, parents of a newborn prayed to their god for protection. The god sent eight fairies disguised as eight golden coins, which were placed under the child’s pillow at night.
When the demon tried to touch the child’s head, the gold coins shone so bright that Sui was unable to see. Frightened, he would run away, never to return. Eventually red envelopes filled with gold coins were offered to the children for protection. The underlying theme of these legends is the offer of protection from evil. Over time, the red envelope evolved into an offer of hope to bring good luck, prosperity and to ward off evil spirits.
This monetary gift presented in a separate red packet distinctly differs from many Western cultures where money is inserted into greeting cards with no additional particularities. Symbols and illustrations appearing on the red envelope also have auspicious meanings. For example, two very favourable characters in the Chinese culture, the God of Longevity and God of Wealth, commonly adorn the face of red envelopes. Other characters depicted on red pockets include the Dragon and Phoenix (the mythical creatures of yin and yang, and often represent the bride and groom in marriage), animals from the Chinese zodiac for the respective year, three or nine carps swimming amidst flowering lotuses (unity, fertility, abundance and wealth), and the laughing Buddha (happiness, health, abundance, and contentment), to name a few.
Commerce & Culture
In ancient and modern history, this powerful and remarkable tradition has piqued the interest of designers worldwide, transforming the illustrative style from traditional to unconventional. This year, China-embraced designer Jody Xiong’s red pocket featured a cutout design of Chairman Mao’s portrait from the hundred dollar banknote. Among the many other unorthodox illustrative forms, cartoon characters, such as Mickey Mouse and Hello Kitty also appear on red pockets nowadays.
Even luxury labels around the world, such as Prada, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton, have incorporated the distinctive Chinese New Year tradition, creating some of the most sophisticated contemporary forms of the red pockets.
For example, in the Year of the Monkey, Holt Renfrew designed an energetic and elegant swirled motif featuring the monkey's face. In 2017, David's shoes featured a red pocket with illustrations of their product to play off the phrase, "May you rise with every step." Fendi offered their clients golden reflective pockets with fabric flowers; Dolce & Gabbana designed an eclectic design with oriental motifs; La Mer gave out an exquisite set of sea-inspired pockets with a marbled pattern; Maison Birks' 2017 pockets were inspired by Chinese tassels and their own diamond shaped logo; Swarovski’s red pocket featured golden dots resembling crystals and Burberry featured their iconic pattern in gold. In Year of Dragon (2012), Tumi — a brand well known for their innovative and worldly suitcases and bags for travel — created a dragon-inspired luggage tag in red. Gucci had the same idea with a Snake-inspired design for the Lunar New Year of 2013. 2017 is the Year of the Rooster and Louis Vuitton scaled-up and designed a red leather LV envelope wallet with their iconic brass hardware, featuring a rooster print on the front and tonal Alcantara suede lining. In contrast to the traditional meaning behind the red envelope, these luxury brands offer their unique red pocket designs to only exclusive clients or upon a hefty purchase.
Perhaps the most phenomenal and unconventional form, which has taken the world by surprise, is the virtual red envelope created in 2014 by the popular social media platform, WeChat. On Chinese New Year of 2016, 409,000 digital red envelopes were sent at midnight alone, while 32 billion were sent over the holiday period.
What may have began as a red thread, the red envelope has woven its way throughout centuries of time. Not only has the red pocket firmly retained its significance within Chinese familial traditions, the artistic platform of the envelope has also intrigued artists all over the world. Regardless of whether the design is traditional or modern, the red envelope is in an artistic class of its own as, signifying one of the most momentous traditional and meaningful forms of art in history. So should you find yourself receiving a red envelope — consider yourself very lucky!
在古代和現代的歷史中，這個強大而卓越的傳統不斷的觸動並啟發著設計師的靈感，將其從傳統風格變為非傳統。今年，中國特色設計師 Jody Xiong’s 的紅色信封是以百元紙幣上的毛主席肖像的剪影作為設計特色。在許多其它非正統的表達形式中，卡通人物，如米奇老鼠和 Hello Kitty 也出現在現今的紅包之上。
2016年的農曆春節，僅在午夜便發送了409,000張虛擬紅包，節假期間更是共發放了320億張信封。即使是 Prada, Gucci 和 Louis Vuitton 等世界各地的奢侈品牌也引入了獨特的中國新年傳統，創造出了一些紅包最有新意的當代表現形式。舉個例，在猴年（2016年）中，Burberry 在購物時向客戶提供金色的紅包，Paul Smith 也設計了3D立體紅包，Coach 為它們的客戶提供一個刻著猴子拿著一張紅包的抽象設計的金牌，施華洛世奇的紅包包含類似水晶的金色圓點，而 Giorgio Armani 則保持了紅包簡單而優雅的設計。在龍年 (2012), Tumi, 一個以創新和實用的行李箱和行李袋而聞名的品牌，以龍為靈感和紅色為底色，製造了一個行李標籤。Gucci 在2013年的農曆新年期間，已蛇作為主角，推出了一個相似的靈感。2017年是雞年。Louis Vuitton 設計了一個紅色信封。它有著LV標誌性的黃銅配件和 Alcantara 襯裡，並在這個基礎上加入了公雞的烙跡。與紅包背後的傳統意義相反，這些奢侈品牌只為獨家客戶或者大量購入的客戶提供這獨特設計的紅包。
Lucky money pockets from the personal collections of:
Carrie Yan, Carol Tsang, Cola Xia, Deborah Lau-Yu, Delros Fung, Fiona Man, Jasmine Ip, Lilian Mak, Lise To, Lydia Leung, Mona Kwong, Nellie Kwok, Raymond Yu, Rhonda Lam, and Sandy Lui