What Do Red Envelopes Symbolize: The Meaning and Significance Behind This Chinese Tradition

Red envelopes are more than just a cute tradition in Chinese New Year’s celebrations. These little red packets have a deeper meaning and symbolize prosperity, good luck, and happiness. Red pocket money, distributed to children by their parents or elderly relatives, is believed to bring fortune and success in the upcoming year.

Red envelopes have been around for centuries, with some historians linking them back to a mythological creature that would come out of hiding to harm humans during the Lunar New Year. People would place coins in red papers and stick them on their doors to scare the beast away. Since then, the red envelopes have evolved into something more meaningful and generous.

The symbolism of red envelopes remains strong in Asian culture to this day. Despite the advancement of technology, giving out physical red envelopes is still a traditional and important aspect of Chinese New Year. People never get tired of receiving these tokens of luck and prosperity, and will often keep them as keepsakes for years to come.

Origins of the red envelope tradition

The tradition of giving red envelopes or “hongbao” in Mandarin Chinese is deeply rooted in Chinese culture. It is customary to give these envelopes during special occasions such as weddings, birthdays, and most famously during the Chinese New Year celebrations. However, this practice has evolved throughout the years.

The origins of the red envelope tradition can be traced back to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) in China when coins were threaded together with a string to form a long chain known as the “money warding off evil.” The chain was believed to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck to the people who possessed it. Centuries later, the practice evolved into attaching these coins to red string and then covering them with red paper known as “yanbao” which translates to “money wrapped up with paper.”

Over time, the yanbao evolved into the red envelopes we know today, which were typically used to give money as gifts during festivals and important life events. The color red is considered an auspicious color in Chinese culture, believed to symbolize happiness, good luck, and ward off evil spirits. That is why they are typically used for financial gifts during special occasions.

Regions and Cultures That Use Red Envelopes

Red envelopes, or hongbao in Mandarin, are a traditional part of Chinese culture and are commonly used during Chinese New Year to give gifts of money to family and friends. However, the tradition of using red envelopes as gifts is not limited to China. Here are some other regions and cultures that also use red envelopes:

  • Japan: The Japanese have a tradition called Otoshidama, where children receive small amounts of money in red envelopes called pochi-bukuro on New Year’s Day. It is also common to use red envelopes for weddings and other celebrations.
  • Korea: In Korea, red envelopes called poh-stoks are given out during various celebrations such as weddings and Lunar New Year. The amount of money given is considered important and it is taboo to give an odd number of bills.
  • Vietnam: Red envelopes, or li xi, are given out during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. The envelopes traditionally contain small amounts of money and are given out to children and unmarried adults as a sign of good luck.

The Symbolism of Numbers on Red Envelopes

When giving red envelopes, the amount of money inside is not the only important factor. The number of bills inside and the number printed on the bills also carry symbolic meaning. Here is a breakdown of some common symbolic numbers found on red envelopes:

NumberSymbolic Meaning
2Harmony and balance
4Bad luck (in Chinese, the pronunciation of 4 is similar to the word for death)
6Good luck and smoothness
8Prosperity and wealth (in Chinese, the pronunciation of 8 is similar to the word for wealth)
9Longevity and eternity
10Completeness and perfection
13Unlucky (in Chinese, the pronunciation of 13 sounds like “assured to live” which is equivalent to an unlucky existence)

It is important to note that the symbolic meaning of numbers may vary across different cultures and regions. In general, even numbers are considered lucky in many Asian cultures because they represent balance and unity.

Red Envelope Etiquette and Customs

Red envelopes are used in various occasions in Chinese culture to convey good wishes and blessings. However, there are proper etiquette and customs that should be observed when giving and receiving red envelopes.


  • Red envelopes should always be given with two hands as a sign of respect.
  • When receiving a red envelope, it is polite to receive it with two hands as well.
  • The amount of money inside the envelope should be an even number, as odd numbers are associated with mourning.


Red envelopes are commonly used during Chinese New Year, weddings, and other significant events. Here are some customs associated with different occasions:

  • Chinese New Year: Red envelopes are given by married couples to children and unmarried adults. It is believed that the money inside will help ward off evil spirits and bring good luck for the coming year.
  • Weddings: The amount of money inside the red envelope should be an auspicious number, such as $88 or $168. The envelope is given to the newlyweds as a token of good luck and to help with the couple’s wedding expenses.
  • Graduation: Red envelopes with money are given to the graduate as a congratulatory gesture and to help with their future endeavors.

The Symbolism of Number Three

The symbolic meaning of numbers is important in Chinese culture. The number three represents luck, prosperity, and longevity. Therefore, it is common to see the number three used when giving red envelopes as a gift. Some people give three envelopes with varying amounts of money, while others place three coins inside a single envelope.

Number of EnvelopesSymbolic Meaning
OneUnity and perfection
TwoHarmony and balance
ThreeLuck and prosperity
FourDeath and misfortune
FiveChange and transformation

Knowing the proper etiquette and customs associated with giving and receiving red envelopes is an important aspect of Chinese culture. Whether you are celebrating Chinese New Year, a wedding, or another significant event, giving a red envelope can be a meaningful gesture that symbolizes good wishes and blessings.

Different designs and decorations on red envelopes

When it comes to Chinese New Year celebrations, red envelopes are a staple cultural symbol. These envelopes are often handed out to friends, family, and loved ones with monetary gifts inside. The color red is believed to bring good luck and prosperity, making red envelopes a popular gift during the holiday season. However, beyond the color, there are also various designs and decorations that add to the significance of these envelopes.

One of the most common designs on red envelopes is the Chinese character “fu,” which means good fortune. This design is often used as a symbol of wishing the recipient good luck and success in the coming year. Other popular decorations include dragons, which represent power and strength, and peonies, which symbolize wealth and honor.

Another popular design element is the use of the number 4, which some people may find surprising since the number 4 is commonly associated with bad luck in Chinese culture. However, in the context of red envelopes, the number 4 actually holds significant meaning.

According to Chinese numerology, the number 4 is believed to bring stability and harmony. This belief comes from the fact that the number 4 has a similar pronunciation to the Chinese word for “death.” Since the word “death” has a negative connotation, some people avoid using the number 4 altogether. However, in red envelopes, the use of the number 4 is believed to balance out any negative energy and bring stability to the recipient’s life.

Red envelopes with the number 4 are often decorated with additional symbols to enhance their auspiciousness. For instance, a red envelope with the number 4 and a “fu” character symbolizes the recipient receiving both good luck and stability. Similarly, a red envelope with the number 4 and a dragon symbolizes the recipient receiving powerful and stable energy.

In summary, the design and decoration of red envelopes are significant in Chinese culture. While the use of the number 4 may seem odd to some, it holds unique meaning and is often used to enhance the envelope’s auspiciousness. By understanding the symbolism behind these designs and decorations, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the customs and traditions associated with red envelopes.

Red envelopes used in weddings and other ceremonies

In Chinese culture, red envelopes are not limited to just Lunar New Year celebrations. These envelopes are also commonly used in various ceremonies and celebrations, including weddings. Red envelopes are considered as a symbol of good fortune, and they are given to the bride and groom as well as to guests attending the wedding ceremony.

The number 5 significance

Chinese culture regards the number 5 as an auspicious number, and it is associated with the five elements of nature: water, fire, metal, wood, and earth. In the context of a wedding ceremony, the number 5 is considered as a mystical number that brings good luck and blessings.

  • The bride and groom are typically given red envelopes containing money in denominations that end with the number 5, such as 50, 100, or 500 yuan. The number 5 symbolizes a healthy marriage and good fortune for the couple.
  • During a wedding ceremony, it is also customary for the emcee or the bride and groom’s parents to distribute red envelopes containing 5 yuan bills to the guests as a gesture of gratitude and good wish for their attendance and blessings.
  • In some cultures, the bride’s family will also give 5 pairs of red envelopes as part of the dowry. These 5 pairs of red envelopes symbolize well wishes for the bride and groom on the five important stages of life: birth, childhood, adulthood, parenthood, and old age.

Other occasions where red envelopes are used

Red envelopes are also used in various other occasions to symbolize good luck, prosperity, and blessings. These occasions include birthdays, graduations, and housewarming parties, to name a few.

In business settings, red envelopes are typically given as a gesture of appreciation to employees during Lunar New Year or other important holidays as a way to show gratitude and promote loyalty among employees.

Wrap up

The use of red envelopes in Chinese culture extends far beyond just Lunar New Year and has deep symbolic meaning. Whether it is a wedding or another occasion, red envelopes are always considered as a way to signify good luck and blessings. The number 5 is particularly significant during weddings and is considered as a mystical number that represents good fortune for the newlywed couple.

WeddingsGood luck, blessings, healthy marriage
BirthdaysGood luck, longevity
GraduationsSuccess, prosperity
Housewarming partiesGood luck, prosperity, new beginnings

The Significance of the Number of Bills Inside a Red Envelope: The Number 6

When it comes to the number of bills inside a red envelope, the number 6 holds special significance. In Chinese culture, 6 is considered a lucky number because it sounds similar to the Mandarin word “liu,” which means “smooth” or “flowing.”

A red envelope with 6 bills inside is therefore seen as a wish for smooth sailing in the recipient’s life. It’s a way to express good wishes for the person’s health, wealth, and general well-being.

Other Symbolic Meanings of the Number 6

  • In Chinese numerology, 6 is often associated with harmony and balance. This is because it is the sum of the yin and yang numbers, 3 and 3.
  • Similarly, in feng shui, the number 6 is considered a lucky number for the home because it represents good luck, wealth, and abundance.
  • Some people also believe that the number 6 is associated with creativity and love, as it is linked to the astrological sign of Venus.

The Importance of Giving Red Envelopes with 6 Bills Inside

When giving red envelopes with money inside, it’s important to pay attention to the number of bills you include. In general, multiples of 6 are seen as lucky numbers, while multiples of 4 are seen as unlucky.

By giving a red envelope with 6 bills inside, you’re not just expressing good wishes for the recipient’s future—you’re also following an important cultural tradition that has been passed down through generations.

A Table of Lucky and Unlucky Numbers in Chinese Culture

Lucky NumbersUnlucky Numbers

As you can see, 6 is one of the luckiest numbers in Chinese culture, along with 2 and 8. Avoid giving red envelopes with 4 bills inside, as this number is associated with death and bad luck.

How technology is changing the red envelope tradition

The tradition of giving red envelopes has been around for centuries in Chinese culture. It is customary to give red envelopes filled with money during special occasions such as Chinese New Year, weddings, births, and graduations. The significance of the red envelope lies in its color and symbolism. Red is considered a lucky color in Chinese culture, and it is believed to ward off evil spirits. The envelope itself is also important as it symbolizes the protection of the money inside. As technology advances, the way we give and receive red envelopes is changing.

  • Virtual Red Envelopes – With the rise of digital payment systems, virtual red envelopes have become increasingly popular. Services such as WeChat Pay and Alipay offer virtual red envelopes that can be sent and received through their platforms. Recipients can even shake their phones to see how much money they have received. Virtual red envelopes have become a convenient and efficient way to send and receive money, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when physical contact with others is limited.
  • The Rise of E-Greetings – With the convenience of smartphones and social media, e-greetings have become a popular way to exchange messages and send wishes during special occasions. Many Chinese social media platforms such as WeChat and QQ offer built-in greeting cards that can be personalized with text, images, and even animations. These e-greetings allow people to express their wishes to family and friends, even if they are not able to meet in person.
  • The Influence of Western Culture – As China becomes more globalized, Western holidays such as Christmas and Valentine’s Day have become more popular. This has resulted in the introduction of new types of red envelopes, such as ones featuring Santa Claus or heart-shaped designs. These red envelopes offer a unique blend of traditional Chinese symbolism and Western imagery.

The significance of the number 7 in red envelopes

In Chinese culture, certain numbers have special meanings and are considered lucky or unlucky. The number 7 is considered a lucky number as it sounds like the word for ‘togetherness’ in Chinese. As a result, many people choose to give money in multiples of 7 within their red envelopes.

14Double togetherness
28Tripled togetherness
77Long-lasting togetherness

It is important to note that giving money in multiples of 4 is considered unlucky as it sounds like the word for ‘death’ in Chinese. Therefore, it is important to avoid giving money in denominations of 4 within red envelopes.

The Economics of Red Envelopes: The Symbolism of the Number 8

In Chinese culture, the number 8 is considered lucky because the pronunciation of the word for eight “ba” sounds similar to “fa,” which means prosperity and wealth. For this reason, the number 8 holds great importance in the economics of red envelopes during Chinese New Year and other special occasions.

When it’s time to give red envelopes, many people will choose to put money in increments of eight. For example, instead of giving $20, they will give $28 or $88. This not only symbolizes good luck but also increases the value of the gift in the eyes of the recipient. For businesses, giving red envelopes with money in multiples of eight can also help attract customers and bring good fortune to the business.

  • When exchanging red envelopes at weddings or other celebrations, it’s common for the giver to give an amount ending in the number 8 to bring good luck and fortune to the recipient.
  • Some businesses will offer discounts in multiples of eight to coincide with Chinese New Year, such as 18% or 28% off.
  • During the Beijing 2008 Olympics, the opening ceremony began on 08/08/08 at 8:08 pm because it was considered an auspicious time to start the games.

Overall, the significance of the number 8 in Chinese culture plays a major role in the economics of red envelopes. It not only symbolizes good luck and fortune, but it can also increase the value of the gift and attract more customers to businesses during special occasions.

Multiple of 8Symbolism
8New beginnings and good fortune.
18Good luck and success.
28Doubled prosperity and wealth.
88Double happiness and great fortune.

This table shows the symbolism behind different multiples of 8 when giving money in red envelopes. It’s a helpful guide to follow when deciding on the amount to give during Chinese New Year and other important occasions.

Superstitions and beliefs surrounding red envelopes

Red envelopes have deep cultural and traditional significance in Chinese society. They are not just used to give money but have significant symbolic meaning attached to them. As traditions have evolved over centuries, certain superstitions and beliefs have taken root, especially regarding the number 9.

The significance of the number 9

  • The number 9 is considered highly auspicious because its pronunciation in Chinese sounds like the word for “long-lasting” or “eternity.” As such, anything that involves the number 9 is believed to bring good fortune and longevity in Chinese culture.
  • When giving money in red envelopes, the amount is often in increments of 9. For example, 99 yuan instead of 100 yuan is considered more auspicious, as it implies the gift will last forever.
  • Wedding days are often chosen to be on the 9th, 18th, or 27th of the month as these days are considered lucky. In particular, the 9th day of the 9th month is an auspicious date for weddings and is called “double nine” (重阳节) in Chinese. The number 9 is believed to bring lasting love and happiness to the newlyweds.
  • The number 9 can also be seen on the national flag of China where there are 9 stars. This is because the stars represent the common people, and the number 9 represents unity and strength.

Overall, the number 9 holds a special significance in Chinese culture as it represents good fortune, longevity, and unity. When it comes to red envelopes, incorporating the number 9 in the gift amount is believed to bring long-lasting blessings to the recipient.

Contemporary uses of red envelopes outside traditional celebrations

Red envelopes have been used for centuries in traditional Chinese celebrations such as Lunar New Year, weddings, and birthdays. However, with the globalization and influence of Chinese culture, the use of red envelopes has spread beyond these traditional celebrations. Here are some contemporary uses of red envelopes:

  • Corporate events: In business settings, red envelopes with company logos or messages are often given out during events such as conferences or employee appreciation gatherings as a token of gratitude.
  • Giving back: Philanthropic organizations and non-profits have adopted the use of red envelopes as a way to collect donations. Donors can write a message or prayer on the envelope and then attach it to a tree or a wall in a designated area.
  • Tipping: In the service industry, particularly in Chinese restaurants, it is common for patrons to leave a red envelope with a tip for the server.

One interesting aspect of red envelopes is the significance of the number of bills inside. In Chinese culture, certain numbers are considered lucky and auspicious. For example, the number 10 is a symbol of perfection and completeness. It represents the completion of a cycle and the start of a new one. Therefore, giving a red envelope with ten bills inside would be seen as a very generous and auspicious gift.

Number of billsSymbolism
1Unity, new beginnings
2Harmony, balance
4Avoided, as it sounds like the word for death in Chinese
8Wealth, prosperity
9Longevity, eternity

Whether used in a traditional or a contemporary setting, red envelopes remain a meaningful and cherished symbol in Chinese culture.

FAQs: What Do Red Envelopes Symbolize?

1. What are red envelopes?

Red envelopes are traditional Chinese envelopes that are typically red in color. They are commonly used to hold money and are given as gifts during Chinese New Year or other special occasions.

2. Why are red envelopes used in China?

Red envelopes are used in China as a symbol of good luck and fortune. It is believed that giving and receiving red envelopes brings good fortune and prosperity to both the giver and the receiver.

3. What is the significance of the color red?

In Chinese culture, the color red is associated with happiness, prosperity, and good luck. Red is often used during important events such as weddings and festivals to bring good fortune.

4. Who gives and receives red envelopes?

Red envelopes are typically given by older family members to younger family members or by bosses to their employees. It is not uncommon for married couples to also give red envelopes to their single friends or family members.

5. How much money is typically put in a red envelope?

The amount of money put in a red envelope can vary depending on the occasion and the relationship between the giver and receiver. Common amounts range from a few dollars to several hundred dollars.

6. Are red envelopes only used during Chinese New Year?

While red envelopes are commonly given during Chinese New Year, they can also be given during other special occasions such as weddings, birthdays, and graduations.

7. Can anyone give or receive a red envelope?

While red envelopes are traditionally given within families and among close friends, anyone can give or receive a red envelope as long as they follow the proper etiquette and cultural traditions.

Closing Thoughts: Thanks for Reading!

Red envelopes are an important symbol of good fortune and prosperity in Chinese culture. They are a way to show appreciation and love to those who are important to us. We hope that this article has helped you to understand the meaning and significance of red envelopes. Thanks for reading and visit again soon!