Guò nián 過年 means “to celebrate the new year” but a more literal rendering into English leaves it as “the passover of the Nián”, that most destructive of ancient China’s man-eating beasts.
It was said to spring from the mountains or the sea and came every New Year’s Eve to prey on both helpless villagers and hardened soldiers alike. The only way to ensure that you would survive this most horrific of fates was to scare the beast away with copious amounts of red and as raucous a racket as you could muster.
This is why you are startled at the crack of dawn or the chink of dusk by what sounds like a firefight only a block or two away and why you should at some point stand atop your building to watch the array of fireworks arcing over Taipei.
One explanation of the origins of red envelopes puts them as congratulations for having survived this most deadly of periods without having been eaten up or taken away.
No one really seems to know exactly where the tradition of giving red envelopes stems from but the stories make for interesting reading.
The best dates from the Sung Dynasty in the form of a young orphan who defeated a huge demon (quite possibly the Nián) using a magical saber. It had been terrorizing the village and the elders were so happy with the little nipper that they came out and showered him with a wad of cash that they’d stuffed into a red envelope.
The Taiwanese government, however, disputes this and points out that the tradition dates from the Qing Dynasty and originated in elders stringing one hundred coins together in the shape of a dragon for the children.
As this must have taken forever, there was presumably a collective sigh of relief when the advent of printing enabled a quick trip to the bank to suffice.
Regardless of its roots, the hóng bāo 紅包 tradition is deeply ingrained in not only Chinese culture but also those of Burma, Vietnam, Thailand, Korea and Japan (although in the latter two a white envelope is used instead).
The number four, as with the non-existant floors in hospitals, is always avoided, as are odd-numbered denominations because these are reserved for funerals.
Sixty-six is a fine choice for some because of its similarity to the pronunciation of “smooth life” in Mandarin. The bank notes given should be as new and crispy as possible, leading to queues at the banks and headaches for the government due to the rush to secure these before the festivities begin.
The money is said to be “cleansed” through being enveloped in red and is thus void of any negativity as it’s passed on.
It is described as “age suppressing money” by many, a form of bribe to buy the giver an extra year of life and, simultaneously, as “age extension money” by others, used to put children’s illnesses behind them and therefore secure strength and health on their part.
Red envelopes are not only given at New Year but also, as mentioned, funerals, as well as at the birth of a child and both engagement parties and weddings. It’s furthermore a way of helping out if someone’s sick and is, as such, part gift and part financial aid.
One of its darker sides is that, particularly for weddings, a friend is in practice unable to attend if no money is given. There are no explicit rules regarding this but it would be a faux pas beyond measure to turn up empty handed, even if destitute.
Worse still, in my opinion, is the price that is put quite explicitly on friendship. If you’re an acquaintance then you can get away with as little as 1,200 or 1,500NT but if you’re a friend – a “true” friend – then you’ll be expected to give from 3,500 upwards with a very hazy upper limit.
Your relationship is very frankly scrutinised, weighed up against your bank balance, and you simply have to reach for that envelope. There is a feeling here of taking a bond that should be founded on anything but money and bringing in an inappropriate materialism.
This, I must say, strikes me as somewhat distasteful.
This obligation, however, is far from foreign to Westerners. While Western weddings involve gifts that are “voluntary” it would, again, be incredibly poor taste to arrive without something to offer your hosts. It would, likewise, be virtually unthinkable not to give something at Christmas.
The downside of the Western practice is that the more frequent giving of goods rather than money leads occasionally to disappointment and invariably to the accumulation of mountains of junk.
The oft repeated joke is of newly weds receiving toasters in four different colours. Unless you stick pretty rigidly to the wedding gift list, it’s fairly easy to either miss the mark or go wide of it completely.
Finding something which is at once symbolic, practical and enjoyable for the recipient is not always an easy task.
The good side of this practice, however, follows the maxim that “it’s the thought that counts”, something that has a good degree of truth to it.
I was brought up to believe that one of the most important aspects of selecting a gift is having in mind the person for whom you are buying it. It forces you to spend time thinking of them and the kind of person they are.
My own experience provides food for thought as I receive markedly different forms of presents from each of my parents.
My father never gives money, instead choosing something that he thinks will enrich me intellectually or strike some kind of cord with who I am. My mother, on the other hand, consistently slips me a card with some money inside.
Which do I prefer? Actually, both.
I’ve come to see myself as getting the best of both worlds, being given a helping hand which came in exceptionally handy in those scrimping student days and yet having something of more lasting significance and sentimental value as well.
Is the asian practice of giving cold, hard cash then overly materialistic?
Thankfully I’m learning slowly but surely that not all questions have an easy answer because they are poor questions in the first place.
Because a practice is not my own does not mean it is good or bad. The judgement stumbles and falls at the hurdle of cultural relativity.
Yes, it’s a little strange, curious at first, yet is ultimately fathomable and highly interesting to investigate.
I suppose this is, after all, why articles such as this are written in the first place.
- by Nathan Haslewood, Taiwanease magazine, 2008