January 23, 2019
The Chinese New Year is often symbolised by large family gatherings and the ang pow. The ang pow is a red packet that contains money which is given by elders and married couples to the younger and unmarried persons. What does ang pow mean, however?
In the simplest way to describe it: Ang pow, literally translated to red packet, is a form of blessing that is very prevalent in Chinese culture. It is a gift that is commonly given during social and family events such as weddings by the elderly and married couples – not necessarily Chinese New Year only. Inside an ang pow is usually money in any value.
There are several stories about the origin of the ang pow. Nobody actually knows which the true origin story of ang pow-giving, though the two stories below are the most common.
The most popular story of the ang pow’s origin is a story that happens during the Qin Dynasty (221 – 206BC). A demon called Sui would go around on the night of Chinese New Year’s Eve touching children’s heads while they were asleep. This cursed touch caused illnesses to plague the sleeping children, or worse, causing their deaths.
Because of such terrors, parents would stay up watching their children, ensuring their safety. One such couple, however, decided to use blessed coins that they would tie together with a string (or wrap in red paper) and place it under the children’s pillows. This protected the children from the demons through the night.
This origin story takes place during the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279). A huge demon was terrorizing a village, attacking the people and destroying their homes. Many of the villagers and warriors attempted to fight back and defeat it, but to no avail. That is, until a young orphan stood up to the task, wielding a magic-imbued sword inherited from his ancestors.
The orphan took on the demon, successfully slaying it. This brought peace to the village as there were no more threats. The villagers thanked the orphan and, as a reward, gave him a red pouch filled with money – hence the ang pow.
Ang pows are not always about the money, though it makes up half of its origin stories. The idea of ang pow is as a blessing to be given, not to give out money. Though it may be so, there are certain rules and traditions to be followed with putting money in ang pows.
The money in each red packet usually ends in an even digit, as odd numbers are considered inauspicious. Sometimes odd numbers are given during weddings because it cannot be easily divided. People also often avoid giving numbers that have the number “4” as the pronunciation sounds very much like “death”.
These days, the money in ang pows are given based on how much one can afford, and not so much about how the past traditions dictate.
The colour red has always been synonymous with the Chinese culture. It symbolises joy, prosperity, and good luck. Which is why the colour red is very prominent in Chinese celebrations such as weddings, birthdays, and the Chinese New Year.
How the colour came about to such prominence in the culture is believed to stem from the mythology of the Nian, a mythical creature or beast that attacks villages every year. It is also the story of how the Chinese New Year and its celebrations came to be.
The Nian would always attack villages to eat the villagers, especially the children. One fine year, the villagers decide to flee the village to avoid the Nian’s attack. A brave old man, however, stood his ground and told the villagers that he will remain in the village (probably sick of running away each year) and battle the beast. The old man put up red papers as his line of defence and set off firecrackers in anticipation of the Nian. The following day saw the village unscathed and everything was intact; the Nian is afraid of the colour red and firecrackers.
This event would give birth to the tradition of wearing red clothing, red decorations, and the firecrackers that happens with every Chinese New Year.
These tales and traditions that carry on throughout the years are the reasons why the red colour and the ang pow is such a large part of the Chinese culture. As mentioned above, ang pow is not only given during the Chinese New Year – it is seen as a blessing to be given at any appropriate time.
E-wallets and digital banking have also given birth to a new form of ang pows. Online banking has given rise to the age of digital red packets, or e-ang pows. These are commonly for those who have difficulty attending family gatherings but would still like to send their blessings. If you are celebrating the Chinese New Year, however, do try to make it home to be with your family – if only once a year.
Read more: Ang Pow: To Save or To Spend?