Keep the original spirit of hongbao giving in mind

The Chinese New Year is upon us, and this has stimulated much discussion on the rules governing various traditions.

The question of how much money to put into red packets or hongbao is a perennial favourite ("What is a decent amount to give in a hongbao?"; Jan 7).

To answer that query, it is worth considering the origins of the practice.

Chinese legends describe a dreadful demon which would terrorise children.

To protect their progeny, parents devised a method of stringing together eight coins with red thread, and then putting them under their children's pillows.

On the approach of the demon, the coins would transform into fairies, thus driving the demon away.

Over the course of history, the coins and thread gradually morphed into the present convention of enclosing currency in packets of red paper.

The story clearly illustrates the fundamental cultural significance of the hongbao not as a monetary reward but as a talismanic form of blessing.

While modern society has attempted to attach some degree of significance to the amount of money contained within, the original spirit of the practice deems it ultimately immaterial.

After all, Chinese New Year is not the time for transactions and keeping score, but for giving thanks and spreading goodwill.

Paul Chan Poh Hoi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 25, 2017, with the headline 'Keep the original spirit of hongbao giving in mind'. Print Edition | Subscribe