55Red bags or 红包 as they are called in Chinese are an intrinsic part of many traditional Chinese ceremonies and festivals and, yet, the symbol of the red bag is being used in online advertising.

In a digital world, the original concept is being turned on its head. Red bags are often referred to as lucky money, the colour red symbolizing good luck in Chinese culture. They are also known as “Ya Sui Qian” 压 岁钱 or warding off evil spirits, protecting the young from illness and death. This tradition can be traced back as early as the Qin dynasty, when Chinese coins were tied together with red thread, then later, as printing and paper evolved, the red thread was replaced with red bags.

Red bags are given at all kinds of festive occasions: weddings, upon the birth of a child, and most notably, at Chinese New Year. Red bags are traditionally given to the young from their parents, grandparents and extended family elders.

My first encounter with red bags was going to a friend’s parents’ home for Chinese New Year in Guangzhou. My friend was engaged to be married and had not yet met her fiance’s parents. Somehow, I was present at this first awkward encounter. We then took a road trip to Shenzhen only to return for the New Year, where, over a bowl of hot rice wine, I was given my first red bag. I knew instinctively not to open it in front of my hosts. It was nearly twenty years ago and I no longer recall the amount inside. I remember someone said that I was still a student and, thus, entitled to a red bag.

Traditionally, parents give their children and the children of their extended families red bags at Chinese New Year, at which point, the children kow tow 磕头(kneel on their knees and bend to the ground). I have seen small children taught to kow tow upon receiving a red bag from their parents. It’s a tradition that is still passed down as a part of the ancient Confucist idea of respect for one’s elders.

Another red bag tradition is the wedding door blocking game. This is where the bride and her female friends will block the groom from entering the bridal room. I saw this game played out between the same friend and her husband at their wedding. The groom must “buy” his way in through bribing her friends with red bags, until the bride and her friends give in and allow the groom and his male friends to enter. In this playful game, red bags are a bargaining chip, a way to unblock the bridal chamber with a satisfactoryamount of red bag money.

Red bags are gifted until children are married, or until they become wage earners. Yet where the ethical line begins to blur is when red bags are presented as a business incentive.

Payment through red bag money is a routine practice in China. Red bags are given to doctors in the hope of a more successful surgery, to principals and teachers for students to get into better schools, and to media professionals for favourable articles. Red bags are a standard and tacit understanding of the way power and favours are negotiated. At Chinese New Year, Chinese employers will also gift red bags to their employees, usually at an end of year Spring Festival banquet.

Since the popularity of the WeChat mobile messaging app, which attracts more than 700 million regular users, virtual red bags – digital lucky money has become a convenient way of exchanging money online.

This WeChat feature allows friends to gift each other red bags. Since the feature was launched in 2014, it’s rise in popularity has been exponential.

In the 2016 Lunar year, between February 7-12, 32.1 billion red bag transactions were made on WeChat. This is up from 3.2 billion red bag exchanges in the previous year.

Alibaba, which has an 18 % stake in the Chinese microblogging site Weibo, launched a similar virtual red bag enticement to their subscribers. The possibility of clicking on a red bag and winning money leads viewers on to programs and advertisements. Alipay, one of the most popular online payment forms in China, also has a red bag feature, although users are limited in the amounts they can gift.

Red bag enticements have become a fierce source of competition between Tencent and Alibaba, with both Internet mammoths offering red bag
raffle games, where users sign up by providing their bank account details.

WeChat establishes this arrangement with its subscribers through an official Red bag account where users can give small amounts of money in red bags, distributed within their friendship groups. It is a way for funds to be transferred digitally, without bank fees.

This Lunar year, more than 92 per cent of red bag transactions were sent by WeChat users aged between 20 and 29 years. When WeChat launched a red bag “lucky money” game during Chinese New Year, the aim was for contemporaries to give red bags to each other and ultimately, for WeChat to attract more users to their payment system, as users must have a WeChat payment account to access a digital red bag.

Having received a digital red bag gift, users are able to make payments by scanning directly via the WeChat app. This method of payment is
becoming more widely used in China. One can pay for a taxi fare, at some supermarkets and at a wide number of popular chain stores. WeChat has promoted red bag reciprocity through its various channels. The Wechat wallet functions similarly to Alipay where users can add credit to their accounts and make payments. These digital payment methods mean simply scanning a QR code via the app. For users in this age bracket, a cashless, scannable payment environment is fast becoming the norm.

For future Chinese generations, red bags could become merely click button, an app on a screen, a virtual reality game, and as a way of sharing “lucky money” among friends. Or will the new digital meanings enhance the traditional Confucian ones?

By Elizabeth Winkelman