The red envelope and Chinese New Year: How technology is reinventing tradition
Zeng Jing (曾靖)
My phone kept beeping but both my hands were busy. I was wrapping dumplings (bao jiaozi), experiencing my first Chinese New Year in Australia.
Whenever I am far away from home I receive a steady stream of messages from friends and family on New Year’s Eve. I anticipated heavy traffic this time. But when I turned on WeChat, a WhatsApp like Chinese messaging app, I was both delighted and astonished: as well as the predictable best wishes, I received money.
I mean real money!
Chinese people love giving gifts. Distributing gift money in red envelopes on New Year’s Eve is especially important. As I have been abroad during the Chinese New Year (sometimes called Spring Festival) over the past several years, I haven’t enjoyed the opportunity to receive or give away red envelopes. Thanks to mobile technology I am now back in the game again. The messaging app allows users to send virtual red envelopes, which can be deposited into mobile payment accounts.
The digitization of tradition
The digital evolution of New Year’s greetings extends back two decades, prior to the advent of the social media age. From the late 1990s and early 2000s SMS messaging took off in China, mainly thanks to the proliferation of mobile phones. Since then SMS text messages have been widely used for New Year’s greetings. During the 2009 Spring Festival for instance, SMS traffic accounted for 19 billion messages.
In 2012, the launch of the Weibo (micro-blogging) service irrevocably changed the experience of Chinese New Year. The Spring Festival had gone online. Instead of the ‘interpersonal’ exchanges of text messages, New Year greetings moved to an open platform. During the 2013 festival Weibo recorded an average of 32,312 messages per second in the hours leading up to midnight. This broke Twitter’s world record of 25,088 tweets per second when Castle in the Sky launched in Japan.
Weibo’s dominance was short lived however. In 2013, the instant-messaging service known as WeChat (weixin) became the market leader in China’s social media revolution. With 400+ million subscribers and the innovative feature of the virtual red-envelope, WeChat has both reconnected tradition and redefined the New Year’s experience. Over 1 billion red envelopes were exchanged on Chinese New Year’s Eve. While the tradition of distributing gift money has been in play since the Han dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE), the ritual is now digitized on a massive scale. Of course, the invention of an instant messaging app is not the only reason. This phenomenal change in the pattern of New Year obligations is underpinned by a surge in China’s digital economy, technological convergence, and more importantly a mature user mentality: in other words these days people are more comfortable with digital money and they trust the platform.
As this brief review of the history of digitizing the Chinese New Year reveals, Chinese customs have been evolving with the development of technology. In my opinion, however, the real dynamic of this digital turn is not the change of the format/platform but the negotiated meaning of old practices. Take the example of the virtual red envelope.
Red envelopes are mostly given to children by older family members as a way to show their concern for the younger generation. The red envelopes exchanged on WeChat, however, abandon the hierarchical aspect of this practice: it is often used as bonus, one that you give in addition to the conventional New Year greeting message.
The WeChat app is now part of the entertainment for the New Year celebration; that is, it allows for the gamification of Chinese New Year. WeChat does not just provide one-to-one sending of red envelopes; it also has this feature to send a lump sum to a group of people, which WeChat disburses in several envelopes with random amounts; reception is on a ‘first come first served’ basis. For instance my family have a WeChat group of 14 members; red envelopes are ‘thrown out’ at least once by each member on New Year’s Eve. The money involved is minimal but the excitement is huge. Another WeChat group is my high school alumni. With a total of 61 members, the giving and taking game lasts throughout the whole evening.
An important participant in this year’s virtual red envelope game is China Central Television’s (CCTV) New Year Eve’s Gala. One of the most watched shows in the world, the Gala this year gave out RMB 500 million yuan (USD 80 million) gift money during the four-hour show. Once the signal is sent out, WeChat users shake their phones to win the red envelope. Throughout the show 20 million people participated in this game, shaking their phones 11 billion times.
While WeChat is the most popular platform for gift money exchange this year, some other tech giants have also introduced similar services. Alibaba, China’s largest e-commerce company, launched its own gift money campaign: RMB 600 million yuan (USD 96 million ) was given away in virtual red envelops to its users during the New Year. According to Alibaba, 240 million virtual red envelopes were sent through its payment tool on sanshi, the day before Chinese New Year. The economic benefits that accrue from such a massive nation-wide exchange of virtual capital is significant. Because both companies have expanded their business into the world of money-market funds, it becomes essential for them to win Chinese people’s digital wallet. Imagine the potential market: there are millions of people like me who get hooked on WeChat’s in-app payment tool after using this new feature. To top up my WeChat payment account to give away more envelopes, I connected the app with my bank account. As WeChat is building its payment service into a one-stop platform where I can pay for my offline spending (taxi, phone bill, food ordering…), I may start to use my WeChat wallet more often when I am in China.
Some may criticize the commodification of an ancient tradition; but at the end of the day (or evening) is it really about money? From the public perspective such practices have little to do with money. As I mentioned above the amount of money placed in the red envelope is small. Most red envelopes I have received, for example, contained less than $2. In other words, it doesn’t matter how much you send to your friends, it is the well wishes sealed in the envelope that matter more.
In Chinese culture gifting is all about exchange. When you receive something from others, you want to give something back in return. When I send a red envelope to my friends, they send me one in return immediately. It is akin to a greeting, like asking: “how are you?” You are expected to ask the same question back.
Since the beginning of my memory, the New Year Festival has been the most important day in the year. When I was a child New Year was about new clothes, sweets, and fireworks. Nowadays, it is all about connections enabled by technologies. As I wrap my homemade dumplings for friends, I need my messaging app to send and receive free New Year greetings. I need video calls to ‘participate’ in my family’s dinner party. And I need Youtube to stream live video of the New Year Gala. All of these new media platforms connect overseas Chinese to their motherland.
The virtual red envelope is definitely a highlight of my 2015 Lunar New Year. What will be next? I am looking forward to next year already.
Feature picture: Kenny Louie