Text by Liu Haile
With the arrival of the 2014Chinese New Year, Tencent’ssocial networkingplatform WeChat founda way to turn the traditional practice ofsending hongbao, red envelopes filled withmoney, digital with its “New Year Hongbao”app, which took China by storm.
Tradition Turns Digital
As Lunar New Year’s Day approached,Zhang Lei, who works with an internetmusic company in Beijing, noticed thelatest version of WeChat had a new featureenabling her to give or receive virtualhongbao to or from her friends. “Duringthe seven-day Spring Festival holiday, Idistributed ‘red envelopes’ totaling morethan 200 yuan via the app, and got backhalf of the amount I gave,” she reveals.“Although the smallest hongbao containedonly 0.01 yuan, my friends and I still hadgreat fun exchanging the envelopes.”
Launched on January 26, 2014, just afew days before Chinese New Year, the appallows a user with a linked bank accountto use his or her phone to send virtual redenvelopes with a limit of 200 yuan each tocertain friends. Users can also let the apprandomly divide money among a group offriends. To cash out the envelopes they receive,users are required to link up their ownbank accounts. In a few days, the featurespread like a virus among smartphone users.
Statistics released by Tencent showthat more than 8 million WeChat users sentor received 40 million “red envelopes” overnine days from January 30 to February 7,2014. The peak occurred on Chinese NewYear’s Eve, when 4.82 million people usedthe feature. Over 25,000 red envelopeswere opened per minute around midnight,each with an average amount of 10.7 yuan.Combined with one of the most popular social networking apps, the traditionalpractice of sending hongbao on ChineseNew Year generated widespread delightamong WeChat users.
Red symbolizes good luck in Chineseculture, and Chinese people have a traditionof gifting cash in a red envelope onspecial occasions. The custom originatedabout 2,000 years ago when seniors begangiving money to young children as aprayer for good luck and safety in the newyear. Over the passage of time, the traditionevolved into a popular way for thesender to express good wishes to his orher friends and relatives on occasions suchas weddings, childbirth, housewarmings,business opening, and birthdays. As Chinahas become more commercial, however,the nature of the tradition has evolvedalongside it, from a way to express wishesto a method to build and consolidate socialnetworks and even to offer bribes.For some concerned with keeping up withthe Joneses, giving away money has evenbecome a financial burden.