Editor’s note: This article by Christina Xu was originally published via her Multi Entry project around Chinese New Year 2016, and has been re-posted here with permission. Click here for an idea of what digital hongbao look like in 2018.
Red envelopes used to be a simple joy. On a festive occasion like Chinese New Year, people exchanged perfumed red-and-gold paper envelopes stuffed with cash to signify good will. For Chinese kids, it was like Trick or Treat but infinitely better — kneel in front of your elders in a New Year’s greeting, and you’d walk away with cold, hard cash to spend on whatever toy you wanted.
Original Vine caption: Happy Lunar New Year! Did you get your red envelopes? #wechatvids #chinesenewyear #LunarNewYear #puppies
This is basically all you had to do.
With the digital age, red envelopes have taken a new form. Mobile payment giant Alipay rolled out digital red envelopes back in 2012, but they didn’t really take off as a concept until 2014, when messaging app WeChat rolled out a playful digital red envelope feature that allowed people to send a fixed amount of cash to a group of friends who would randomly receive different portions of the pie. The feature, designed to get WeChat users to link their bank accounts to the app and become comfortable with sending money socially on the app, was MASSIVELY successful.
WeChat’s p2p digital red envelopes are still most popular around the New Year (both solar and lunar!), but they’re now also used throughout the year as a way to show gratitude, celebrate, pay vendors, or just as a casually competitive game amongst friends. Alipay and Weibo rolled out a similar feature in 2015, greased by Alibaba founder Jack Ma personally handing out over 990,000 RMB in red envelopes on New Year’s Eve.
In 2015, digital red envelopes became a major marketing promotion as well. WeChat partnered with CCTV’s official Chinese New Year Eve gala and tons of online vendors to encourage users to shake their phones (摇一摇) for a chance at over 100 million RMB worth of red envelopes in gift certificates and digital cash. As seen in the GIF up top, lots of users got, uh, innovative with their red envelope techniques.
Original Vine caption: Traffic cops shaking for red envelopes on New Years Eve. #wechatvids #redenvelopes #chinesenewyear
Traffic cops had to get in on it, too.
In 2016, Alipay became the official red envelope partner for CCTV’s Chinese New Year, and people were even more prepared for their shot at over 700 million RMB of red envelopes. Many Chinese internauts (sic) spent so much time maximizing their chances for red envelope success that people dubbed themselves 敬业福, or “full-time fortune workers.”
One of the minigames involved in Alipay’s promotion encouraged people to tap a button as quickly as possible. Dissatisfied with physical limitations, some people took to engineering, modifying household tools and even children’s toys to improve their odds of winning money.
My favorite of the ones I’ve seen so far might be this sewing machine-turned-red envelope harvester that I saw floating around on WeChat. Two phones at the same time!
Original Vine caption: Sewing machine modified into an Alipay red envelope harvester. #wechatvids #redenvelopes #chinesenewyear
For Lunar New Year 2016, WeChat reported that its users exchanged over 8 billion red envelopes on a single day — at peak traffic, this looked like 490,000 red envelopes being exchanged every second.
This piece is a part of Multi Entry, a decentralized collection of stories and media about the creative young people of modern mainland China and the culture they’re creating.