48. Red envelopes – the development and permanence of themes in Chinese popular imagery

A few blogs back – no. 45 “Cultural Revolution Style Red Packets” – Lyce Jankowski left a comment, drawing my attention to Chengan SUN’s work on red envelopes: a PhD and a book, titled Les enveloppes rouges: évolution et permanence des themes d’une image populaire chinoise  (Le Moulin de l’Etoile, 2011.  ISBN 978-2-915428-37-7). A copy of this book has just arrived at the Dept of Coins and Medals, British Museum, and I’ll outline the contents below.

Red Envelopes

Front cover of the book

Almost 200 red envelopes are illustrated in the book, from the author’s collection of over 500 pieces.

REd envelope 3

Red envelope from 1978 (p. 52)

Red envelope 2

Envelopes by Feng Zhengjie 俸正杰 , in the series “A Life Full of Beauty” 美满人生 (2008)

Abstract (given in French, English and Chinese)

Red envelopes, the development and permanence of themes in a Chinese popular imagery

Red envelopes are a particular kind of popular and ritual imagery in China. Their existence has been confirmed by the appearance before the 10th century of similar types of envelopes. They have always preserved an important social and political function concerning relations between generations and social classes.

Red envelopes have had a ritual importance in Confucian society which uses the Lunar calendar for social commemorations in a society predominantly based on agriculture. On the one hand, they maintain links between individuals for events or ceremonies concerning important social events such as births, weddings, birthdays or even professional promotions, acquiring a new flat, or a funeral. In addition, they are the expression of a classical tradition based on images and the recurrent expressions using four ideograms written on them.

Popular images such as those found in New Year’s prints and paper cuts have been of great importance, but in the last decade or so, this has been decreasing on the Mainland, but more so in Taiwan, in favour of humorous and ephemeral industrialized products, more in line with the testes of an urbanized society, where other commercial products (phone cards, labels, advertising) use similar themes.


Contents (page number)

Introduction (1)

1. Rites and propitiatory images (7)

  • The elements of social commemoration (7)
  • Rites and government (12)
  • Developing patrimony (14)
  • The structure of life for different ethnic groups in China (19)
  • The agricultural calendar and the lunar New Year (23)
    • The agricultural calendar (23)
    • Chinese New Year (27)
    • Key dates in the Chinese New Year (29)
  • Symbols: protection and propitiatory (34)
    • Colour symbolism (36)

2. Production of propitiatory works (in various media)

  • Before the appearance of paper (39)
  • After the appearance of paper (39)
    • Different kinds of paper
  • The introduction of other media (41)
  • Digital media, social media (43)

3. Popular Chinese propitiatory images (47)

  • Money – in real life and the other world
    • Before paper money
    • Funerary money: the earliest paper “money” in China (60)
    • New Year prints (64)
    • Paper cuts (77)

4. Red envelopes (98)

  • The re-emergence of red envelopes – diversity, names and historical terms (98)
    • New Year envelopes – information from diverse sources (102)
    • Names and historical terms (105)
  • Envelopes and social occasions (113)
    • Birth (113)
    • Baby’s first month (115)
    • Marriage (117)
    • Traditional Chinese/Taiwanese marriage (119)
    • Birthday (133)
    • Moving house, inauguration/construction of a building (134)
  • Business gifts at New Year – the impact of publicity (142)
  • Themes of envelopes (144)
  • Death and funeral envelopes (158)
  • Collecting New Year envelopes (164)
  • Account by the collector Cheng Dali (166)
    • In the south (167)
    • In the north (168)

5. Production and diffusion of red envelopes (172)

  • Centres of production and diffusion (172)
    • Diffusion of red envelopes (174)
    • An antenna towards Asia, the diaspora (174)

6. Red envelopes and contemporary art

  • Advertising events: exhibitions, happenings, collections of envelopes (183)
    • New Year collections (184)
    • Towards a new social organisation (185)
  • Red envelopes and other forms of popular propitiatory expression (223)
    • New Year cards (223)
    • Telephone cards (224)
    • Other forms of publicity (225)

8. Envelopes in sinicised Asian countries (228)

  • Red envelopes in Japan (230)
  • Red envelopes in India (232)
  • Red envelopes in Vietnam (233)

Conclusion (243)

Bibliography (247)

  • General works (247)
  • Peripheral themes (247)
    • Population/minorities (247)
    • Rites/taboos (248)
    • Gods, divinities, heroes (249)
  • Specific themes (249)
    • Paper
      • Funerary money
    • Money
    • Paper cuts
  • Popular imagery (250)
    • Publications in Chinese
    • Publications in Western languages
  • Old prints (251)
  • Modern prints (252)

Red envelopes (252)

  • Printed publications (253)
  • Websites (253)


  1. Very interesting. I would never have thought of collecting or studying red envelopes. This is really on the fringe of numismatics. I am undecided whether to include the topic in my bibliography on Chinese numismatics. I have the same reservations on whether to include telephone cards and credit cards — both money related. There are catalogs of telephone cards but I have yet to hear of a catalog of Chinese credit cards.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s