Lunar New Year: Tigers and red envelopes

As we enter the celebration period of Lunar New Year, February 1 brings us into the Year of the Tiger. Lunar New Year, also known by many as Chinese New Year, is celebrated throughout South and Southeast Asian countries at the first new moon at the end of January until the full moon arrives. Each year is represented by one of 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac. The year 2022 is represented by the Tiger, an animal understood to be courageous, bold and capable. According to an exhibition curated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, tigers have been seen throughout ancient Chinese culture as symbols of power and authority. According to the curators, “Depictions of tigers permeate almost all aspects of Chinese culture… It is regarded as the king of all wild animals and used on military banners to illustrate bravery and swiftness. In Chinese folklore, the tiger is a protective deity able to dispel harmful spirits.” The following images are a series of objects on display at the Met in New York City as it participates in celebrating the Year of the Tiger. 

New Year’s Picture: God of Wealth riding on a tiger; early 20th century
Rank badge with tiger; 18th century
Zodiac figure of a tiger; Qing dynasty (1644–1911)

Upon receiving an envelope from a loved one during a holiday celebration, most kids tear open the gift with little to no regard for the envelope or card involved. While there may be a message inside that wishes the recipient a happy birthday or a merry Christmas, more often than not that message is overshadowed by a monetary surprise inside. While many people around the U.S. traditionally place the money inside a card that describes reason or occasion for the gift, there is a traditional practice for many different holidays and festivals originating in East and Southeast Asian countries that sends a message through the envelope itself, not a greeting or birthday card. 

The lucky red envelope, or hóngbāo in Mandarin, is a gift given between family and friends during many different festivals or holidays, but especially during the time of Lunar New Year. Grandparents will give their grandchildren crispy new bills inside of a brightly colored red envelope, sometimes with lettering or designs on the outside. The envelopes and their red color represent luck and good fortune and are meant to be wishes of good fortune for the recipient in the new year. The following images are a collection of examples of elaborately decorated money envelopes on display at the British Museum in London, England.

Lucky Red Envelope (2008)

If you’re interested in learning more about different aspects of art and tradition across the diverse range of Asian communities and cultures, Hope’s own Asian Student Union hosts events throughout the semester aimed at celebrating Asian heritage. This past Saturday, they held a Jazz Concert Series event aimed at highlighting Asian diversity at Hope and in Holland through music and community. You can follow them on Instagram or watch the In.Hope calendar to find out about upcoming events. Happy Lunar New Year!

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