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Legends of the hong bao

Find out why people give out red packets during Chinese New Year


Published: 16 Jan 2018

Pen 2

Updated: 20 Jan 2023

Time taken : ~10mins

Every Chinese New Year, children are given hong bao (or red packets) from their elders containing money. The act of giving out hong bao has been a tradition of Chinese culture for decades. But how did this tradition come about? Read on for two different legends of how the tradition of giving out hong bao came to be. Then download the activity sheet to make your own PIP red packets!

The magical sword

According to one legend, there was once a small village in China called Chang-Chieu. The villagers of Chang-Chieu lived in fear of a dragon-like demon, which terrorised the villagers every day. Many tried to defeat this monster but even the strongest warriors were unsuccessful. 

One day, along came a young orphan armed with a very special sword. The sword had been passed down to him from his ancestors and bore magical powers. Armed with this sword, the boy faced the monster head on.

The monster tried with all its might to defeat the boy, but he was simply too fast and too strong thanks to the magical powers of his sword.

The boy fought the monster bravely and wielded his sword against the demon with great ease and finesse. After a long and hard battle, the boy took one huge final strike and slayed the demon.


The villagers had lived in fear of the vicious demon for years and it was finally defeated. The villagers were so grateful to the boy for saving them that the elders decided to give him a red pouch filled with money to reward his bravery and effort. 

It is said that since that day on, elders giving out hong bao or red packets over Chinese New Year has become part of Chinese tradition.

The Story of Sui

Another legend has it that there was once a demon named Sui that would appear every Chinese New Year eve to terrorise little children. 

Sui would emerge in a child’s bedroom in the middle of the night and while the child was sound asleep, it would drag its sharp talons across the child’s forehead. Children would be so terrified of the demon. Instead of crying, they would come down with a terrible headache and fever. To protect the children from the demon, parents would light candles and pray to the gods for protection.


On one Chinese New Year’s Eve, a young boy’s parents decided to give him eight copper coins to play with to keep him entertained through the night. They had hoped that if they could keep him awake, he might be protected from Sui. 

However, as the night passed, the boy grew sleepier and sleepier. It soon became clear that the boy would not be able to stay awake. The mother thus decided to wrap the coins in red paper. She placed them under the child’s pillow and hoped that it would ward off the demon.

That same night, Sui visited the home of the child. He crept into the boy’s room and reached out his hand to touch the boy forehead. Suddenly, a bright light flashed at it. The coins emitted a light so strong that it gave Sui a fright and scared it away. 


Little did the parents know, the gods had heard their prayers and disguised the Eight Immortals, who were powerful guards, as the coins to protect the child. 

Having heard the news, all the other parents eventually adopted this practice and gave their children money wrapped in red paper, which was termed ya sui qian (money that can suppress the demon). This term, however, is now understood as “money given to children by their elders."


It is time to make your own hong bao! Check out the activity sheet below for a guide on how to make your own PIP red packets.


Illustrated by Kikko

Kikko is an artist and illustrator from Singapore. She is inspired by nature and marvelled by animals, they way they move, eat and interact with the environment. You can find her art here and here

Download the activity sheet here