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From Red Packet to Virtual Hongbao: Lucky Envelopes in China’s Digital Era

Raising virtual cows, shaking with phones – this is the Chinese New Year tradition of giving red envelopes in the digital era.

Things That Talk

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The custom of giving out red paper envelopes has evolved into a world of virtual lucky money and online games. This is the transformation of a Chinese New Year’s tradition, reported by Koen van der Lijn and Xiaojun Zhang.

 
When objects meet social media, two websites meet as well. This is a collaboration between What’s on Weibo and Things That Talk (follow on Insta @thingsthattalk).
 

Ever wanted to raise a digital cow? This year, you can raise your own lucky cow (福牛) for Chinese New Year on Weibo. Through maintaining and raising their virtual cow (or ox), users can participate in this online game to win red envelopes, a well-known and beloved tradition linked to Chinese New Year.

The hashtag “Lucky Cow’s New Year’s Travelogue” (#福牛新春旅行记#) is linked to Weibo’s celebration of Chinese Spring Festival and the Year of the Ox. Users are expected to be active on Weibo daily to raise their cow/ox, similar to the once so popular Tamagotchi. Whilst leveling up their cow, users get the possibility to earn digital red envelopes.

The online game is another development in the story of the red envelopes, known in China as hongbao (红包). Often given during Chinese New Year, the envelopes can also be given at other joyous occasions like weddings. These red envelopes are given to each other by friends and family members to wish each other a happy new year and are always filled with an amount of money.

Red envelopes for sale via Taobao.

The practice of giving money during Chinese New Year goes far back in Chinese history. The earliest form of the red envelope is said to be yasuiqian (压祟钱). In order to keep evil spirits away, called sui (祟), people put money underneath children’s pillow since the evil spirits were said to be warded off by coins.1 These coins were woven together using a string.

Yasuiqian

As time went by and paper money and envelopes became more widespread, string and coins were replaced and the red envelope was created.

Red envelopes are used by Chinese all over the world nowadays. The amount of money inside depends on many factors. Recently, the tradition has left behind its tangible form and entered the digital era.

 

“Adding the thrill of gambling to the practice of giving away red envelopes”

 

In 2014, the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat (微信) launched a new function that allowed users to send virtual red envelopes. Users could send an amount of money directly to another user, or an amount of red envelopes could be sent into a groupchat. When the function launched, users worldwide could shake their phones in order to receive free red envelopes. The amount of money that was given to users surpassed 500 million yuan ($77.5 million).

WeChat’s inventive idea put digital red envelopes on the map in China. During the peak of the event, 800 million shakes were recorded per minute. There were two types of envelopes introduced in 2014 by Tencent, the company that owns WeChat:

1. A regular red envelope that could be sent directly from one user to another.
2. A ‘group’ red envelope, with a limited number to be grabbed and a limited sum of money which can be grabbed by all users in a group if they are fast enough. The sum inside this envelope is randomized, adding the thrill of gambling to the practice of giving away red envelopes.

Other companies also wanted a piece of the digital red envelope cake: Weibo and AliPay combined their strengths a year after WeChat introduced its digital hongbao in order to promote their version of the digital red envelope.

A ‘war’ then broke out between the two companies. AliPay handed out 600 million renminbi ($93 million) worth of red envelopes as a response to WeChat’s 120 million envelopes sent out during the televised celebration of Chinese New Year.2

 

“Digital red envelopes can cross time and place, but cannot replace the method of face-to-face contact”

 

In the years after, the digital red envelope became more and more popular. Weibo and Alipay also came with their version of sending red envelopes online. The companies organized large-scale actions to make users make use of their form of digital red envelopes.

WeChat, for instance, gives users the option to make the red envelopes very personal through adding stickers and personal messages, making the digital red envelope an even more enjoyable experience.

Does this new development of the traditional red envelope make the tangible envelope obsolete?

When asked by the digital newspaper The Paper (澎湃新闻) about whether the digital red envelope might replace its tangible brother, scholar Tian Zhaoyuan (田兆元) of East China Normal University said that the digital red envelope can cross time and place, but cannot replace the method of face-to-face contact. Though friends and family may send one another digital red envelopes, it does not mean that it replaces the tangible red envelopes.3

The tradition of sending red envelopes is and will be inherently linked to Chinese New Year. Though both the paper and digital forms of the tradition remain incredibly popular, the virtual hongbao will definitely win territory once more this year as travel is restricted due to COVID-19. Especially in these times, the digital red envelope is the best digital way of wishing family and friends a happy new year.

Why are ‘lucky envelopes’ not just red, but sometimes also green or purple? Read more via Things That Talk here.

 
By Koen van der Lijn and Xiaojun Zhang

Koen van der Lijn (China Studies, BA) is a ResMa student Asian Studies at Leiden University focused on Chinese history and its international relations. He is a student ambassador at Things That Talk.

Xiaojun Zhang (China Studies, BA) is an MA student Asian Studies at Leiden University focused on contemporary Chinese culture, symbolism and food. For Things That Talk, she currently works on a project about Chinese-Indonesian restaurants in the Netherlands.

This story was made in collaboration with ThingsThatTalk.net – exploring humanities through the life of objects. Things That Talk is an educational digital project where staff and students produce narratives and metadata about objects in Leiden collections and beyond. Check out the story “Hongbao: from paper envelope to digital gift” on Things That Talk here!

 
Footnotes (other sources hyperlinked within the article)

1 Kin Wai Michael Siu. 2001. “Red Packet: a Traditional Object in the Modern World.” Journal of Popular Culture 35 (3), 103.
2 Chen, Liyan. 2015. “Red Envelope War: How Alibaba and Tencent Fight Over Chinese New Year.” Forbes, Feb 19 https://www.forbes.com/sites/liyanchen/2015/02/19/red-envelope-war-how-alibaba-and-tencent-fight-over-chinese-new-year/?sh=1b88bccccddd.
3 The Paper, Zuowei yi zhong “xinnian su”, weixin hongbao hui qudai zhizhi hongbao ma? 作为一种“新年俗”,微信红包会取代纸质红包吗?, https://cul.qq.com/a/20160208/012888.htm.

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Things That Talk - Exploring humanities through the life of objects. Things That Talk is an educational digital project where staff and students produce narratives and metadata about objects in Leiden collections and beyond. Check out the Things That Talk platform at thingsthattalk.net.

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China and Covid19

Video Shows Real-Time “Departure” Information Board at Chinese Crematorium

From “cremation in process” to “cooling down,” the digital display shows the progress of the cremation to provide information to those waiting in the lobby. The crematorium ‘departure’ board strikes a chord with many.

Manya Koetse

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A video showing a live display screen announcing the names and status of the deceased at a Yunnan crematorium has been making its rounds on Chinese social media, from WeChat to Weibo, where one version of the video received over 1,7 million views.

Somewhat similar to a real-time platform departure display on train stations, the screen shows the waiting number of the deceased person, their name, gender, the name of the lounge/room (if any) for families, the name of the crematorium chamber, and the status of the cremation process. Below in the screen, it says “the final journey of a warm life” (温暖人生的最后旅程).

For example, the screen displays the names of a Mr. Chen and a Mr. Li; their bodies were in the process of being cremated (火化中), while other cremations were marked as “completed” (完成) or “cooling down” (降温中).

Through such a screen, located in the crematorium lobby, family members and loved ones can learn about the progress of the cremation of the deceased.

The video, recorded by a local on Jan. 7, received many comments. Among them, some people commented on the information board itself, while others simply expressed grief over those who died and the fragility of life. Many felt the display was confronting and it made them emotional.

“It makes me really sad that this how people’s lives end,” one commenter said, with another person replying that the display also shows you still need to wait in line even when you’re dead.

“I didn’t expect the screens [in the crematorium] to be like those in hospitals, where patients are waiting for their turn,” another Weibo user wrote. “It would be better if the names were hidden, like in the hospitals, to protect the privacy of the deceased,” another person replied.

Others shared their own experiences at funeral parlors also using such information screens.

Another ‘departure display’ at a Chinese crematorium, image shared by Weibo user.

“My grandfather passed away last September, and when we were at the undertaker’s, the display was also jumping from one name to the other and we could only comfort ourselves knowing that he was among those who lived a relatively long life.”

“Such a screen, it really makes me sad,” another commenter from Guangxi wrote, with others writing: “It’s distressing technology.”

Although the information screen at the crematorium is a novelty for many commenters, the phenomenon itself is not necessarily related to the Covid outbreak and the number of Covid-related deaths; some people share how they have seen them in crematoriums before, and funeral parlor businesses have used them to provide information to families since at least 2018.

According to an article published by Sohu News, more people – especially younger ones – have visited a funeral home for the first time in their lives recently due to the current Covid wave, also making it the first time for them to come across such a digital display.

The online video of such an information board has made an impact at a time when crematoriums are crowded and families report waiting for days to bury or cremate their loved ones, with especially a large number of elderly people dying due to Covid.

On Jan. 4, one social media user from Liaoning wrote:

I really suggest that the experts go to the crematoriums to take a look. There is no place to put the deceased, they’re parked outside in temporary containers, there’s no time left to hold a farewell ceremony and you can only directly cremate, and for those who were able to have a ceremony, they need to finish within ten minutes (..) At the funeral parlor’s big screen, there were eight names on every page, and there were ten pages for all the people in line that day, I stood there for half an hour and didn’t see the name of the person I was waiting for pop up anymore.”

As the video of the display in the crematorium travels around the internet, many commenters suggest that it is not necessarily the real-time ‘departure’ board itself that bothers them, but how it shows the harsh reality of death by listing the names of the deceased and their cremation status behind it. Perhaps it is the contrast between the technology of the digital display boards and the reality of the human vulnerability that it represents that strikes a chord with people.

One blogger who reposted the video on Jan. 13 wrote: “Life is short, cherish the present, let’s cherish what we have and love yourself, love your family, and love this world.” Among dozens of replies, some indicate that the video makes them feel uncomfortable.

Another commenter also wrote:

I just saw a video that showed an electronic display at a crematorium, rolling out the names of the deceased and the stage of the cremation. One name represents the ending of a life. And it just hit me, and my tears started flowing. I’m afraid of parting, I’m afraid of loss, I just want the people I love and who love me to stay by my side forever. I don’t want to leave. I’m afraid I’ll be alone one day, and that nobody will ever make me feel warm again.”

One person captured why the information board perhaps causes such unease: “The final moments that people still spent on this earth take place on the electronic screen in the memorial hall of the funeral home. Then, they are gone without a sound.”

 

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By Manya Koetse 
with contributions by Zilan Qian

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China Digital

Sheep a Sheep: The Game that Mysteriously Took China by Storm in 2022

One poll on ‘Sheep a Sheep’ found that over 90% of participants either “could not understand” the game’s popularity or played it because they were just “following the trend.”

Zilan Qian

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Sheep a Sheep was the game hit of the year in China. But looking back, people struggle to understand how the simple game actually became such a success in the first place.

It was the game that everybody suddenly was talking about in 2022: Sheep a Sheep (Yang le ge Yang 羊了个羊), a mobile game that was mainly played through Chinese social apps such as WeChat, Tik Tok, QQ, and Kuaishou.

Sheep a Sheep is a tile-matching puzzle game produced by the Beijing Jianyou Technology company (北京简游科技公司) and it was officially released in June 2022.

In the game, players are supposed to move cards from the top of a pile to a box at the bottom. The box can hold up to seven cards, which can be deleted when three matching cards are collected.

Players can’t see the types of cards under the top cards, nor move them until they move them to the box. The goal is to remove all cards from the pile, but the game is lost if the box reaches its maximum capacity and no more cards can be removed. Players can earn additional chances to play the game by watching advertisements or sharing it on social media.

There are three tools to use for each round. The moving tool (移除道具) allows players to move three cards out of the box and place them aside, which they can later move in if the opportunity of deleting the cards comes; the revoking tool (撤回道具) revokes the most recent move; the shuffling tool (洗牌道具) shuffles all unmoved cards in the card pile so that some new cards appear on the top for players to move. These tools can be used to help players strategize and increase their chances of success in the game.

Although Sheep a Sheep appears to have no significant difference compared to other similar tile-matching puzzle games, it gained widespread popularity in China in the fall of 2022.

According to Weibo, until September 27, the hashtag ‘Sheep a Sheep’ (#羊了个羊#) had over 693,000 related messages and triggered nearly 180 million interactions. The Weibo article described how Sheep a Sheep had already managed to become the number one top trending topic six times before late September. At the time of writing, the game hashtag has attracted nearly 3,5 billion views on Weibo.

Why did such a simple game become a mega hit in China? It seems that Chinese gamers and social media users also find it hard to explain the Sheep a Sheep phenomenon themselves.

One poll conducted by China Youth Daily (中国青年报) in September found that over 90% of the 6,000 participants either “could not understand” the game’s popularity or played it because they were just “following the trend (跟风).”

Nevertheless, there is plenty of speculation about why Sheep a Sheep became such a smashing hit.

A first thought that might come up is that the game is related to China’s epidemic situation. After all, those who test positive for Covid are also referred to as ‘sheep’ since the word for ‘positive’ and ‘sheep’ sound the same in Chinese (羊/阳 yáng). Sixth Tone recently noted how the game came to be embedded with a new meaning in light of the rising number of positive cases in China.

There are also those who think the boredom of the lockdown in China’s zero Covid era, when so many people stayed indoors and were more active on social media, might have contributed to the craze.

Another possible explanation, according to a comment on Zhihu by user Crepuscle, is the economic stagnation in China due to the country’s zero Covid policy, which brought many companies to a a (temporary) standstill. This led to more employees having time to loaf on the job, watch TikTok videos, and play mobile games.

Others, however, point to how the game is designed. One unique aspect of the game is that it starts off easy and that the difficulty level suddenly increases in the second round to a point where only a very small percentage of players (less than 0.1%) are able to pass it. Some netizens commented that while the first round “teaches you 1+1=2,” the second round suddenly gives you “a hell-level graduate exam.”

One Zhihu user called it a “carrot approach.” They wrote: “The easiness of the first round entices you to play the game. When you begin the second round, the first part also seems easy. So when you fail in the second round, you think it is just a matter of luck, and that you just need a few more tries. You need to share the game on social media to get more tries, and the viral spread begins.”

Some also point out that the province-based competition aspect incorporated into the game makes Sheep a Sheep more attractive. When a player passes the second round, they will add an additional sheep to their province, and provinces are ranked based on how many sheep they have.

One video on Bilibili compiled the rankings of each province, with Shangdong province at the top, followed by Beijing, Guangdong, and Henan.

The top comment under the video explained how the province-based rankings initially become an incentive for players: “The first day [I played the game], I wanted to help my province to get to the top to show how good we are.”

However, sentiments soon changed. The Bilibili user then writes: “The second day, I only wanted to make my province disappear on the rankings. Otherwise, it shows that we [people from this province] are stupid.” The second sentence reveals that people started to associate Sheep a Sheep with a negative image, something which is also echoed by other comments under the same video, such as “which province has the laziest people,” “meaningless game,” and “it is a shame that Guangdong is in the top 3, people should spend more time on high-quality games.”

Provinces are ranked based on how many sheep they have (i.e., how many users in the province have passed the second round) (source).

The game’s simple design makes it approachable to the general public and facilitated its rapid spread across the country. However, as the previous comments show, the simplicity of Sheep a Sheep also backfired as players felt it made them look ‘stupid’ or lazy for playing it.

Moreover, many people started criticizing the game company for earning too much money, feeling that they themselves were actually the ‘sheep’ that were getting their wool pulled for the game company’s benefit (“薅羊毛” means ‘pulling the wool’ and refers to one party taking advantage over the other and gaining profits).

As one Bilibili user writes: “The game producer now bought two houses and already fully payed for them, while we’ve been getting our wool pulled for watching all those ads.” Others also accused the game of plagiarizing the design and background music.

Just before the end of the year, at a time when discussions around Sheep a Sheep seemed to die out, another discussion flared up on social media around the game’s creator Zhang Jiaxu (张佳旭), as he gave an interview in which he reflected on the game’s success and how he had never dared to dream of achieving such record-breaking numbers.

Nevertheless, many people have grown tired of the game. “We are dealing with our own sheep now,” some commented, making a word joke on how so many people are now testing positive for Covid. Another Weibo user joked: “It’s game over now.”

By Zilan Qian

 

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