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During the Chinese New Year celebration, one of the various traditions is to give money to younger people in red envelopes. Usually they are given from elderly married couples to younger couples or single people, but it's also common for old people to give them to children.

These red envelopes are called in Chinese 紅包 and 红包 (hóng bāo), while the money is called 壓歲錢 and 压岁钱 (yā suì qián), both first in Traditional and then Simplified characters, respectively. The meaning of this name is literally "the money used to suppress or put down the evil spirit".

But I've met the 岁 character before and that's in the expression used to tell your age:

我 ... 岁。= I'm ... years old.

And actually, looking up this character, the meaning is "year, years old, (measure word)".

Why there seems to be no relation with the meaning of the envelopes above? If I look up the expression "压岁钱" in the same dictionary, I get a different meaning from above, which is "money given to children as new year present".

Does that "year" relates to the meaning above? Where is the link, semantically speaking, between the character and the chinese name for the red envelopes?

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2 Answers

"压岁" and "压祟" have the same pronunciation (yā suì). The meaning of "压祟" is exactly what you have mentioned here: "suppress or put down the evil spirit". "压岁钱" is actually a homonym of "压祟钱". It's a usage passed down from ancient time.

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I didn't find "压祟" in my dictionary, but well... :D Anyway I have another question: Do you happen to know why they chose the homonym? Is the reason commonly known or do we have to guess? –  Alenanno Jan 16 '12 at 10:00
    
We have to guess. From my point of view, "岁" is more commonly used than "祟". Also, "祟" is not a "good" word given its meaning. There are a lot of homonym usages in Chinese language. Some is formed just because we replace less commonly used characters with more commonly used ones. Maybe someone can provide a better explanation. –  Robbie Liu Jan 16 '12 at 19:37
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Red envelopes are not called 压岁钱. The meaning of "money given to children as new year present" is correct, at least in where I live. This is only given to children and babies, and never to young man/lady or couples. Children may stop receiving these money when they leave school and find a job, or when they graduate from junior high school (this will vary from area to area, and from person to person). But people with job or married couples would definitely not receive 压岁钱. (btw, we don't wrap the money in red envelops here)

RobbieLiu has given a possible (maybe real) origin of 压岁钱. Nowadays, we don't know that it comes from there. 压岁钱 is just given as a celebration of a child get one age, and becoming more closer to an adult. In the tradition way of count ages in China, people get on age at the Spring Festival, not on their birthday. This may be what the "岁" is related to.

The wiki page may be mixing a lot things together. A lot of money exchange may happen in various celebrations in China, like the Spring Festival, Wedding, celebration of having a baby, etc. All these money can be wrapped in red envelops, can we call it 红包. But what is important here is the money, not the envelop. Money can be given without the envelop, but I cannot image what would happen if an empty envelop is given.

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You were right, my bad. I corrected that part. :) –  Alenanno Jan 16 '12 at 10:04
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