Especially for men, snatching an unassuming red envelope from the ground can lead to a shocking proposition.

Red envelopes in Chinese culture are considered a lucky item. Traditionally stashed with cash and given to children during the Lunar New Year, the red color of the envelope signals good fortune for future generations.

However, despite the positive associations of red envelopes and money-giving, Japanese Twitter users have been abuzz about the implications of a red envelope left on the ground.

Starting from a post by @oogoda1, who is a Mandarin teacher based in Taiwan, the user stressed a warning to their fellow Japanese netizens thinking about taking a jaunt through the tropical island country.

“Warning about Red Envelopes in Taiwan.

Yesterday, I saw a red envelope on the ground. However, be careful about thinking it’s free money and celebrating too early! It’s most likely a ghost marriage proposal. Ghost marriage is tradition where a family tries to find their deceased daughter a groom, and they do so by placing her photo as well as a lock of her hair in a red envelope. If a man picks it up, the family will believe he is the fated groom of their deceased daughter, and force him to marry her. This is the third time I’ve seen this.”

While it’s common sense not to randomly grab things from the ground that don’t belong to you, it’s understandable why @oogoda1 posted a warning about this phenomenon: though red envelopes aren’t used in Japanese culture, they are often commonly associated with prosperity and cash, so anyone with this tidbit of cultural knowledge may feel tempted.

Japanese netizens, expats living in Taiwan, and even Taiwanese people pitched their voices into the discussion:

“If this is really true, please be careful folks.”

“Scary! This is even more terrifying than a ghost story.”

“I’ve been to Taiwan multiple times, and quite frankly I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

“I was born in Taiwan, but I’ve never seen this before. While it’s quite common to think that Taiwan is relatively modernized, in reality the superstitions of temples and even churches play an important role within many communities.”

“I’m Taiwanese, and when I was a kid, I remembered seeing these envelopes on the road side quite often since I lived near crematoriums and funeral parlors.”

“If a lot of Taiwanese people know about this, and don’t pick up the envelope, does this mean it’ll lead only to international marriages?”

▼ One Japanese Twitter user claimed that a ghost marriage proposal wouldn’t count if you’re a woman, as well as how to negate an accidental pick-up.

“If a girl picks up the red envelope, it doesn’t count. If a guy picks it up, then a family member nearby watching the act will come out of hiding and confront the guy is what I heard. However, if you put some money in the envelope, and say ‘I hope you find a good match,’ then it won’t count anymore. I believe this tradition has been ongoing since the Qing Dynasty, and there’s a good amount of places that still practice it.”

▼ A Taiwanese Twitter user went the distance to explain another cultural tradition in Taiwan where a red envelope on the floor is involved.

“If you see a red envelope on the ground, it might not be related to ghost marriage! In Taiwanese culture, we have a traditional practice called hua qian xiao zai shu [lit. Spend Money, Avoid Calamity Method].

Basically, if you experience a small misfortune, you spend money to lower the chance of a larger misfortune by putting in some cash and a piece of yourself (hair or nail acceptable) in a red envelope.

You then wrap it up in something [e.g. a piece of clothing, in another envelope] and leave it on the ground. If a stranger grabs it, they’re actually doing a favor by taking away the misfortune — the cash inside the envelope can be used however they like, but the hair/nail inside should be burned at a local temple!”

Regardless of the interpretations one may have about a red envelope on the floor, one important question to ask is: why is ghost marriage practiced, and what does it actually entail?

Traditionally in Chinese culture, families have altars dedicated to their deceased ancestors, usually taking time to pray and offer tributes in the form of favorite food items as well as incense. Women, however, are added to the ancestral altar of their husband’s family. If a woman doesn’t marry, she will not have a spot in an ancestral altar, and there is a risk that once she passes away, she will become a “hungry ghost,” assumed to wander starving and alone, eventually spiting humans out of vehemence.

▼ Feed your local ghosts, lest they show up through town in a spooky posse.

Through ghost marriage, the unmarried, deceased party is granted a place to rest and will be remembered onto posterity. Depending on the family, the living groom may be expected to commit through all rituals and practices of a traditional Taiwanese marriage. The living spouse will still be able to take on another spouse in the mortal world, so the arrangement isn’t necessarily going to restrict or hamper your dating chances if for some reason you become the spouse of a ghost.

It should be noted that the aforementioned practices differ between families, and sometimes ghost marriages are done between a deceased party and their still-living significant other. Not to mention ghost marriage isn’t just a purely Chinese tradition — it has been practiced in multiple parts of the world, from South Korea to France, and even in Japan. Japan’s ghost marriage traditions are primarily regulated to Okinawa and mountain villages in Yamagata. Historically, Okinawan ghost marriages were similar to Chinese ancestor worship customs — unsurprising considering the influence of Chinese culture on the former Ryukyu kingdom.

However, in Yamagata, the tradition of ghost marriage is related to a practice called mukasari ema, mukasari a derivation of the term mukaerare which means to welcome a marriage, whereas ema an is a votive tablet commonly purchased at a Shinto shrine.

▼ With the typical ema, the buyer can write, or even draw, their wishes on it for an extra divine boost.

Mukasari ema is essentially a framed drawing of the unmarried deceased in a wedding ceremony, paired with a fictional spouse. When the deceased child is of age, their family commissions a local temple for this type of ema for two main reasons: to grant their offspring the rite of marriage, and to ensure they are happy even in the afterlife.

Even if you don’t believe in the afterlife or subscribe to superstition, the focus on securing a child’s overall well-being is universal no matter the country or customs. At the end of the day, parents simply want their children to be happy. They try their best in the cultural contexts available to them — for the sake of stability, longevity, and posterity — with traditional practices no doubt being one of the most common avenues today.

Source: Twitter/@oogoda1 via Jin
Top image: Twitter/@oogoda1
Insert images: Pakutaso (1, 2

Related: Goda’s blog, Taitai Lesson
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