The Tradition of Wearing Red Underwear During Chinese New Year

A man shops at a store with red underwear hanging up

MN Chan / Getty Images

There are all kinds of fun traditions around the celebration of Chinese New Year. Alongside from the usual buying of new clothes, giving of red envelopes and eating a lot with your family and friends, there's the more contemporary tradition of wearing red underwear.

If you’ve been inside a department store in China from December to February, you might be wondering what the strange winter fashion surrounding red underwear is. Most prominent in the men’s section, red underwear is one of the most popular gifts for sweethearts to exchange around Chinese New Year.

Thus, you're not spying some cool Asian fashion trend for this year. No, every winter, red underwear decorated with gold embroidery, usually illustrating the pertinent zodiac animal for that particular year, goes on sale in China’s stores.

The Zodiac and Red Underwear

The Chinese Zodiac employs a cycle of 12. There are 12 animals in the zodiac and each year welcomes a new animal. In China, the animal cycle goes like this: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. People are born under one sign and will run into their sign again every 12 years. So it's important to be aware of your benming nian (本命年), or the meeting of one's zodiac year. 

Why Wear Red?

One would think that your year would be a good one. But on the contrary, Chinese traditional belief is that your benming nian is going to be full of bad luck. So if it's your year, you need to take a few precautions to ensure that your year is not a bad one.

To ward off any dangers that might befall you in your benming nian, it is traditionally believed that it helps to wear the color red. Red is one of the luckiest colors in Chinese traditions, standing for loyalty, success and happiness. You'll see red all over the place during traditional Chinese festivals and particularly Chinese New Year: red lanterns, red envelopes, red paper hangings. When it comes to decorations, just about everything is red and ornamented in gold.

How to Wear Red

If you believe in this stuff and you're really traditional, you should wear red every day, all year long. You can go big: add red accessories to every outfit. Or you can play it simple, wear a cute bracelet made of red interwoven Chinese knots around your wrist to ward off the bad luck.

But maybe you’re not a big fan of the color red in your outer wardrobe and you don't want everyone to know your age. So how do you ward off the bad luck but maintain your own sense of style? Red underwear is, of course, the answer. 

Red underwear is an easy way to protect yourself against the hazards of benming nian. You can stock up yourself on lots of pairs or ask your sweetheart to gift you with some new sets on Chinese New Year's Eve. In the shops, you'll see everything from the Three-Gun brand of long underwear popular in Shanghai touting their thermal reds to Calvin Klein in the high-end department stores showing off some more contemporary red items.​