So much more than cash goes into those little red hong bao packets, affectionately referred to as “lucky money” in China. Whereas in the West a personally tailored and thoughtful gift is the best present for an important occasion, in China the whole process is boiled down to the exchanging of money in little red envelopes. So what is hong bao, who should you give it to, when should you give it, and how much should you put in it?
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
What’s The Deal With Hong Bao?
Hong bao literally means “red packet”, which is exactly what is it. In Chinese culture the color red symbolizes fortune and good luck. Most hong bao also come with a pattern in gold, another lucky color according to the Chinese.
The tradition of giving hong bao is said to have began in the 17th century during the Qing Dynasty. In a bid to protect the young from getting sick and dying, the elderly would thread the hallow coins of the time with red string to give to the children. The money was supposed to ward off evil spirits. Later, with the invention of printing, the threaded coins were put into red envelopes. Today, hong bao is not associated with the same superstitions but remains a central part of Chinese culture.
When Should Hong Bao be Given and to Whom?
The time of year when the giving and receiving of hong bao is most prevalent is undoubtedly Chinese New Year. This is a time when the old will give to the young, married couples to their single dog friends, and bosses to their staff and suppliers.
But it’s not just on this most important of national holidays that hong bao is exchanged. Social events, especially those were someone is getting married or after a birth of a child, are usually awash with red envelopes. Some lucky people also receive hong bao on their birthdays and Valentine's Day.
How Much Should I Put Inside?
Ultimately, this will depend on four main factors:
1. How special is the occasion?
2. How close are you?
3. How much do you both earn?
4. Auspicious numbers
1) Chinese New Year and birthdays are annual occurrences and so a relatively small amount (RMB 200-500 for Chinese New Year or birthdays is totally fine). Weddings and births, however, are important life events and therefore require a higher amount to reflect the importance of the moment. You’ll want to aim for the high hundreds for this kind of event, preferably an amount involving plenty of 8s, such as RMB 888 (see below).
2) Are you family or close friends, work colleagues, business associates or casual acquaintances? For casual acquaintances and colgeagues, a token gesture (RMB 200-500 depending on the occasion) is enough. For family, close friends and business acquaintances, you may want to stuff a little extra in (RMB 500-888 depending on the occasion) to underline the importance of the relationship.
3) Assessing how much you both earn when giving a hong bao is important because, while it’s good to give as much as you can, it can also cause embarrassment if you give too much to someone who is not in a financial position to return the favor in the future.
4) Superstition plays an important role in the giving of hong bao, too. Avoid the number 4 at all costs. The Chinese word for 4, (Sì-四) sounds very similar to the Chinese word for death (Sǐ - 死), and therefore is considered extremely unlucky. Even if you were to give a newlywed couple RMB 4,000,000 they would still take it as a bad omen. At the same time, other numbers are considered lucky. Luckiest of all is 8, because the Chinese word Bā (八) sounds very similar to Fā (發), which means to prosper. Therefore, the luckiest amount you can give is RMB 888. If that’s too much for the situation, simply round the last one or two digits down to 8, for example 288, or even 280 if you don’t have the change.
Unlike in Western culture where 666 is the number of the devil, it's actually very lucky in China as it sounds like 六六大顺 (liùliù dà shùn), which means “everything will go well” . On your lover’s birthday, Valentine’s Day or your wedding anniversary you could also give 1314, which sounds like: 一生一世 (yi sheng yi shi), meaning a “lifetime”, or 520, which vaguely sounds like 我爱你 (Wǒ ài nǐ), which means “I love you”.
If you’re still not sure how much to put in your hong bao for a wedding, another helpful marker is to look at the event you were invited too. Was there a dinner? Were your drinks included? How much do you estimate the host would have spent per person on the party? If you make sure your hong bao covers those costs at least you’ll hopefully avoid becoming persona non gratis in future.
Should I be Keeping Tracking of all This?
It may seem a little bad taste to keep a record of how much hong bao you give and receive, but doing so actually serves a very practical purpose. It’s understood that the amounts are generally reciprocated between close friends and family, basically like you’re passing around the same money. It’s therefore useful to keep a record of the hong bao you’ve been given so you don’t mis-remember the amount and give something inappropriate back later.
One small note on the reciprocation, however, is that it’s not always expected that the amounts be completely equal. If there’s a clear discrepancy in the wealth or age of the two parties then it’s not a necessity. Just give what you can afford and feel is appropriate.
Any more tips on giving and receiving hong bao? Leave them in the comments below!
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