Most people are aware of the tradition of giving red packets (红包 hóngbāo) in Chinese culture as gestures of appreciation during big life events. Venture beyond the surface level, however, and you quickly discover that effective gifting requires an understanding of public relations, sociology, psychology, finance & accounting, creative writing and even poetry.

Red Packets in Action

There’s nothing mysterious about the red packet itself: a decorated red envelope with cash notes inside. You’ll hear them called “red packs” and “red envelopes”, with numerous name variations in the different Chinese dialects.

First off, let’s cover the three mandatory red packet gifting occasions, i.e. times that if you don’t hand out red packets, you’ll end up feeling embarrassed:

1. Chinese New Year

When visiting family and friends during the Chinese New Year holiday, be prepared with a fistful of red packets to hand out in every household in which you encounter children, e.g. unmarried, young dependents, typically teenagers and younger. Even if you’re planning to just stay home and keep warm, you still have to prepare red packets in case your friends visit you with their children.

As soon as the children wish you “Happy New Year” or anything along those lines, that’s your perfect red pack gifting moment. Now some may quibble over the details, claiming if the children forget to say the right words, then you’re off the hook. Well, they never forget. Especially if you’re a well-known moneybags. In that case, a ring leader will drive a pack of ravenous kids on a neighborhood manhunt to track you down until you cough up the cash.

The amount you decide to give can vary based on your background (your relative seniority and economic situation) and the kids’ background (their relative age, their connection with you). Think 50-100 RMB as a starting point and head upwards for closer relations. Even more, if you’re investing into a relationship you value.

Prepare red packets with varying cash amounts in advance. When gifting in countries outside China, whose currencies have widely varying paper note values, develop a simple system to differentiate the red pack values so you don’t accidentally hand a small fortune on a distant 6-year-old nephew which you planned to give to the aspiring young couple about to buy a new house.

2. Weddings

Newlywed gifting in the West often involves online wedding registries with an elaborate list of household items soon to be required by the couple. Not so in traditional Chinese culture, where arriving red packet-less to a wedding party is like arriving naked for your first day of school.

The amount you choose for a red packet is very personal and subjective, but there are practical benchmarks for the minimum gift. You should go no lower than your share of the dinner party cost, which might be pricey at a 5-star establishment, and no lower than the red pack you received from the same friend at your wedding. (Hmm, how good is your memory?) Some people joke about wedding invitations being like “receiving a bomb about to go off.” If you go, you have to spend money; and if you don’t go, you still have to spend money. Both ways you’re “dead.”

There really is no maximum gift, especially if you want to financially assist the newlyweds, or if it’s a relationship investment, or you’ve know each other for life, or any one of a dozen other thoughtful reasons.

Strive for even numbers containing 6’s, 8’s or 9’s (all auspicious) and avoid 4’s (which sound like death). For an entertaining discussion on numbers, colors and their symbolism, please see “Chapter 4: Sorry There Is No Chapter Four” in our book China Simplified: Language Gymnastics.

Take the time to learn the meaning of the Chinese characters on the outside of the red envelope, to ensure they match the gift occasion. Sign the red packet with your name and complete it with a romantic wish. The most popular ones are:

早生贵子 zǎoshēng guìzǐ
“Wish you two will have children as early as possible”
(join in the parental pressure)

白头偕老 báitóuxiélǎo
“Wish your hair turns gray together”
(hold on, is this a wish or a curse?)

永浴爱河 yǒng yù àihé
“Wish you two bathe in the river of love forever”
(if you’re feeling more risqué)

Slip your red pack into the bride/groom’s hand right after entering the party or when you take the first picture with them. Practically speaking, it’s a little like getting your dinner coupon validated, but don’t discount the importance of the gesture. Ah, the romance of high finance.

3. Birthdays

When you’re invited to milestone birthday parties – customarily ending in 9’s for women and 0’s for men, though the 9’s birthdays are considered more significant – both red packets and conventional gifts are welcome. If you’re going to a party for a newborn (e.g. the full-month party or the hundredth day celebration) and have no desire to drag a truckload of diapers, formula and milk powder to the party, then red packets are a true savior.

The amount to give, again, is very personal and subjective. Since a baby can’t count, let alone spend the cash, the decision goes beyond the relationship between you and the newborn. Nonetheless, as soon as you lay your eyes on the little suckler, no matter how funny looking he/she may be, just say “cutie, cutie” and tuck the red packet into his/her tight wraps.

When you are the host of a milestone birthday party, and kids are coming, be prepared to hand out red packets, pushing them into the kids’ pockets as they come to pay you respect. You’ll know it’s the right time to dish the cash when you hear propitious blessings such as, “Wish you grow as old as the south mountain with good luck as enormous as the east ocean.”

Mo’ Money, Mo’ Occasions

Certain situations will arise where, strictly speaking, you don’t need a red packet, but if you choose to give one, you’ll be looked upon as being quite thoughtful and generous. Here are a few examples:

  • You accept an invitation to a wedding or birthday party but your schedule changes and you are unable to attend. Send over a red pack in advance, or ask a friend to pass it along to the host at the party.
  • You visit a family with a newborn. As a gesture of support to the new parents, facing new cash demands on very little sleep, drop a red packet into the mix.
  • You want to show appreciation to your household helpers (e.g. nanny, driver, cleaner, whomever) by giving them an extra month salary. This has become a fairly standard gift in China, not unlike delivering a sizeable tip to your best service providers in the West during the holiday season.
  • Someone you know is accepted for college admission, and you want to send them off with a little extra cash. This is more common within families, yet still a nice gesture.

Other times, any cash you give shouldn’t be in a red envelope:

  • Visiting a friend who’s hospitalized or recovering. Fruits or nutritious food are also a wonderful gift, depending on the situation.
  • Attending a funeral, the cash pack should contain an odd number by tradition and be delivered in a white or other color envelope.

Remember that in the happy, celebratory occasions, you should try to present your cherished gift recipient a red packet containing crisp new bills, ideally fresh from the bank, with a new money scent still lingering.

And when in doubt, call your friends and ask how much they’re giving.

  • Oksana Shevtsova

    Thanks for this article! I have a Chinese wedding party to attend tonight… but I don’t have a red envelope! Oh no!

  • Glad you found it useful! I hope you had a good time at the wedding. If you’re in China, you can find red envelopes in most convenience stores 🙂

  • Penelope

    My father just passed away and we want to give the caregiver, who is male and from China a monetary gift. What would be an appropriate amount? We are thinking 1 month salary. Is cash ok for that large of an amount? And is a red envelope appropriate? The caregiver cared for my dad for two years and he was present and assisted with my dads comfort when he passed.

  • Hi Penelope, sorry to hear about your father. A months salary seems like a reasonable amount but in this situation, it may be better to use an ordinary envelope instead of a red envelope.

  • Dawn

    We are hosting a Chinese foreign exchange student who will turn 15 on his birthday during his stay with us. Would giving a red envelope with $15 be appropriate?

  • Hi Dawn, I think $15 is a red envelope is a very nice gesture. Throw in a birthday cake and he gets the best of both East and West traditions 🙂

  • Nancy Armour

    If we are giving an employee a wedding gift of $100-150 cash, is the red envelope appropriate? Can it be a check? And other sites suggest giving money gifts ahead of time (so as not to have it lost at reception) — do you suggest that, too, or would we hit the mark better (both bride/groom are Chinese) if we did the handoff at the reception–during first photo/greeting, per above? Love making it authentic.

  • Nancy Armour

    also, if cash, likely better to put in big bills?

  • Hey Nancy. Cash is always good but check is fine too. Big bills is fine too. Cash will be able to make the envelope seem thicker and feel better though 🙂 You can present the red packet to the bride and groom at the reception with congratulatory words. Remember to also put blessings and wishes on the red packet. Traditional wishes are, “白头偕老“ or ”早生贵子”, meaning “to live to a ripe old age in matrimonial bliss” and “give birth to a son soon”.

  • Shiva

    Hi I like to give $900 for my girlfriend. This amount any in luck? How much can give https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/9e7d2d9bc04f3f3ef41a72f9ad0ca059c638c5b1a5fd3ee11b7cb545ad7b4f79.jpg