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 Empowerment.

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.

Join the discussion 38 Comments

  • B
    Bryant says:

    I sent my Chinese girlfriend of 6 months 500 RMB by bank deposit as I am in Canada. She sent a note telling me that it wasn’t enough, that she does not feel loved by me with this amount. Am I being scammed? How much should I have sent? I should mention that I sent her 5000 RMB for Christmas.

    • X
      XN says:

      Hi Bryant, I am a Chinese lady and to put things bluntly, it does seem like you are being scammed. For one, couples are not required to gift red packets to one another during Chinese New Year – regardless of whether you are dating or married. Second, Chinese do not really celebrate Christmas (and if we do, it’s only for fun) and it is definitely not a practice to give red packets for this occasion.

      If you wish to give her as goodwill, RMB 500 during Chinese New Year would more than suffice. If she’s true to you, she would not say crap like you not loving her. All the best 🙂

  • P
    Pilar says:

    I would like to give my friend a red envelope for her wedding, but I am in the wedding party. We’re in America, so it’s a Western style wedding that she’s adding cultural elements to. There’s usually a table for gifts and a box for cards. Would I still hand it to her during the reception?

    • X
      XN says:

      Hi Pilar, it does not matter how you gift the red packet but I would recommend that you hand it to her to ensure she receives it 🙂 At Chinese weddings (at least in Singapore), there is usually a nice portable safe that is locked and meant for collecting red packets.

  • O
    Owin says:

    How much should I give to a 90 YO birthday man. Is $90 ok?
    And how many notes should that consist of?

    • S
      Stew says:

      $90 seems a reasonable gift, ideally new bills though not a must. The exact gift amount very much depends how close you are to the recipient: family, friend, acquaintance?

  • E
    Elizabeth says:

    My friend, who is white, is marrying a Chinese man in a few months. Although they are having a western style wedding, I was think of including a red envelope in addition to a wedding present, so that some part of his culture is acknowledged as well. Is this appropriate, and how should I go about it? How can I be sure I don’t buy the wrong kind of envelope? I have some from New Years, but I’m not sure that they are interchangeable.

    • Z
      Zhumin says:

      To include a red envelope is appropriate and sweet. You’d want to hand them the red envelope when you first greet the couple on the wedding or before the dinner starts. Feel free to put a few words on the envelope, such as Happy Marriage Forever or Offsprings Soon to Come, etc, etc.Red envelopes from the New Years are fine so long as the New Year theme isn’t too strong. Best wishes to you and your friend!

  • D
    Dawn says:

    Is it considered bad luck to give a red envelope after Tet is over? I missed seeing my Favorite Nail Stylist during the lunar new year celebration but would like to give her the envelope I had ready for her.

  • J
    John says:

    Hi, im foreigner and going to visit my girlfriend house on Chinese New Year evening. But our relation is still not clear because of family concerns. This will be my first interaction with the family on this special evening for Chinese. There is one little girl about 1.5 years in the family and my girlfriend. What should I take to their house on first visit and tell me the amount of red packets.

    • S
      Stewart says:

      You might want to follow your girlfriend’s guidance on gifts and how to present yourself to her family. A red packet of 200rmb for the young girl is fine. An arrival gift of wine would be a nice gesture for her parents. It’s more about making an effort and showing you care than getting it exactly right.

  • J
    Jia hui says:

    Can check do first timer guest baby come over for an housewarming do owner need to distribute angpow ?
    Thank you 🙂

    • Z
      Zhumin Sun says:

      Would love to help but could hardly understand your question : (
      Do you want to try your question again?
      Thank you.

  • C
    Connor says:

    My father-in-law has is having his 60th birthday soon. My partner has told me this is a particularly auspicious celebration. How much would you give your parents for such an occasion as a 50th or 60th etc?

    • S
      Stewart says:

      For this kind of special occasion, I would recommend that you purchase a thoughtful (physical) gift rather than consider a sum of cash in a red pack. Your selection of something that you know will make him happy shows you made an effort to understand him. This I believe works across almost all cultures.

  • Y
    Yansa baba says:

    What does it mean when someone returns the wedding red envelope that you gave them.

  • M
    Manchester says:

    Hi. Is it too late to give gifts? Are red envelopes files with 8 pieces of chocolate appropriate for 4 & 5 year olds? They are my nephew’s friends, at school.

    • C
      China Simplified says:

      Mothers we know sometimes give candy to kids in red wrapping (which kids don’t like sweets?), though this wouldn’t be considered a 红包 “red pack,” at least by traditional standards. Better to reserve red envelopes for cash (small or big) and use them as gifts during CNY, weddings, etc etc.

  • C
    Cristal says:

    what is done with the money received? just spent on anything or does it have have a purpose?

    • C
      China Simplified says:

      It can be spent on anything. For kids during CNY, they love having small money to buy something fun. For adults hosting a wedding, they hope the red packs will cover most of the wedding banquet so they don’t have to spend too much money.

  • j
    jake says:

    Hi, how much RMB should I hand to my driver at chinese new year? He only started driving for me about 1month ago..

    • S
      Stew 李渡 says:

      Hi Jake, how much the driver makes as a monthly salary would normally influence the decision, i.e. give him an extra month before he celebrates the holiday. It’s subjective…some people might be even more generous with their long time employees. Since your driver only just started, he probably won’t have high expectations. It doesn’t have to a red pack. Giving some kind of nianhuo (年货) snack pack such as nuts, desserts, or other delicacies would be a nice gesture.

  • S
    Shiva says:

    Hi I like to give $900 for my girlfriend. This amount any in luck? How much can give

    • S
      Stew 李渡 says:

      Wow, you have a lucky girlfriend :~) Even numbers are generally considered more lucky, especially 8’s, avoid 4’s. So consider a gift of 800 or 888.

  • N
    Nancy Armour says:

    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.

    • N
      Nancy Armour says:

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

      • L
        Li Wei says:

        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”.

  • D
    Dawn says:

    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?

  • P
    Penelope says:

    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.

    • L
      Li Wei says:

      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.

  • O
    Oksana Shevtsova says:

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

    • L
      Li Wei says:

      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 🙂

    • S
      Steph Koh says:

      You can find them on eBay! or try your luck in Chinatown (i suppose in any country). The shops are usually covered in red and gold 🙂

Leave a Reply