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Chinese New Year Red Envelope History
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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.
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:
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.
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)
“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.
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.”
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:
Other times, any cash you give shouldn’t be in a red 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.
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