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Chinese Red Envelopes/Packets (Hongbao) — Amount, Symbols and How to Give

Chinese lucky money Giving red envelops or Hongbao is a custom at Chinese New Year. 

Red envelopes always contain money in China, and are given, most commonly, to kids from their parents, grandparents, and others as Chinese New Year gifts.

They are called hongbao in Mandarin and lai see in Cantonese. The term “red packets” has also come into common use, though hongbao look and function more like envelopes than packets.

Why Chinese Give Red Envelopes

Chinese people love the color red, and regard red as the symbol of energy, happiness and good luck. Sending red envelopes is a way to send good wishes and luck.

Actually, the significance of red envelopes is the red paper, not the money inside. Wrapping money in red envelopes is expected to bestow more happiness and blessings on the receivers. Hence, it is impolite to open a red envelope in front of the person who gives it to you.

In China, the red envelope is called yasui qian (压岁钱 /yaa-sway chyen/), which means 'suppressing ghosts money'. Those who receive a red envelope are wished another safe and peaceful year.

Click to read the Legend of Why Red Envelopes Are Given.

Who Gets a Red Envelope — and How Much Money Goes Inside

Giving red packets

Traditionally speaking, if you have started earning money, it is time to start your experience of giving red envelopes. Giving a red packet is a way to share your blessings. Generally the amount of money wrapped in the red packets depends on your income.

However, there is a custom that if you are not married, you need not send red envelopes to others.

Your close relatives (like your parents and your grandparents) will keep giving you red envelopes even when you are married, which is a symbol of their love and blessings for you.

Chinese Red Envelopes
  • To your elders (especially your parents and grandparents): always 500–2,000 yuan
  • To the younger generation without an income (especially those who are still at school), such as the children of your close friends, your relatives and your colleagues: always 50–200 yuan
  • To your own children: always 100 yuan up to the amount you are happy to give
  • To your employees: always 100–1,000 yuan (always given on the last working day before the Chinese New Year holiday)
  • To other children: Prepare some small red envelopes with 10 yuan or 20 yuan for acquaintances' children, in case you meet them during the Chinese New Year period.

Occasions for Red Envelopes

Chinese New Year is a red envelope season. But red envelopes are not limited to Chinese New Year.

It is common to give a red envelope during some special occasions, such as a wedding, graduation, the birth of a baby, or a senior person's birthday. It is a traditional way to wish good luck and share blessings.

Tips for Giving and Receiving a Red Envelope

Giving a Red Envelope

Chinese red envelopA red envelope

1. It's tradition to put crisp, new bills inside. Giving dirty or wrinkled bills is in bad taste. In the week leading up to Chinese New Year, many people stand in long queues at banks to exchange old bills for new ones.

2. You're supposed to avoid putting coins in the envelopes.

3. Avoid giving amounts such as 40 yuan or 400 yuan. The number '4' in Chinese sounds like 'death', so this is considered bad luck. Even numbers, except four, are better than odd. It is best if the amount starts or ends in eight, such as 800 yuan, as it is considered to enhance luck.

4. Prepare red envelopes in advance and always carry some envelopes with you during all 16 days of Chinese New Year (from New Year's Eve to the Lantern Festival) in case you bump into someone that you may need to give an envelope to.

5. You'd better put different denominations in differently designed red envelopes so that you can quickly and tactfully discern whether you’re giving away 100 yuan or 1,000 yuan.

Receiving a Red Envelope

1. Always receive your red envelope with both hands. It is impolite to accept a red envelope with just one hand.

2. When you receive a red envelope, you should express thanks and greet the giver with a pleasing, auspicious phrase. Click to learn some Chinese New Year popular greetings.

3. Never open your red envelope in front of the person who just gave it to you. You should do it in private or when you get home.

WeChat Red Envelopes

WeChat red envelope A WeChat red envelope

In recent years, it has become popular among young people to send "red envelopes" (an online money transfer with a colorful message) via WeChat (a messaging app) as a greeting. It has become a new way to greet friends or relatives during the Chinese New Year period.

On New Year's Eve, the CCTV Spring Festival Gala attracts people with its wonderful performances and cyber red envelopes. While watching the performances, people have the chance to win cyber red envelopes by shaking their phones ceaselessly.

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