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Red envelopes - the smart money

Enough already about family togetherness. Spring Festival is also - and very much - about the smart money and gifts that must go round and round in the famous red envelopes. Yao Minji peeks inside.

It's red envelope or hongbao season. Time to give serious consideration to who gets one, and what goes into that small but significant red envelop of money-go-round reciprocity:

How much is right? How much did he/she/they give me/us? How much can we expect in return in the form of cash, favors, good will, and who-knows-what-benefits to be claimed in the future?

For some significant people, perhaps not cash, that's too blatant, just an obviously expensive gift.

Ah, 'tis the season. Whoever said it was more blessed to give than to receive?

For some, like children and youth, this is a season of enrichment - they count on it for years. For others, well ... embarrassment and digging deep to come up with cash.

People without kids just seem to keep shelling out money to other folks' children. If you just got your first job, look out - Spring Festival will wipe you out.

"I'm quite broke now, but I still have to save a few hundred bucks for the Chinese New Year (starts next Monday this year) because I need to give red envelopes to my nephews, nieces and my grandparents," says 23-year-old Luo Qing, who just started working in August. She has already used up all her earnings.

It's an ancient rite of passage.

The amounts vary on family and ability to pay (see below on changing standards over the years). But you start getting money when you're born, start paying out when you enter adulthood, start receiving on behalf of your children, and receive again in your old age. That's the simple version.

Ancient tradition

"I still can't believe it. Instead of getting red envelopes, it's now my turn to give," says Luo. "I'm grown up so I can give out money. The red envelope money used to be my biggest income source for the year."

The red envelope money, or yasui qian (Lunar New Year money) in Chinese, is an ancient tradition dating back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD).

It is given to the children and family elders on the Lunar New Year's Eve. Ya means to press or push away and qian means money. Sui conveys different meanings depending on the recipient.

When it is given to children, sui refers to evil deities or ghosts and the money is used to press or push them back to protect the children. It was once said that children could use this money to bribe the demons to stay away.

When it is given to elders, sui indicates age and the money is used to push back the years and aging, carrying the hope for longevity.

Both traditions are carried on although the definitions of children, adults and seniors differs among families.

In Luo's family, young people continue to receive red envelope money from parents and relatives until they start working. Once they are considered grown up and self-supporting, though they may still live at home, they are required to give to younger relatives or sometimes elders.

Some families follow the traditional definition of adulthood as marriage - after they wed, then they contribute to the familial money-go-round.

In the past, a man was not considered an adult until he married, when he could leave his parents' home and live separately with his wife. Many Chinese parents still see marriage an important measure of whether their child is grown up.

A rookie in giving red envelope money, Luo is not only worried about saving money, but also how much to give and to whom.

"I thought it would be easy, but it is much more complicated. My mom told me to give my second niece more because she is going to primary school this year. My uncle gave me quite a bunch of red envelope money when I entered college," says Luo, who is amazed by her mother's memory and shrewd calculation.

Chinese-American student Emily Wu, 26, confronts a similar situation. Growing up in America since she was five years old, Wu feels these considerations are strange and make her feel uncomfortable.

Wu returned two weeks ago with her mother for the winter vacation. She received a red envelope while visiting her grandfather's brother, whom she had only met three times before. Wu was stunned when she saw 1,000 yuan (US$146) in the envelope after she got home.

She told her mom about the large amount and wanted to return the money. But her mother stopped her, saying it would be impolite and unlucky since it's the yasui qian. Nobody returns yasui qian.

Wu's mother consoled her with a great idea in the money-go-round: She would give a big red envelope to the old man's daughter on her wedding next month.

"That way, the renqing (reciprocal social relations) is clear," says Wu. "I know how renqing works and I agree that it's reasonable to buy gifts to those friends who got me presents before. But I didn't realize it was such a strict custom here. With no written rules, it seems like common sense to everyone."

There is no written rule about renqing. You don't find it in textbooks or from teachers. It's more like a practical skill you pick up from your parents, friends and colleagues - nothing formal. But those who don't follow the exacting etiquette of giving are considered impolite and immature.

Ren usually means person and refers to a person's social skills in this context. Qing means relations. Renqing means the customs that guarantee good social relations.

There are some commonly known renqing, such as giving yasui qian in red envelopes on Chinese New Year, giving red envelopes at births, weddings, giving birthday gifts, entry to college gifts, and so on - there are many occasions. In a word, it's a way of equal trading. Babies get money that mom and dad put in the bank or spend in what they consider the child's best interest.

For example, Luo remembers that her mom would count the money in each envelope before giving her all the yasui qian.

"It's just an exchange. My uncle gives me red envelope money, and my mom also gives it to his daughter," says Luo.

Luo's mom gets upset at times. If she finds out that she has given a relative less than what her daughter has received, she'll make a note to give more to that person's child next year. If it's the other way around, Luo still remembers how her mom would say "stingy."

"But most envelopes are about the same as what my mom gives because everyone knows about the standard price," says Luo.

It's the same for a wedding, another big time to cash in or pay out with envelopes. Guests always write their names on the red envelopes. The newlyweds register all their income from everyone and return it in a few years - when their wedding guests get married, or on another appropriate occasion.

Some new couples don't even open the gift envelopes of money - they keep it until the day the giver gets married. They change an envelope, write their name and give it back.

In daily life, we apply the idea of renqing without thinking about it.

"It's second nature for most people," says Chen Fei, 29, an account manager. "If you treat me for a dinner tonight, I'll take you to karaoke next time. If I brought cosmetics for you from Hong Kong, you might bring me chocolates from Belgium later on.

"Nobody can escape it unless you live alone on a mountain, grow your own crops and make your own food for your whole life," says Chen.

The idea is to carefully balance the value of the gift with the return gift and to do it smart.

"The reciprocal money, favor or gift should be of equal value or just slightly more. It looks stingy to give a cheap gift. But if I repay with a gift far more expensive, then it puts pressure on the other person to match up and close the value gap by giving back again," Chen explains.

It looks silly to return the favor right away in most cases, he says. It's too obvious that you are returning a favor. The smart way is to reciprocate on the right occasion to make it look natural. For example, giving a big red envelope to person's child on Lunar New Year or giving coupons for holiday travel are considerate.

It's all about reciprocity - and face: I'm afraid I would lose face for taking advantage of you if I don't return your a gift or favor.

Other Spring Festival traditions

Dust cleaning

In the old days, Spring Festival started from the 24th of December to the 18th of January on the lunar calendar.

The first day was "dust cleaning" day to clean houses, wash, scrub, air out quilts, get rid of the old and welcome the new. Though it is not strictly observed, most Chinese still do a household cleanup before Lunar New Year.

Kitchen god

Another tradition only maintained by a few rural and suburban people is praying to the God of Kitchen. Once every family would hang a picture or a statue of the kitchen god in the house since it was considered the protective deity of the family.

The kitchen god protects and monitors the family for the whole year and leaves to report to the Emperor of Heaven at midnight of Lunar New Year's Eve. So the whole family puts sweets in front of the statue or picture and prays to the kitchen god, imploring him to speak only sweet words.

Couplets and fu

Between the 24th and 31th days of December on lunar calendar, people decorate their houses and get goods and snacks for the Lunar New Year. They usually hang Spring Festival couplets and the character fu (luck) on the door. Some families put up cheerful paintings and red paper cut-outs.

Guard the year

On Lunar New Year's Eve, the whole family eats dinner together, stays up and chats all night long - no snoozing - to welcome the Lunar New Year. The custom, called shousui, requires everyone to stay awake all night.

Shou means to guard and sui means the year. The idea is to kick out all the old and evil things on the last day of the year, and welcome a new start together, wide awake.

Today, the nianyefan (Chinese New Year's Eve dinner) is still the most important one for Chinese, but a few people stay awake to guard the year.

Many Chinese gods, including the Emperor of Heaven, were "born" between the first and 18th day of January on lunar calendar, so people celebrate their birthdays. And it all goes back to normal after the 18th day of lunar January.

All these celebrations are rarely observed because now people have to go back to work on the 7th day of January on lunar calendar.

History of yasui qian

Giving new year's money originated in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), but back then it wasn't real currency. Instead, it was a decorative coin shaped like real currency. It was stamped with lucky phrases like "Long Life" or "Peace."

In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), yasui qian became a stream of real copper coins on a red string, red being the luckiest color.

Between 1911 and 1949, people started placing paper currency in red envelopes. It was popular to use bills with consecutive numbers to indicate a stream of unbroken, continuous luck.

In the 1940s, you were lucky to get any red envelope money since the country was at war. It was usually several coins only enough to get a candy at the time.

In the 1950s, it was common to give five or 10 fen (100 fen equals 1 yuan) to kids on Lunar New Year.

In the 1960s, the standard was up to 25 fen, usually enough to get a small firecracker or a cartoon book.

In the 1970s and 1980s, it was common for kids to find five to 10 yuan in the red envelope.

In the early 1990s, the standard was already up to 50 or 100 yuan as children became even more precious due to the one-child policy.

From the late 1990s onward, it all depends. Some rich parents give thousands of yuan to their children.

Major renqing - the big payouts

Though renqing (reciprocal giving to maintain social relations) permeates daily live, there are some big events and major occasions.

One is expected to give gifts or red envelopes if invited during Spring Festival, to weddings, to celebrate the birth of a child, to celebrate the move to a new apartment or house.

It's always a good idea to ask other guests in advance if you are not sure what and how much you should give. The amount depends on city living standards and your relationship to the host.

New Year's

American kids expect candies on Halloween, and Chinese kids usually cheer for red envelopes during the Spring Festival period. If a friend with kids visits during the period, or if you visit, it is nice to give a red envelope to the child for luck. The amount depends on how close you are to the parents. It's usually around 100-200 yuan.


If you are invited to a wedding, you must prepare a red envelope with your name on it - it will be logged. Again, the amount depends on how close your relationship and local standards.

In Shanghai, it is usually 300-500 yuan for a regular friend or colleague. If you go with your lover, the two of you will give around 800-1,000 yuan. You can always give more to a close friend. After all, it will all be returned on your wedding.

Avoid giving 400 yuan as the number four (si) sounds similar to the word for death in Chinese. Many people avoid odd figures like 300 or 700 because the even figures indicate sticking in pairs, like an enduring marriage.

Birth of a child

The birth of a child is usually celebrated with a feast when the baby is one month old. Parents usually only invite relatives and close friends. Either gifts or red envelop cash are welcome.

Similar to the nuptial situation, your money comes back to you when you have a child. If you've already had one child, then maybe you already received money.

House moving

House moving/house warming parties are common occasions for required renqing. It is more common to give useful gifts. Many people also buy coupons from electronics store as gifts.


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