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October 1, 2012

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Too many weddings give guests the holiday blues

ALTHOUGH wedding invitations are usually happily received by those invited, Chinese guests are growing increasingly reluctant to attend the deluge of weddings and other festive occasions that come with the holiday season, as the gifts they must present to their hosts often leave them with empty wallets.

Ruan Yuan has every reason to believe that her eight-day national holiday, starting from yesterday will be ruined by weddings. She has five to attend during the period, with five cash gifts totaling 3,000 yuan (US$477) expected from her.

For Ruan, who lives in Hangzhou in eastern Zhejiang Province, wedding invitations make her feel like she's being asked to pay a fine.

"There are too many to take," she said, adding that half of her monthly salary will be gone after giving the gifts.

She will also have to cut the budget for the vacation she has been planning for months.

Public holidays are usually peak seasons for Chinese to arrange big family events, such as weddings, birth celebrations and housewarming parties, as they believe holding the events during the holidays will bring more luck, as well as more relatives and friends, as they are expected to be free during the holiday season.

This year brought a rare holiday occurrence, with the Mid-Autumn Festival falling the day before the start of the National Day holiday, which begins today.

The festival is held on the 15th day of the eighth month in the Chinese lunar calendar.

Longer holidays mean that more gifts have to be given, said Zhang Yuanbao, a retiree from northwest China's Shaanxi Province.

Zhang recalled the celebrations of the 1950s, when friends and relatives would give each other simple gifts, such as a dozen eggs, a new mirror or even a meal.

"After all, it was a gift, a token of good intentions. People didn't feel embarrassed about what they gave to new couples back then,'' he said.

The ritual began to change in the early 1980s, when people started to give cash gifts, according to Tan Fang, a professor at South China Normal University.

After the 1990s, material gifts were more or less replaced with cash, with the amount expected to be given increasing over time. Gifts of just five or 10 yuan used to be acceptable.

But these days, the cost of attending a wedding can add up to 200 yuan in second- or third-tier cities, while people in more prosperous areas may be expected to give as much as 500 yuan.

A household finance survey conducted by the Survey and Research Center for China Household Finance indicated that the average amount of money spent on gifts for weddings and other special occasions in 2010 added up to 2,642 yuan for each urban household and 2,228 yuan for rural households. The annual per capita disposable income of urban residents was 19,109 yuan in 2010, while that of rural residents was 5,919 yuan.

The increasing amount of money expected has created opportunities for those who dare to take advantage of their closest friends and family. Some couples reap profits by collecting gift money and offering simple, inexpensive food at their weddings. Corrupt government officials profiteer by hosting banquets for their children's weddings, receiving handsome amounts of money and gifts from their subordinates.

That being said, many Chinese do not mind giving money to their closest friends and spend a lot of time thinking about their gifts.

Hu Jiayi, a pharmacist who makes roughly 3,000 yuan a month, decided to give 500 yuan to her best friend's son on the occasion of his wedding, as Hu's own daughter will likely marry soon. "They will give the money back anyway and both families will have more face when guests see how much we have given to each other," she said.

Tan opposes giving expensive gifts during festive occasions, as they can be a burden for some guests and could sour relations. He suggests more innovative gifts, such as handmade crafts or gym memberships.

However, in a country where reputation is everything and the "middle class" is expanding, it may be difficult to advocate a simpler lifestyle and lower people's expectations, he said.


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