Chinese Red Envelope Tradition Falling Under Growing Scrutiny

There is a custom in China for parents and grandparents to give lucky money to their children and grandchildren on Lunar New Year’s Eve. (Image: kyle tsui via Flickr)

In China, the long-held tradition is to present your wedding gift in the form of a red envelope/red packet filled with money.

Besides weddings, red envelopes are also commonly used during other special occasions. On Chinese New Year, the parents give red envelopes to children.

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In celebration of a newly born child, friends, family, and relatives will hand over some red packets in favor of the newborn.

How much cash to put in a red envelope?

The amount of money stashed inside a red packet can differ from place to place. Some regard the amount enclosed in the red packet to be a measure of the “relationship” between the giver and the receiver.

The red packet tradition long ago turned into more than a humble practice of charity.

In fact, the practice of passing on money in a red envelope has also become a disputed method to summon the receiver’s favor.

A Chinese financial website has even published a map with obligatory “red envelope minimum amounts” expected by people living in a specific province in China. So, as a Chinese, or someone who intends to give anyone on the mainland a red packet, this map is supposed to show you how much money each region expects as a minimum gift.

China-Red Envelope Map. According to a study a Chinese Financial Website issued a image of how much money to put into a red envelope, depending on which area of China you life in. (Image Credit: Screenshot/ Chinese Media)
China red envelope map. According to a study, a Chinese financial website issued a map of how much money to put into a red envelope, depending on which area of China you live in. (Image: Screenshot via Chinese media)

According to the China red envelope map, 1000 RMB (US$150.86) is the minimum in Shanghai and Zhejiang Province, and only 100 RMB (US$15,09) in Guangdong and Yunan provinces.

The map reveals that the minimum amount required for a wedding gift in the northern areas of China is comparatively higher than in other regions.

The capital test of ‘relationship’

One might come to believe that over the years, depending on which part of China one comes from, the financial strain of weddings, New Year, childbirths, and other occasions might become quite a test for how valuable people or their relationships might be.

But wait, some of you may think. “Yes, if I pay a friend who lived in the northeast 1000 RMB for his wedding, he will come to my child’s birth and repay the favor.” Sounds quite plausible, if there weren’t the matter of the red envelope map, and you just happen to live in the center of the country where the minimum cash amount to put in a red packet is 200 RMB. In this case, you would have to hope for five friends to give a red envelope before you break even with the amount of your last red envelope.

Of course, this is just a humorous dramatizing of a commercial opportunity related to the practice of handing over money with red envelopes, and surely no morally obligated person would find satisfaction in misusing this tradition for some sort of benefit.

The slowly bribing affirmation of benefit

China Red Pockets. (Image Credit: By WorldAccent (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)
China red envelopes. (Image: By WorldAccent (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons)

Regarding the very high cash gifts some individuals receive, Chinese people have expressed the following opinion: “The financial burden of a gift for attending a Chinese wedding is overwhelming. It costs 1000 RMB to attend a good friend’s wedding, and 500-1000 RMB to attend a colleague’s. It is shameful to give only 100 RMB; however, the monthly salary allows the attendance of three good friends’ weddings.”

In Guangdong and Yunnan provinces, just 100 RMB is enough to pop a cork at the wedding of your common friend.

But not everyone agrees with the online survey and the results presented on the red envelope map.

Some people from the Guangdong Province apparently disapprove of the suggested minimum of 100 RMB (US$15,09). “A 100 RMB gift is absolutely impossible. In the major cities of Guangdong, the wedding gift cash starts at 400 RMB. The exception being, if valuable commodities are included in the gift, then 100-200 RMB cash is acceptable too.”

In recent times, the practice of red envelope cash gifts is falling more and more under scrutiny.

Many dissatisfied Chinese claim: “Nowadays, some people use this tradition to bribe officials.”

They apparently give them large sums of cash inside a red packet or send antique or valuable things to their son’s and daughter’s weddings.

If so, benefiting an important person by giving them a red envelope filled with cash is becoming a legal way of bribing officials in China.

Translated by Jean Chen

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