It is almost impossible to find a significant Chinese celebration without the presence of a red envelope. Chinese New Year, weddings, birth of new children, staff bonuses over holidays…red envelopes are a big part of celebrating properly.
Like peanut butter and jam for Americans, or fish and chips for Brits the combination of celebrations and red envelops is just one that works. But it’s also one that has to be done right.
Make sure you know what the envelope actually says!
Red envelopes are usually [don’t be shocked!] red and often come with gold Chinese characters. The characters are both writing and a work of art but you can get caught out by only focusing on the art side of it. Some with ‘double happiness’ 喜喜 are reserved for use at weddings whilst others like the traditional 福 (meaning blessing or fortune) can be used for any celebration.
Think about the numbers and not just the amount
In Chinese culture, certain numbers are seen as being ‘lucky’ or ‘unlucky’ depending on other words they might sound like. Most significantly, we never give amounts with the number 4 as ‘four’ 四 sì is too close to the word for ‘die’ 死 sǐ. On the flip side, amounts that feature the number eight is always preferred as 八 bā sounds like the word 发 fà meaning wealth or fortune. When our youngest was still a toddler her Chinese teacher gifted her first red envelop with 8.8yuan in – less than $1.50USD. The amount was insignificant and irrelevant, the thoughtfulness and well-wishes were much appreciated.
If all this is too tricky to work out – especially if you have multiple kids that you’re giving red envelopes to (and let’s be honest, so few of us even use cash very much anymore) then another sure bet is to give a round number that avoids the number 4. Here in China, any multiple of 100 yuan is fine to give (except 400 yuan, of course).
Think about the amount and not just the numbers
Ok, so I realise that I’m contradicting myself here, but the amount can absolutely be as important as the numbers represented. If you attend a Chinese wedding its customary not to give gifts but to give a red envelop to the couple. The amount you give should be at least as much as it cost them to feed you at the wedding. That means if your whole family also attends, the amount in the envelope should also reflect that.
Higher amounts can also show the closeness of relationships and lower amounts are considered more than ok if you’re not all that close a friend.
Modern Red Envelopes
Today more and more red envelopes are given electronically over the Chinese social media platforms WeChat or AliPay. The traditional, physical envelopes are still widely available in most Asian stores as well as on Amazon (try a quick search for Chinese Red envelopes.)
However you give your red envelope, you should give it knowing that you’re joining a long [and fun!] tradition.