Hongbao (红包), literally “red envelopes,” are traditional gifts of money that are given during Chinese New Year and other special occasions – either digitally (preferred over WeChat) or in physical cash form.

According to Chinese folklore, hongbao, which are colored a lucky red, are supposed to protect children from a monster named Sui, which places its hands on the foreheads of sleeping children on Chinese New Year’s Eve in order to make them sick. According to the story, the only way for people to scare the monster away was to wrap a coin in red paper and place it on their child’s pillow.

Over time, this evolved into the practice seen today, in which children (and almost everyone else with a smartphone) are given red envelopes containing money, and further spread to encompass other dates such as birthdays, graduation dinners, being accepted into university, weddings and other events, instead of gifts.

Where a hongbao is expected…

RecipientBirthday
RMB
New Year
RMB
(low earner)
New Year
RMB
(avg earner)
Your Parents10008002000
Your Grandparents8005001000
Your Younger Children (no income)100100100
Your Older Children (with income)500300700
Children of close friends30050200
Your Co-Workers300n/an/a
To your Employeescake1001000
To other Childrengreeting1020
Building Security Guardsmessage200300
AYIcake13th Month Salary13th Month Salary
Drivercaken/a13th Month Salary

Other Events

WhenWhoAmount
Baby is one month oldThe baby’s parents.RMB 200-1,000
WeddingsThe bride or groom.RMB 200-1,000
Graduation dinnerThe students parents.RMB 200-1,000
Family moving homeAny adult in the familyRMB 200-500

   

On these occasions, you should give them hongbao only if you are invited to the birthday, wedding or dinner. If they don’t invite you, you can keep the money.  Of course, those are the ‘official’ rules.

Common Notes

Generally speaking, it is ideal to give round numbers or numbers ending in 8. 88, 188, 288, 388, 580, 680, 780, 800 etc. are good numbers. Due to superstitions, Four is an unlucky number in China so avoid any number that contains a 4. And no coins!

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.

The amount of hongbao you are expected to give varies from place to place and also