Giving a red envelope filled with lucky money is a common way for the Chinese to show appreciation during important celebrations like Chinese New Year, birthdays and weddings. In this guide, I’ll cover when to give a red envelope, how to choose the right design and how much to give.
The red envelope tradition is all about the reciprocity of giving and receiving. It’s a gesture of goodwill, expressed through the exchange of red envelopes, that builds relationships among family and friends. In fact, after many rounds of giving and receiving red envelopes over the years, you’ll probably find that you end up netting even financially. Count the relationships, not the dollars.
A Chinese red envelope (known as lai see in Cantonese and hong bao in Mandarin) is simply an ornate red pocket of paper the size of an index card. They’re commonly decorated with beautiful Chinese calligraphy and symbols conveying good luck and prosperity on the recipient. Though they’re unquestionably a symbol associated with Chinese New Year, birthdays and weddings, red envelopes are also given for graduations, the launches of new ventures and other special occasions.
Regardless of the event, this basic red envelope etiquette applies: Choose new bills, don’t ever include coins and these days checks are OK. Avoid the number four because of its resemblance to the word meaning death. And, optional, but $88 (8 rhymes with the word for good luck) and $99 (for longevity) are positive symbolic amounts.
Here is a guide to the most common occasions for giving and receiving Chinese red envelopes.
Chinese New Year
When you’re celebrating Chinese New Year among the family and friends in your neighborhood, be prepared with a fistful of red envelopes filled with money in varying amounts. It’s expected that you’ll give red envelopes to your own children ($20 is common), to any unmarried children among your family and friends ($5-$10 is common), to your parents ($50-$100 is common) and to any friends or family you visit ($20 is common) during the Chinese New Year holiday.
These red envelopes wish the recipient a life filled with abundance. The decorations include good luck symbols like the Chinese character for good fortune, gold coins and swimming fish.
Joy and Prosperity
These red envelopes wish the recipient good fortune and prosperity. The decorations include the Chinese character for good fortune above an image of the Chinese God of Wealth bearing a tray of gold ingots.
These red envelopes wish the recipient prosperity as springtime blossoms bloom. The decorations include good luck symbols like the Chinese character for good fortune, springtime blossoms and gold coins.
It’s appropriate to bring a red envelope to major milestone birthday parties (those ending in 9’s for women and 0’s for men) and to the newborn celebration known as a red egg and ginger party. For adult parties, $88 (8 rhymes with the word for good luck) and $99 (for longevity) are positive symbolic amounts. For red egg and ginger parties, use the wedding party rule of thumb — at a minimum, cover your cost of attendance and at a maximum, cover a nice gift — to arrive at a gift amount of $60-$200 per couple attending. If you’re hosting a milestone birthday party, be sure to bring red envelopes for any young children in attendance ($5-$10 is common).
These red envelopes feature the Chinese character for longevity, making them appropriate for any birthday celebration, young or old. The decorations include many different character variations for longevity.
These red envelopes feature characters wishing the recipient luck, longevity, health and peace. The decorations include good luck symbols like happy children, beautiful clothing and a peach.
These red envelopes wish the recipient a life filled with happiness. Script characters, oranges and a traditional longevity knot express the hope that all wishes come true.
Although registries packed with household essentials for the newlyweds are common in the United States, the most appropriate gift at a Chinese wedding is still a red envelope. The amount you give is ultimately subject to the depth of your relationship with the couple, but it’s common to cover your cost of attendance at a minimum and match the cash value of a nice wedding gift at the maximum. Think $100-$200 per couple attending the wedding.
These red envelopes wish the couple a happy future with wedding well wishes and the Chinese characters for double happiness, the traditional symbol of marriage.
Luck and Riches
These red envelopes wish the recipient enduring luck and prosperity. The decorations include good luck symbols like the Chinese character for good fortune, oranges and gold ingots.
These red envelopes wish the recipient a life filled with good luck. The decorations include a garland of blossoms and many different variations of the Chinese character for good fortune.