After thousands of years and millions of red envelopes exchanged, few true etiquette rules exist for the tradition of hong bao. Each family has their own interpretation of what might be appropriate, compounded further by each recipient’s own interpretation of what to do. But a few general rules apply. Our advice? Choose what you’re most comfortable with! In thousands of years of Chinese history and our own extensive research, we haven’t seen a red envelope fairy that will appear to punish you for doing any one thing a certain way!
- New Bills: Generally speaking, most people favor fresh, crisp bills—particularly for Chinese New Year. The thought behind new bills is more commonly associated with a superstition that old bills carry old luck, rather than new. Most casual recipients probably won’t notice if a bill isn’t fresh out of a Vegas ATM, but it’s worth going a little out of your way to skip the bills that went through the laundry a few times.
- Checks: Probably more of an American thing, but it’s generally okay to give a check for a larger gift since ATM limits are a thing that exist. This would be your chance to actually use your checkbook (should you still possess one) for something other than rent (should that still be a thing you do), since you refuse to be seen using it at the grocery store like your grandma still does.
- Denominations: Amounts given vary depending on your relationship to the recipient (ie. Are they younger? A close relative? Distant friend? Coworker?) and the specific occasion. BUT really, like any cash gift, it’s totally up to you! That being said, if you’re like us and have the off-putting vision of Grandpa waving his fist at you while explaining the importance of good luck vs. bad luck... keep this in mind:
- Good Luck Numbers
- Even number amounts are generally preferred over odd since good luck comes in pairs (and it’s nice when amounts are highly divisible). Give $10 instead of $11, etc.
- The number 4 is very unlucky. Read: VERY. Avoid giving any amount that involves 4 at all costs. It’s associated with death (we weren’t playin’) and is considered terrible luck for both the recipient and the giver (so 4, 40, 44, 440… all no-nos.)
- 8 is the luckiest. If you want to cover all your bases, the number 8 is considered the most auspicious of all.
- Some folks believe 66 is especially lucky as “66” in Chinese loosely translates to having “a smooth life.”But, this is less common folklore, so do with that information as you see fit.
- Chinese New Year
- Children and single people can receive amounts similar to an allowance—especially since they’ll likely be receiving many red envelopes from various “elders” at a Chinese New Year celebration.
- But that begs the question, what are kids raking in these days? When we were kids (see: during the 80s and 90s), our tiger moms gave us maybe $5, during a good year. Like only if we also got straight-As.
- Older kids will probably appreciate getting a little more
- The western gift-giving guidance is to pay for the costs associated with having you as a guest at that wedding. This will vary depending on the kind of wedding you’re attending, likely between $20 and $200 per person. Use your best judgement based on your relationship with the happy couple.
- Want to get creative? Remember the number 8 carries a lot of lucky weight. Clever givers may aim for denominations like $288 or $388, with two pairs of 8 symbolizing a new couple, or three pairs of 8 symbolizing the couple plus a new baby.
Tips for the Recipient
- Receiving your red envelope. If someone like a Grandma or Grandpa is formally handing an envelope to you, it’s proper etiquette to receive the envelope with two hands and a gracious bow. This is often lost in western tradition, however.
- Opening your red envelope. There’s no hard and fast rule with ANY gift you receive (red envelope or otherwise), but common politeness dictates that you open any red envelope in the privacy of your own space, away from the giver. This one’s up to you.
Top image: Vintage Mod Red Envelope
Bottom image: Plenty of Goodness Red Envelope (top) and Vintage Mod Red Envelope (bottom)
Does your family follow any rules with money gifts? Are there any superstitions your family has around this? Let us know what you think.