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Giving money in China: secrets of the hongbao

Hongbao, literally “red envelopes,” are traditional gifts of money that are given during Chinese New Year and other special occasions.

According to Chinese folklore, hongbao, which are colored an auspicious and lucky red, are supposed to protect children from a mischievous 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 are given red envelopes containing money, and further spread to encompass other dates such as birthdays, graduation dinners (somewhat inaccurately titled, as they are to congratulate the children for being accepted into university, not finishing their course; also known as ‘teacher-thanking dinners’) and weddings. In recent years, companies have started giving doctors, government officials and journalists hongbao, although this is regarded as bribery by the law.


Common events where a hongbao is expected

When  Who should you give hongbao to How much money should be given?
Chinese New Year’s Eve Your parents (only once you start making an income), your younger siblings, and the children of family members, friends, colleagues and business partners…

To parents: usually 500-5,000 yuan, according to your financial ability.
Children: 100 to 200 yuan will do.

The birthdays of children or the elderly (60+ years old) The birthday boy or girl (or man or woman…).

Children’s birthday: 100-200 yuan.
Elderly person’s birthday: 200-500 yuan.

When a baby is one month old The baby’s parents. 200-1,000 yuan; the figure differs greatly in different provinces.
Weddings The bride or groom. 200-1,000 yuan; the figure differs greatly in different provinces.
Graduation dinner The college students-to-be’s parents. 200-1,000 yuan; the figure differs greatly in different provinces.
Family moving home Any adult in the family 200-500 yuan; the figure differs greatly in different provinces.


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 – if you’re filthy rich then we’re pretty sure your friends and their kids will happily accept any hongbao you give them. 

The amount of lucky money you are expected to give varies from place to place and also depends on how close you are to the people in question. Talk with some local friends and they should be able to give you some indications.


Are gifts better or worse than hongbao?

It depends. For weddings and graduation dinners, it is more accepted to give hongbao than gifts; likewise Chinese New Year’s Eve. Even if you prepare a gift, you are still expected to give a hongbao.

But for birthdays, one-month-old parties for babies, or when a family moves to a new house, it is better to give gifts than hongbao. In these instances go with your instincts and treat it as you would a similar event in your own country: get a thoughtful gift for the birthday boy or girl, baby toys or clothes for the little one, and kitchenware, decorations or other household items for the relocating family. You don’t have to give hongbao if you give them gifts.

As with so much in China, of course, the exact details vary from place to place, so consult with local friends for advice – and of course giving a hongbao will do in any occasion.


What if you are offered a hongbao as part of your job but cannot accept it? How rude is it to refuse, and how should you refuse?

Giving hongbao for personal occasions is a custom in China, but is not supposed to happen in professional engagements. Doctors, government officials, teachers, journalists, judges and lawyers are among the various occupations that are not supposed to receive hongbao, except in personal occasions like those mentioned above.

Be aware that having their gift refused can cause a Chinese person to feel that they have lost face. You should decline their offer in the most polite and tactful way that you can. Here are some tips for refusing a hongbao gracefully:

  1. Be grateful. Tell them that you are thankful for their offer, and that you feel honored.
  2. Politely explain the reason why you can’t accept it, such as your hospital’s rules and regulations, the journalists’ code of conduct, or the trouble taking the hongbao might get both of you in. Blaming your company is a useful way of making the refusal seem impersonal and inoffensive.
  3. Promise the hongbao giver that you will do your job fairly, to the best of your ability and in accordance with the law. Patients offer hongbao to doctors hoping for better treatment; businesses offer hongbao to government officials in hope of a positive response when bidding for projects; students’ parents offer hongbao to teachers in the hope that their children will be given better education in school, and suspects or plaintiffs offer hongbao to judges in the hope that they will be treated well. Figure out the expectation of the person offering you the hongbao and you will know how to politely decline their offer and save them from the embarrassment of losing face.
  4. Maintain a happy mood and tone when you talk. Do not bluntly say no to the giver’s face.


Is anything expected by those who give out hongbao?

  1. For personal occasions such as weddings, birthdays and baby showers, it is a custom to give hongbao as a good luck wish. This is largely done out of social expectation and a desire to maintain a good relationship. Be thankful and smile when you get a one. And, of course, return the favor when they are in the same situation. 
  2. People who give hongbao to doctors, government officials, journalists etc are doing so in expectation of fair or preferable treatment, as outlined above. It is usually regarded as bribery.


Useful Chinese words and phrases



Red envelope



Lunar New Year Eve


mǎnyuè jiǔ 

New-Born Celebration (when the baby is one month old)


shēngxué yàn 

Graduation dinner


sòng lǐwù 

Give a gift



Birthday (general term)


shòuchén /shòudàn

Birthday (for those who are 60 or over)


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