Hongbao: All you need to know about the Chinese red envelope

Who to give it to, how much, and what to do when you receive one yourself

by Jennifer Stevens | Wed, January 25, 2017

As an expat in China, one of the first local customs you’re likely to come across is the red envelope, or hóngbāo (红包). Prevalent during Chinese New Year, and common wedding and birthday presents, the idea of giving money to someone instead of a gift might at first rub foreigners the wrong way. Don’t let it. 


The history behind hóngbāo

Image courtesy of China Culture Tour 

The tradition is said to have originated from a story about a monster named Suì (祟). On the first day of each new year, Suì would terrorize a village, sneaking into people’s homes while they slept. Children would often times disappear. Frightened and desperate, one couple prayed to their god for protection, who in turn sent fairies down to help. The fairies disguised themselves as coins and hid under the children’s pillows that night. When Suì approached them, the coins shined so brightly that it scared the monster away from the village for good. After this, the rest of the villagers continued to place red packets under their children’s pillows. 


For awhile, these red envelopes were only given to children during the Spring Festival, but now they are given to anyone as a way to grant happiness and blessings. Legend has it that Suì was also scared off by the color red. By wrapping money in red packets, you are protecting the money and the person receiving it. 


Who to give hóngbāo to and how much

This is where things get tricky. For Chinese people, there are a lot of people to give hóngbāo to, and for many occasions (weddings, birthdays, graduations). They may need to put cash aside for their children, nieces and nephews, their friends' kids, their colleagues (especially if they are the boss), their parents and anyone they employ, like a driver or āyí. 


For foreigners, you are expected to give red envelopes to your āyí and your driver. There is no set amount, but the expectation is the equivalent of one month's salary. This bonus should be given right before the Chinese New Year holiday, as often times it helps them return to their hometowns to see their families. You may also want to give hóngbāo to Chinese tutors or coaches, if you have one. This amount typically isn't as much as you would give your āyí or driver, but should be at least ¥200. If you are invited to a Chinese person's home during the holiday, it is a nice gesture to give an envelope to the hosts' children, if they have them. It is up to your discretion how much you give, but ¥50 is fairly typical. 


Tips on giving and receiving


1. Always put clean, unwrinkled bills in the envelopes, and don't give coins.

2. Do not give money that adds up to an amount including the number four, such as 40 or 400, as the pronuciation of the word "four" sounds like the word "death" in Mandarin.  Even numbers are typically better than odd numbers, and giving an amount with the number 8 is seen as especially lucky. Try to give amounts like 88, 188 or 888. 

3. You can find red envelopes all over the city at this time of year, and can even order from FIELDS . You can also send a digital hóngbāo through Wechat. To do this, start a chat with the receiver, click on the "plus" button next to the smiley face, and select "Red Packet." You can send the money just like a Wechat transfer, but each packet needs to be less than ¥200. 



1. Accept red envelopes with both hands as a sign of respect. 

2. Do not open the hóngbāo in front of the giver.

3. Express your gratitude by thanking them and wishing them a Happy New Year in Chinese