The Red Packet Dilemma

3 min read.

As Lunar New Year approaches, China prepares for the world’s biggest mass migration again. During the 40-day period of the 2019 spring festival, China’s Ministry of Transport calculated that 2.98 billion journeys were made. Most people would be glad to travel home to be with their families after a year of hard work, but for some, Lunar New Year celebrations bring anxiety in the form of having to prepare expensive gifts and big red packets.

History of red packets

Legend has it that in ancient China, there was an evil spirit called 祟 (pronounced as ”Sui”). On the eve of every Lunar New Year, he would come out to cause trouble by touching a sleeping child’s head three times. The child would start crying and develop a fever. After the fever has subsided a few days later, the child would then become mentally handicapped. As people were afraid their children would be afflicted by this, they lit the lights and stayed up all night without sleeping. This was called 守祟 “shou sui” which means to guard against Sui. This has also transformed into a tradition today where people stay up till at least past midnight on the eve of Lunar New Year.

In Jiaxing, there was a house with the family name of Guan. The husband and wife had a son at an old age and thus treasured him a lot. On the eve of Lunar New Year, they were afraid Sui would come to harm their son, hence they stayed up with their child late into the night. They played with 8 copper coins wrapping and unwrapping it with red paper. When their son finally fell asleep, they left the coins wrapped beside his pillow and did not dare to sleep themselves. In the middle of the night, a strong gust of wind suddenly blew out the lights. A short black figure came into the room and reached out to touch the forehead of the child. At that moment, a beam of light burst out from the red paper and Sui ran away screaming. The story spread through the village, and everyone started placing 8 red paper wrapped coins beside their children’s pillow. Sui never appeared again.

As early as the Song Dynasty, the gifting of money as blessings have been observed. In the Ming and Qing Dynasty, coins were threaded by red string. When the Republic of China was formed, the older generation would give the younger people 100 copper coins to wish them a long life of a hundred years. This tradition continued into the People’s Republic of China and as printing presses and paper money became more popular, the modern-day red packet was invented.

Why is there a red packet dilemma?

A combined survey in 2019 by Rong 360’s Weidu and Tencent Finance revealed  that 37.06 percent of people spend over RMB 10,000  during Chinese New Year, and about 10 percent of people need to borrow money to get through the festival. The National Bureau of Statistics in China reported average annual disposable income at RMB 30,733  in 2019. Taking that into consideration, almost one-third of their annual income is spent during the spring festival. A big part of this spending comes in the form of red packets, which is why the red packet dilemma comes in.

One of the most important aspects of the Chinese culture would be that of “face”, written as 面子 and pronounced as “mian zi”. “Face” refers to the prestige or image of an individual in society. The desire for social position and prestige exists in every culture, but in China where hierarchy, interpersonal relationships and respect is highly valued, “face” plays an even more pervasive and integral role.

Have you ever received a gift and calculated its value to determine how much someone spent on it? Imagine receiving cash as a gift. How would you feel about two different relatives if one gave you two dollars, and the other 500? The innate want to be respected and be perceived as being superior in position has been driving the price of red packets upwards. With the biggest time of gifting annually being the spring festival, people compete to give bigger red packets, thus gaining more “face” and commanding more respect. Herein lies the dilemma. To lose “face” or to spend more than you should on a red packet. What is even more ironic is that a yearly meeting between relatives is supposed to be something everyone looks forward to, but because of the stress from the giving of red packets, the Lunar New Year festival has become an occasion that some people fear.

My extended family in Singapore actually discussed this tradition years ago and have established a fixed amount for each family when exchanging red packets.  This definitely reduces the amount of stress experienced by relatives.  

Tips on giving red packets:

1) Always do it in even numbers and try to avoid the number four. Eight is a lucky number and represents prosperity and fortune.

2) Use new notes in the red packets, not old wrinkly ones.

3) Try not to use coins.

4) Give and receive red packets with both hands — accompany the giving and receiving with auspicious phrases.

5) DO NOT open red packets in front of the people who gave them to you.

For those who are still confused as to how much to give, I find that this is quite a healthy guide for red packet giving.

A helpful suggestion on the amounts to give in red envelopes.
Credit: China Highlights, Cullen Chen

This article is written by Zhe Loy, Senior Editor at 86insider.