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The red envelope and the money problem

By Felix Lee

The red envelope during the New Year (hongbao 红包) is the Chinese equivalent of a lovingly wrapped gift at Christmas. Already weeks before the most important festival in Chinese culture, they are offered in all varieties on the street, in department stores and supermarkets: Envelopes often folded from glossy paper, adorned with (preferably golden) characters that promise a long life, many offspring, luck, wealth and the like. And these red envelopes hold money.

These envelopes do have their advantages. Unlike Christian Christmas, there is no gnawing uncertainty whether the recipient will actually like his present. After all, cash is always welcome. But mistakes can still be made.

A few years ago, I made my very own experiences with this gifting culture during the Chinese New Year. Since my previous visit to my Chinese relatives, my age had moved me from being the recipient of these red envelopes to being the giver. The rule is that anyone who is a child, student, pensioner, first-time employee, or unemployed are allowed to receive these envelopes. Anyone who earns a decent living is the giver.

I prepared myself accordingly. In exemplary fashion, I had stocked up on red envelopes in packs of ten at the nearest supermarket, diligently filling them with particularly clean and unwrinkled 100 yuan bills that I had collected throughout the year. Of these, about 200 yuan were meant for my seven-year-old cousin, 200 for the nine-year-old twins of my youngest aunt. But then, things started to get complicated: What about my cousin, only two years younger, the son of my second-oldest aunt? He was already independent with an architect’s office, although business was poor. My mother recommended that I also prepare an envelope for him. “Just in case he prepared one for you, too.”

And what about the grandparents? “Absolutely,” my mother replied. She said it was, in fact, obligatory. Filial piety (xiaoshun 孝顺) dictates that children offer money to their parents and grandparents on the occasion of the New Year. I didn’t have to give my mother a red envelope: She knew that I hadn’t grown up with this tradition. But I did give my grandmother money – and it was quite a sum. “意思,意思 (yisi, yisi)” – purely for symbolism’s sake. She would not accept it anyway.

So I saw myself perfectly prepared for the New Year’s Eve celebration with my extended family. When my cousin, who was almost the same age, started handing out his prepared envelopes, I wanted to follow his example. But it wasn’t that easy. While I was still digging for my envelopes, the first fight broke out between my cousin and the aunt with the twins. “That’s much too much,” my aunt shouted, the children don’t deserve that much. She tore the envelopes out of her two sons’ hands and tried to put them back into my cousin’s hands. He refused and gave all kinds of reasons why the money was justified. They had been so hardworking last year, so kind and helpful to their grandparents.

I wanted to follow my cousin’s example and insisted on my gift despite all the feigned rejection, but I’m not that skilled at these kinds of pleasantries. And my flailing seemed a bit awkward. I’m sure everyone noticed I was doing this for the first time.

My aunt eventually gave in and told her two apathetic-looking sons to thank me and my cousin. However, she put the red envelopes into her own pocket. When I asked, somewhat surprised, why the twins didn’t get them, she replied, “Well, listen,” she has to come up with the money for the many red envelopes she had to give to others somehow. That’s why she pocketed the cash presents. That was only logical, she said.

I expected that my grandmother would show similar resistance as my aunt with the twins. But she only said a quick “thank you” and grabbed her envelope without further ado. That was the moment when I began to wonder if the whole tradition hadn’t created a money circuit between adults, with little benefit for the children.

And those who are otherwise in need of money also tend to miss out. When I wanted to hand over an envelope to my cousin, who is almost my age, he seemed a bit piqued. I didn’t know whether it was out of politeness or whether he was serious when he said that this was now a “loss of face” for him. “But why,” I asked. His answer: Because he had nothing prepared for me.

At the end of the evening, it was once again realized that the more or less carefully selected gifts in the Christian cultural sphere have their advantages over the seemingly low-effort cash envelopes. After all, cash is always cash. Even if it is wrapped in glossy paper.


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