A red and gold hong bao envelope with traditional new years artwork of a bull and oranges.

A hong bao envelope. Photo © Jimmie, licensed Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike.

While some social customs in China will confound you, others may delight you, like the tradition of gift-giving. We were always particularly fond of the custom of giving away wedding chocolates; our kids appreciate the custom of giving children hong bao (red envelopes) full of cash on the holidays. Gift-giving is a central part of social life in Chinese culture, and it is one area where it is easy to offend if you don’t know what’s expected of you.

A present that is wrapped should be opened later in private unless the giver insists you open it immediately.

Hong bao are colorful red and gold packets filled with cash and given at holidays and special occasions. The amount inside is typically an even number but never a 4, which is a homonym for death. Hong bao are given at weddings to the happy couple, at Chinese New Year to kids of all ages, as an extra token of security for good service to doctors, and on the negative side, as bribery to government officials. Older generations give them to the younger, the married to the unmarried, and unless you’re attending a wedding, don’t give one to a peer or you’ll risk offending them. If your child gets a red envelope from an adult who has their own children, you must give a similar gift to the original giver’s kids to keep things even between the families.

All gifts, invitations, and the like should be refused at least twice before you accept. A present that is wrapped should be opened later in private unless the giver insists you open it immediately. A token gift of fresh flowers, fresh fruit, an item from your hometown, or a tin of high-quality tea is an appropriate gesture for a host, regardless of where you are meeting or for what purpose (a formal business visit, a meal with someone you haven’t seen in some time, staying at someone’s home overnight, etc.).


Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Living Abroad in China.