Giving Red Envelopes to Children

After being here in Taiwan over 25 years I find that I am needing to examine my views toward certain local customs. The first custom which I would like to discuss is the custom of giving red envelopes to children during the lunar New Year period.

After examining my feelings about this custom, and considering that I am married to a Taiwanese lady and hence have Taiwanese relatives, I find that I am willing to participate, and indeed in years past I have always participated.

However, in examining my feelings further, I come to the conclusion that my idea of what is reasonable is to set some kind of monetary standard, based on my own financial considerations. Hence, if I determine that I can give out a large number of red envelopes containing NT$ 600 each, then that becomes my standard. At the present time, since we have a lot of relatives, (and not too many neighbors with whom we are extremely familiar), so I am just going to adopt one monetary standard, (as opposed to saying NT$ 600 for category A children, NT$ 500 for category B children, NT$ 250 for category C children, etc.)

So, I think that maybe I will have to give out 30 or 40 red envelopes, and I feel that in order to show my cooperation with this type of holiday spirit, I will give these out happily, and with NT$ 600 in each.

However, my wife says that I cannot do this. My wife says that most foreigners do not understand this “giving red envelopes to children” custom, and so she is now going to take it upon herself to teach me. She says that inherent in this custom is the idea of reciprocity. Hence, if the neighbor gives our child a red envelope containing NT$ 1200, we must reciprocate in kind, and give his child A MINIMUM OF NT$ 1200, BUT PREFERABLY MORE. Likewise, if Uncle Lin gives our child a red envelope containing NT$ 5000, we must reciprocate in kind, and give his child A MINIMUM OF NT$ 5000, BUT PREFERABLY MORE.

This raises a lot of thorny issues for me. I would welcome comments from the visitors to this Forum. According to the Chinese/Taiwanese social customs, how do you view my rights/responsibilities in such matters?


It seems too simple to me.

Just give first

“Hon Bao” is an old custom and sometimes annoying, even scaring for people who have to pay, but you really don’t need to worry too much.

First of all, this is already a custom that nowadays we don’t take it so inevitable or seriously anymore. Of course it varies from families to families. Like my parents and their brothers and sisters(that is my uncles and aunts), they reach concensus that everybody saves the red envolope trouble, so we lose all the pleasure of earning money, but our older generation is happy.

Of course maybe this is an extreme example. But I really think NT500 or 600 is really enough. NT300 is Ok too. Of course if somebody give your only child 1500, then you may need to give 500 to each of his/her three children. But don’t need to give more or too much more just in order to show you are generous. Children’s parents won’t remember that for the rest of their life.

Your wife probably is too traditional, really, nowadays, especially in the current economic downturn, it is probably better and welcome if everyone tries to have understanding to each other. Sometimes if you give a child too much, then in order to give you back, his parents have to return you about the same amount; that might annoy them too. You know, economic downturn!!

Richard, what a great question. I too wonder about this all the time and actually it creates a bit of stress for me every year at this time.

I grew up in a very non-traditional Chinese family (i.e. I never once got a hon bao, lol), but upon my return to Taiwan, with lots of younger cousins, etc., I find the whole thing a bit mind-boggling!

The practice of giving hon-baos vary from person to person, but my understanding is that if you are working, you give. If you are not, then you receive. This is from someone who was stuck in the middle, with uncles and aunts giving me hon baos while I turned around and gave hon baos back to their kids (my cousins).

And, once you start giving a certain amount, you can’t go lower in say “a bad year” without raising eyebrows, and then to have to add on the other layer of “if someone gives you or your family members so much, you need to give them that much back”… etc.! It’s so crazy. I need both a calculator AND a financial consultant to help me draw out a freakin’ matrix!

At the end of the day, I tend to follow whatever tradition has already been set by the family (or stick to how much and to whom I gave to before). It’s just easier that way, but if there IS a “right way” to do this, I would like to know too! I’ve been here 7 years and I still haven’t figured it out!

In your case, I would recommend that you do whatever YOU want to do. In the end, everyone’s expectations is going to be different (you, your wife, those who receive a hon bao from you, those who give to your children, etc.). Give them a hon-bao, smile and say, “Take what you can get!”

As an aside… Coming from the States, I very much dislike the whole concept of giving money to people as gifts for Chinese New Years, weddings, etc. It forces people to put a price tag on relationships (less for people we don’t really like, more for good friends, huh??), and it takes away the personal aspect of wanting to get something for someone because you know he or she will like it. Though I DO it because I have to, I still feel uncomfortable with it. Maybe this is for another discussion…

Originally posted by Christine: I very much dislike the whole concept of giving money to people as gifts for Chinese New Years, weddings, etc. It forces people to put a price tag on relationships

Brava, Christine! I feel exactly the same way! Yes, hong baos are a tradition, but so was foot binding at one time - it doesn’t mean it’s a good tradition. Basically, I think that cash is devoid of meaning. You might as well pay a person’s water bill, for all of the sentiment that comes with a hong bao.

A few thoughts on hong baos:

My girlfriend told me that she liked getting hong baos, so I asked her if she would like to exchange the book that I had just bought for her and inscribed with a personal message for the cash value of the book. Of course, she said no, because she would be able to remember the circumstances surrounding that gift every time she opened the book. There are no memories attached to cash.

One of my best friends (he is is half Chinese, his wife is Chinese, but raised in Japan) purposefully held his nuptials in France, just to avoid the hong bao culuture of Taiwan. His rationale? “I want my friends and family to witness the most significant event in my life so far, not give me a cash handout.”

My girlfriend was wondering if she should give my 5 year old nephew a hong bao, and I advised her to give him a $30NT bag of Japanese candy that makes a whistling noise when you suck on it, as this would make him the envy of his kindergarten class, (and the scourge of the teachers there too).

I think that a gift chosen with consideration is so much better than cash. I know very few Taiwanese people that have anything they want to pass on to their children, whereas in my family we have heirlooms that came into the family generations ago as gifts from others. They all have a story and make our family history all the richer.

Rebel against the culture of cash and choose a meaningful gift for the ones you love instead.

Hartznell-“She says that inherent in this custom is the idea of reciprocity.”

Every year I’ve received red pockets, there has been an understanding between everyone that red pocket money is not a matter of reciprocity, it is a matter of how much is in your ability to give. Of course if you give something that is ridiculously little in sum vs. your ability to give…then you are to be put in question of course! haha. Now in regards to weddings, reciprocity is definite, but with Chinese New Years it isn’t. I love Rian’s solution though…“Just give first” haha… About Christine’s comment about “price tags on friendships etc” well, only if it were a ridiculous difference vs. your ability to give (and the amount you recieved if you were the second to give) would it the “price tag” reasoning affect me. However it is true, that many people place a “price tag” on those red pockets. People who scrutinize that too closely in the end do not seem to value the relationship beyond the red pocket. Some people actually consider random friends as guests to weddings just to get the red pocket. Now I’m sure if it were a western wedding a lot of those people wouldn’t even be invited cuz, harshly put, they are just another extra expense unless they are required to buy wedding gifts. Jeez…how complex does red pocket giving get! @_@

For us, who didn’t win anything in our company’s “lucky draw” during our recent WEI-YA (Chinese New Year’s Party), we’re given red envelopes (hungbao) not with money but with lottery tickets (scratch-and-win-type)inside. What a way to jump on the recent lotto craze!*

*Did I win? Nah. Hung bao na lai?

Touching back for a moment on the issue of reciprocity, if we happen to know some big manager of a computer-chip conglomerate, and he gives my child a red envelope of NT$ 60,000 (before I have had the chance to quickly slip his child a pre-packaged red envelope of NT$ 600), then what is my next move?

It seems that many comments in the above discussion still say that there needs to be a certain amount of tit-for-tat here. I fully realize that NT$ 600 is inconsequential in relation to NT$ 60,000, however considering my salary at ORIENTED.ORG, even the NT$ 600 is a real strain for me financial-wise!!

What to do??

What to do? You snatch that envelope from your child’s grubby fingers as soon as Mr. Microchip’s back is turned with a hurried “I’ll just look after this for you, darling, shall I.”

Then I’d follow Maoman’s advice and give him a nice thoughful present – maybe a bottle of windscreen wiper fluid for his Mercedes, or something.

I think Richard’s plan is a really good compromise. There is really no need for exact matching of amount. People do it for “face value” but we’ve got thicker skin, right?

However, I also think that to refrain from giving hong bao completely because its against your principle is very extreme. World is not black and white, so please don’t stand on top of the soap box and talk down on others’s tradition. Its like if I were to criticizing the Jews for circumcising their male infants. BTW, I don’t think Chinese couples exchange money as gifts, so that example was inapt.

Chinese people view money and the act of giving money differently than how other cultures perceive it. The idea of going Dutch, for example, is rude in traditional Chinese culture, but perfectly sound in many other cultures. Is there a clear right and wrong here? Of course not! If money (or some fancy set of china) is what the recipients preferred, then let it be. Why make it into a morale dilemma?

I personally find fulfillment in pleasing my friends and relatives.

Come on, its only money.

Where does this tradition of giving the red envelope with money come from?

In the times past in China and Taiwan, when people did not have money what did they give in the envelope? An IOU?

Funny thing with weddings as well…when you give a red envelope the bride’s family write down the amount and who gave it… then if you get married the bride and husband must give back the same amount.

reciprocated I guess!!

Best thing is to get married before all your friends, get all their red envelopes, and have an excuse not to go to their wedding when they get married.

IS the amount you give in the red envelope important as well?
How about giving 444 or 4,444 dollars? or 888 or some nice round number like 500?

Also, is it the more money you give the more ‘face’ you are given?

This is what I understand about wedding hong baos (different from New Year’s). I’ve been researching a bit.

Basic minimun is about 1800 or 2000. You add more depending on how close you are and also a bit more if you are bringing a date or children or whatever. Ability to give factors in just a little for weddings. I think it would be inappropriate to give a much to large hong bao. This would be like saying you were much closer than you actually were. I also think closer here doesn’t really mean how emotionally close you are but what your relationship is - relative, friend, employer, workmate etc. You give less (maybe half) if you get a ‘red bomb’ invitation but can’t actually make the wedding. This is because you’re not eating the food etc. If you get an invitation you have to pay, so it’s not good form to give an invitation to someone you don’t know very well. If you give someone a hong bao and later get married yourself, you can expect to get a little more back than you gave. So actually it’s best to get married later and collect your investment Of course if you went to someone’s wedding they really should come to yours.

It all sounds horribly mercenary, but actually I think it’s a good system. Back home, a wedding could be a real financial burden to a young couple not supported by their parents, so they’re not going to want to invite too many people. Here you’re actualyl encouraged to invite as many people as possible. Also having to fork out for a hong bao every now and then isn’t too arduous as it’s spread out over time, but receiving it all at once is something a young couple really needs to get started, and often the only way they could afford a wedding.

Do you think my summary is right? I’m still curious about appropriate hong bao amounts for weddings and I don’t know which are the lucky and unlucky numbers, so does anyone with more experience have anything to add?


Just to follow on Bri’s above comments, most of which I’d have to agree with - an interesting point that “If you get an invitation you have to pay, so it’s not good form to give an invitation to someone you don’t know very well.”

I find most weddings in Taiwan to be a kind form of blackmail. I have seen invitations up on the office wall with the expectation that everyone will come and give, I have also seen executives having their secretary call around the office and ask people if they were going to their child’s wedding. I find either approach tacky to the extreme and frankly, these people obviously don’t care whether or not you go. If someone really would be honored by your presence at a major event, and wants to you to share in the joy of that event, then the least they would do is send an invitation.

Richard, in response to your original questions, for me, its just a personal morals/values issue and I would have to make it clear to my wife - and others - that our family is not going to get wrapped up in the hong bao competition. at the end of the day it really is about the adults showing off how much money they have. let them give it to charity better.

Hmm, maybe inside the hong bao put a note that a charitable donation has been made in their name to “XYZ” charity.

Originally posted by fdr: Hmm, maybe inside the hong bao put a note that a charitable donation has been made in their name to "XYZ" charity.

That’s a wonderful idea, but its been done before and it can backfire (true story coming up).

One of our friends did exactly that – gave a hungbao with no money inside but a receipt for a donation to Tzu Chi instead. The recipient was a friend of the giver but actually tried nevertheless to sue her friend for “stealing” her money! Of course it didn’t go very far, but it caused a lot of bad blood.

On the other hand, we received a hungbao a couple of years ago that contained a World Vision receipt for an initial payment in our name. We continued with the follow-up monthly payments and its one of the nicest gifts I’ve been given in Taiwan.

Since we are approaching the Chinese New Year again, I believe it is time that we took up the entire topic of “giving red envelopes to children” again.

At this juncture, I am as confused as I was about this last year.

Does anyone have some authoritative analysis?

I stay out of the way and let my wife handle the whole confusing thing. She seems to enjoy it. I smile and pretend I know what’s going on. Being a foreigner works in my favor as the family assumes I just don’t understand this cultural activity.

Which is more or less true.

[quote=“Hartzell”]Since we are approaching the Chinese New Year again, I believe it is time that we took up the entire topic of “giving red envelopes to children” again.

At this juncture, I am as confused as I was about this last year.

Does anyone have some authoritative analysis?[/quote]

Sure. Firstly you don’t have to follow the customs that you are not fully comfortable with. My son’s grandparents often give him over NT$30,000 at CNY, to which I really object.

CNY has beome like christmas where everything is over commercialized and kids expect fat hong bao’s.

I think you should set a limit and give everyone the same amount. Stops the infighting and comparisons of how much they got. Personnally let you wife decide for you so you don’t need to feel shitty about how much you’re gicing away. Fortunately my wife isn’t Chinese so CNY doesnt mean a fat wad of dosh to carry around.

It’s much better to give the kids not more than $500 really. Anyways, what is a 4 year old going to do with NT$1200? A fifteen year old would have it spent pretty quickly without any appreciation of the reason you gave them the $$$ in the first place.

It’ll be my second CNY since I got married. Last year, I’d just entered the family and was still a new and rather awesome phenomenon to the little nippers. Now they’re pretty well used to me and I should think might expect me to behave much the same as any other “A-diu”, whether inlander or outlander.

Eager to do the right thing, I asked my wife if I should hand out hongbaos when I attend the family gathering at her parents’ place. But she firmly dismissed it as totally unnecessary (bless her heart!), saying that it would be more than enough for just her to do so. She also remarked that, as the only childless one among the five daughters in her family, she’s the only one of them who gives out any hongbaos. Apparently, it’s their custom that only aunts and uncles who don’t have children of their own are expected to bestow any red largesse on nephews and nieces.

On a related note, one of the nephews is a horribly spoilt little boy of about eight or so (I’m never very clear about kids’ ages), whose affluent parents give him everything he ever wants. When my wife gave him his hongbao last year, he didn’t even thank her or bother to open it but just tossed it aside with sneering indifference. I’ve never witnessed ruder behaviour and it made my blood boil, but of course I couldn’t say anything or interfere. It would pain me enormously to give anything to an ungrateful little brat like that and receive a similar reception, so I’m jolly glad that I won’t be required to do so. However, I’d be glad to give one to another of the nephews, whose mum is divorced and whose dad hardly ever sees him (his new wife objects, because she wants the son she’s borne him to be the centre of his universe), as I know he would appreciate it – but one cannot show any partiality among them, so it’s give to either all or none, and none is what it will be.

A survey of my students revealed that most children have to give the money to their parents anyway.


Usually it is married couples that are suppose to give hao bao to individuals that are single and the generation below.

However the rule for the older generation is that if you are earning a income, you give a hoa boa inversely proportional to the income they make, and proportional to how much you are expecting them to giving your children.