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[The FAQ]: The CNY Hongbao

CNY is coming. Here's how to negotiate this annual minefield of social protocols without embarrassing yourself or offending those around you.
2014-01-27 12:54:09
"The FAQ" deals with vexing questions about living in China that we don't get to with our other articles and columns. So... mainly all the stuff that doesn't involve where to eat some dinner or get drunk.

"The FAQ" deals with vexing questions about living in China that we don't get to with out other articles and columns. So... mainly all the stuff that doesn't involve where to eat some dinner or get drunk.

Chinese New Year is almost here, and with it comes a flurry of questions beyond those within your typical holiday. Who exactly is this mythical Nian beast, and why did he eat children? Is there a specific art to setting off fireworks? Will you be disowned if you don’t bring home a significant other? And then there is that annual minefield of protocol and social cues, the hongbao. When I spoke with my Chinese friends about the giving of hongbao, they contradicted one another, sometimes even themselves. I pointed this out, and one of them said, “It’s not that confusing. For the Chinese, these things are just second nature. You guys think about it too much.”

Well, having recently embraced my tendency to over think things, I have compiled a few frequently asked questions to demystify what this custom is all about.

What is a hongbao? All my aforementioned Chinese friends and the whole Internet agrees that "hongbao" are red envelopes containing cash, customarily given out during celebration times, like weddings, birthdays, and Chinese New Year. Also, if you simply want something from someone, giving a hongbao certainly doesn't hurt.

Who gets a hongbao? There are two main hongbao exchanges going on: between employers and employees and within families. In business, your supplier, or anyone who considers you a client, may give you a hongbao as a sort of thanks for your patronage (though this is more prevalent in less Westernized Chinese cities). It is also expected that employees in a company will receive some sort of hongbao, even if it is only a few hundred rmb, from their boss.

Children receive hongbao from family and close family friends. “Children” is kind of a loose term, too. It could be kids under 16, or up until the child starts making money of her own. But in general, matrimony is regarded as the mark of maturity. If you're married, you're an adult and therefore eligible for giving out hongbaos.

And what about the people who take out your trash, dry clean your clothes or pick up your garbage? Generally, it's not necessary. However, if you are close with your ayi, a hongbao might be a nice gesture, considering she has probably cleaned up your puke and withheld sleepover partner judgement.

Why cash? According to ancient lore, and I bet some really cool, old Chinese fan paintings, people used to string red yarn through one hundred copper coins to symbolize living to one hundred years old. This may or may not have just been their version of knitting, but the whole notion of “money warding off evil spirits and death” goes pretty deep in Chinese culture, so I’m going to choose to believe it.

How much cash is usually in there? Children make out like bandits during CNY. If your family still considers you a child, you can expect to receive hongbao from your parents, relatives and some good family friends, and while the amount from each varies, it will probably be some number ending in 8. A few white collar workers I spoke with said they typically give around 1000rmb to their niece or nephew, and 800rmb to the child of a good family friend. But when I asked if I should give my friends a hongbao, all I got was, “What? Why would you do that, it makes no sense.” So unless you want to look like an idiot, don’t give your friends hongbao.

Adults tend to receive hongbao containing at least a few hundred kuai from their employers, though I’ve heard of a few getting thousands after a good year (plus a lot of baijiu). This is different from those smart business types who have negotiated a “thirteenth month” salary into their contracts. In those cases, employees will receive a thirteenth month of salary before Chinese New Year (tax reasons).

When do you give hongbao? There is a window of around 10 days before CNY and 10 days after when it is acceptable to give hongbao. Most hongbao are given before the official holiday, but some corporations know that the best way to welcome you back from an exhausting and expensive family holiday is with some cold hard kuai. This is called a “kaimenhong.”

The family hongbao exchange, on the other hand, occurs over dinner on New Years Eve, with the eldest middle-aged person (so, not your 98-year-old grandpa) banging a gong and starting off the hongbao exchange. JK. There’s no gong. And Grandpa’s dead.

How do you give a hongbao? How you treat the whole “hongbao interaction” is important. You are handing over cash to ward off evil spirits, remember. That's no small thing. So hand over the cash with respect and dignity. Give it with both hands, lock eyes, and say "Xin nian kuai le" like you mean it. Maybe throw a wink in there, too. I don’t know.

How do you receive a hongbao? Never let on that you assumed you were getting a hongbao. Someone is giving you their hard-earned to ward off your stupid evil spirits. You can feign gratitude for 20 seconds. Maybe even whip up some tears. Studies have shown hongbao cash increases 17.5% year on year when the recipient cries and 300% if you sleep with the giver directly after receiving the hongbao. But not if the giver is a family member. That tends to end horribly.

What to expect when you give a hongbao? If you're giving a hongbao to a business associate, there is, of course, the implication of some quid pro quo. Maybe someday — and this day may never come — you will call upon the recipient for a favor. That hongbao is a great way to stockpile some social currency.

As for your family. Expect nothing. As nice as it would be to give a hongbgao to someone who is grateful for your kindness, remember why you’re giving it. Chinese tradition dictates it. So even if the recipient is some spoiled little shit who never appreciates anything you do, just submit yourself to the CNY spirit, and give.