Adults under strain as hongbao grow fatter

Updated: 2012-01-30 08:08

By Shi Yingying (China Daily)

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Symbolic New Year's gift becoming financial burden with passing time

SHANGHAI - For Chinese children, the arrival of Spring Festival brings with it cash-filled red envelopes, but the practice is putting strain on the wallets of adults.

"My annual bonus stayed in my pocket for less than a week before it went out in the form of red envelopes," said Huang Yijing, a 30-year-old nurse from Shanghai, who forked out at least 1,000 yuan ($160) each to her nephews and nieces and gave 500 yuan or more to her friends' children.

Each Chinese New Year, Huang said she spends more than 5,000 yuan, equivalent to her monthly salary, on (hongbao), the red envelopes filled with money that are traditionally given out on special occasions in China.

She said the practice has always been a source of stress.

"Unlike the traditions tied with the Western festival of Christmas, which allows you to choose a relatively more expensive gift if it's a good year and a cheaper one if it's a bad year, the unwritten rule attached to Chinese hongbao is that the amount of lucky money can either remain unchanged or go up, but definitely won't go down," she said.

A recent survey by Jilin-based newspaper City Evening News found more than 20 percent of 417 interviewees agreed that 1,000 yuan was the bottom line for the red envelope.

Huang said she has developed a system for the amount of money she gives to a child. The number varies according to the recipient's financial status and also depends on how well she knows the child's parents

"On top of that, I'm single with no children and that means I give out lots of red envelopes with nothing in return," she added.

Liu Kuili, honorary president of the China Folklore Society, said the original meaning of the envelope ritual was a New Year blessing passed from the older generation to the young. "Yasuiqian (new year gift money) is this small amount of money that can suppress devils and maintain children in peace and safety for the whole next year," he said.

"However, people have ignored its symbolic meaning nowadays and make the envelope bigger and bigger," said Liu, adding that Singapore has a similar tradition but usually sets the maximum to around 10 Singapore dollars ($8).

Wang Shuqin, a teacher with Kunming's Hongqi Primary School in Yunnan province, said she feels the tradition of giving hongbao has become an inescapable financial liability rather than a symbolic gesture.

"We always do this survey on how much hongbao money we each collected during Spring Festival in my class after the winter vacation," Wang said. "For example, last year about 80 percent of my class of 66 (students in the fifth grade) said they received between 3,000 to 5,000 yuan and more than 10 percent of them got from 2,000 to 3,000 yuan."

Wang said 5 percent of her class earned more 10,000 yuan. "Parents and relatives, especially those caring grandpas and grandmas, are the biggest donors, and some of them even gave big ones with 5,000 yuan or 10,000 yuan at once," said Wang.

And the complications caused by the annual practice do not end with the question of how much to give. There are also tensions about who holds on to the money. Because tradition dictates that one set of parents must give another's child an amount equal to what was given, parents often feel they have a say in how the annual gift is spent.

Huang Zuo, a bank clerk from Wenzhou, just "confiscated" his 15-year-old son's 9,000-yuan take during the New Year. "It's all about interpersonal relations. It's social money in China," he said.

Su Junhua, a 36-year-old office worker from Shanghai, came up with a compromise for her 6-year-old daughter. "I opened a bank account to collect all the money for my daughter since she was born - hongbao from friends and relatives for her birthday and every New Year - it's like her trust fund," said the mother. "Now, she has around 10,000 yuan, and it's all hers when she turns 18."

Su added that she recorded details of each transaction "so that I know who gave me how much and it's easier to return".

Yu Ran contributed to this story.