The Rules of Giving

The Rules of Giving


While in China, I’ve had the opportunity to see and learn first hand about some of the more common practices. There are many little things that differ from the culture I grew up in and had never really taken the time to think about. For example, did you know that in a meeting it is best to stand up and take a business card with both hands? The act of accepting the card this way signifies that you give meaning to the relationship and are willing to start off on a good note. This example is one of the many things that are of importance in Chinese culture when establishing a relationship or showing the value of a relationship.

InternChina - Business card
InternChina – Business card


Another custom that has caught my attention since being in China and is the main subject of this blog is Hongbao.

Hongbao literally means « red envelope». Today, it is given in the event of many celebrations such as weddings, the Lunar New Year, birthdays and funerals. This common practice is exemplary of changing times and somewhat shifting significations. During the Qing Dynasty, elders would thread coins with a red string and give them to a younger family member or close friend. The color red is symbolic of good luck and serves to ward off evil spirits. Although the tradition of wishing luck and wealth to someone we cherish has transcended time, nowadays people have swapped coins for bills and the red string for stylish eye catching envelopes.

InternChina - Hongbao
InternChina – Hongbao

So how much money does one put in the envelope? Are there any rules?

These questions are subject to raise some debate. Although generally speaking you should give what you are able to afford without ruining yourself, there is pressure to “ keep up with the Joneses’’. With the standard of living increasing each year, the amount of pressure to give more is also on the rise. It is interesting to observe the difference in the amount given between coastal cities and inland cities. The first having an general higher income than the later can not only afford to give more, but is also expected to give a larger amount than the less developed inland cities where a lower income hasn’t put as much social pressure on people to give more than they can. It must also be noted that there are no set rules to Hongbao. In fact, as you can understand, the custom is undergoing constant transformation due to social and economic change. Although elders may give more to their younger family members due to their higher level of wealth, it is ultimately left up to the person to decide on the amount they want to give judging by how much the relationship means to them. Then yet, should the value of a relationship be expressed through monetary value highly influenced by mounting social pressure caused by big changes in the standard of living? Something to think about.

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