Hong bao triggers heated discussion
Updated: 2011-02-04 10:20
By Liu Lu (China Daily USA)
Some children and young adults receive as much as 10,000 yuan in each red envelope during Spring Festival. [Lu Yun/for China Daily]
BEIJING - While United States youngsters are toying with gifts they received during Christmas, Chinese children are collecting their most anticipated gift of a year - hong bao, a red envelope filled with "lucky" money during the Spring Festival.
After expressing new year greetings, such as gong xi fa cai (wishing you a prosperous new year), older members of the family present children with red packets stuffed with crisp banknotes.
This deep-rooted custom for lunar new year celebration has made many children across China become "rich" overnight.
However, this rapturous money-grabbing time for kids has gradually become a painful enforced cash-splashing time for the grown-ups.
Accompanied by people's rising living standard, the sum of lucky money has soared year after year, making hong bao no longer a token of blessing, but an inescapable financial liability for some cash-strapped adults.
"I need to prepare the right amount of money that neither makes me an over spender nor embarrasses me," said Zhang Hongjin, 28, a public servant in Beijing.
She solicited ideas from friends about how much money she needs to hand out to her nephews, nieces and friends' children and this year she'll have to pack six red envelopes.
As a Beijing native, Zhang saves as much of her 4,000 yuan ($607) monthly salary as she can but most of this is taken up on mortgage payments and car maintenance.
"It is a longstanding tradition in my family that the married couples have to not only give hong bao to kids, but also to the unmarried young adults during the Spring Festival," Zhang said.
In 2008, when she married her boyfriend of five years, she swapped from being a hong bao receiver to hong bao giver.
According to Zhang, the amount of money given to a child is a science, as the number varies in accordance with the recipient's financial status and also her level of intimacy with their parents.
She normally gives between 200 and 500 yuan or even more to her friends' children, but forks out at least 1,000 yuan each to her nephews or nieces.
The red envelopes use up almost all her year-end bonus and savings.
"It is an unwritten rule that the amount of lucky money can either remain unchanged or go up, but definitely does not go down, because it will make the giver 'lose face'," said Zhang, adding the hong bao tradition has been giving her unwanted stress. And Zhang is not alone.
As the Spring Festival approaches, the hong bao issue has triggered a new round of heated online discussions.
People want to learn from others to figure out how much they need to please children and most importantly, their parents.
For many, the hong bao culture, which is supposed to add to the festival atmosphere, has evolved into a debt of gratitude.
"When my daughter receives money, I have to think if I could offer anything in return, as I don't want people to mistake me for a stingy person," said Fu Li, 31, an accountant in Beijing. She is mother of a three-year-old girl.
A 2010 survey by Orient Today showed that 61 percent of the children received less than 1,000 yuan, 33 percent receive between 1,000 to 5,000 yuan and the remaining 6 percent received more than 10,000 yuan.
And the survey revealed that some lucky individuals even receive more than 30,000 yuan, excluding the new clothes, toys, and other entity gifts.
Some sociological commentators worry that the young generation now have a distorted understanding of the unique custom.
According to tradition the lucky money inside a hong bao is also called Yasuiqian, which is a small amount of money that can suppress devils and maintain children in peace and safety for a whole year, said Liu Kuili, honorary president of the China Folklore Society.
He said the original meaning of the envelope ritual is a new year blessing passed from the old to the young.
"The main significance of hong bao is the red paper or red envelope, because red symbolizes good luck in Chinese culture. People pack some money into it just to make children happy," Liu said.
"However, people today generally ignore its symbolic meaning, but value more of its practical side, making the size of hong bao bigger and eventually resulting in a dilemma affecting interpersonal relations."
But more experts are worried that with too much pocket money, children are likely to foster a money-oriented mentality, which is adverse to their healthy psychological growth.
"When children from rich families flaunt wealth and compare their booty after the festival, children from the needy families will feel more disadvantaged," said Yang Lihui, folklore professor at the Beijing Normal University.
She said there are already too many temptations in modern society and small children have a very vague understanding of money.
She said it is the parents' responsibility to provide proper instruction about financial matters.
The Spring Festival is the most important traditional festival for family reunions.
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