The mandatory cash-filled red envelope gift for newlyweds is sending some young people broke
Attending the wedding of a good friend or family member anywhere in the world is regarded as an honor, a joy and a time of celebration. But gift-giving customs vary. In China during the early 1980s, when the average monthly wage for a city worker was about 30 yuan (3 euros), wedding guests would chip in a few cents each and buy the bride and groom a thermos or a washbasin. Most parties were simple affairs and held in a family home.
Today, the cost for weddings has soared - up to 200,000 yuan for some - and so has the cost of the traditional wedding cash gift that funds them.
Ding Hang, 25, a second-year master's degree student at Renmin University of China, knows his red-envelope giving time is just around the corner and worries that his friends' weddings will send him into more debt.
"Two of my high school classmates got married in December 2010 and January this year. I gave 1,000 yuan and 1,200 yuan to each of them. Without any income, I had to ask for money from my parents," he says.
Ding predicts he will have to outlay more than 6,000 yuan on wedding gift red envelopes annually over the next few years. "The amount I put in the envelopes, varies from 200 yuan to 2,000 yuan, depending on how close I am with the bride and groom," she says. "I will also make a decision based on the thickness of other friends' red envelopes."
Because of the high price of weddings, newly wed couples usually expect extremely generous red envelopes, or fenziqian, which also act as a symbol of blessing for a blissful marriage. It is considered extremely rude to give a small amount of money on such important occasions.
"But as a student or someone starting a career, our budget is tight," Ding says. "What's more, we don't want to go to some of the weddings since we are not that familiar with the couple. However, once we receive an invitation, it is not polite to ignore it."
Liu Tianxing, a 27-year-old white-collar worker in Beijing, is planning to hold her wedding ceremony on New Year's Day in 2012.
Last year Liu spent 5,000 yuan on fenziqian, which is equivalent to one month's salary.
She says the amount of money included in each envelope ranged from 400 yuan to 1,000 yuan depending on the relationship she had with the bride and groom.
"Expenditure on my wedding reception is predicted to be around 150,000 yuan," Liu says. "But I expect to get back all the money. The total of cash gifts for my wedding will cover our spending, and maybe we will even make a little profit."
In January, Xing Lushan, a 26-year-old manager with the Hangzhou Branch of China Mobile, collected 120,000 yuan in red envelopes from her wedding guests.
"We spent nearly 100,000 yuan on the wedding. Most of the relatives gave us 5,000 yuan to 10,000 yuan while the amount of our close friends reached 1,000 yuan each," Xing says.
"About 200 yuan is often put in the envelopes from colleagues. When it comes to returning the favor, I will add 100 yuan to 200 yuan for my friends. As for relatives, I will make a decision on basis of the degree of our closeness."
The wedding industry has become big business in China as more young couples with substantially higher incomes spend big on their big day.
According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, in 2010 about 12 million couples were married in China, a 4.7 percent rise from the year before.
The 2009 batch of newlyweds spent 450 billion yuan on wedding parties, according to the Committee of Wedding Service Industries of the China Association of Social Workers and Tsinghua University.
The benefit to the economy is much bigger with young couples buying and furnishing new marital homes, providing a total boost of 1.5 trillion yuan to the economy.
This level of expenditure, which is growing by 20 percent a year, has spawned a new industry with an estimated 20,000 companies in China providing specialized wedding services from those selling cakes and diamond rings to dedicated wedding planning.
Cai Ming, general manager of Beijing Rococo Cultural Development, says his company manages more than 100 wedding services each year and his minimum management fee is 30,000 yuan, but the cost of the entire wedding varies depending the couple.
Some couples are spending more than 200,000 yuan, which includes the banquet and five-star hotel accommodation for guests.
"Most people put 500 yuan in a red envelope, 200 yuan at least," he says. "The total a couple receives is always equal to the spending, which includes the cost of the wedding celebration company, the wedding photos and the hotel."
In the past, fenziqian was a way for relatives and friends to help a young couple make a start in an era when salaries were low. However, it has now changed to become a lucrative way to fund high-priced weddings as well as a chance to show off, says Li Zhitian, member of the China Society for Study of Folk Literature and Art and folklore professor at Beijing Normal University.
Some couples and families feel, contrary to proper etiquette, that in return for lavishly entertaining and feeding wedding guests, the guests should return the favor with similarly expensive gifts or cash.
"The purpose of inviting guests is to have them witness a couple's marriage ceremony," Li says. "But it should be relative to your financial situation and you shouldn't overdo it as it can also be considered as showing off if you give more than you can afford.
"People have to return the money they have gained sooner or later.
"In order to relieve the pressure on guests and pressure on themselves, wedding hosts can always recommend a limit in an invitation card.
"In essence, fenziqian should be a blessing, not a burden."