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    How China’s Gen Z is doing CNY differently

    Young cohort’s new spin on Chinese New Year involves a dragon frenzy, personalized gifts, and travel escapades, plus balancing tradition with financial prudence.
    Young cohort’s new spin on Chinese New Year involves a dragon frenzy, personalized gifts, and travel escapades, plus balancing tradition with financial prudence. Image: Shutterstock
      Published   in Retail

    Dragon frenzy, hanfu and prayer bracelets

    For centuries, the gifting of New Year goods, or nianhuo (年货), has been a cornerstone of Spring Festival celebrations. Traditionally, this responsibility fell to elders, but a seismic shift has occurred, with the younger generation increasingly taking the reins.

    E-commerce giant Taobao reports that over half of nianhuo purchases on the platform this year were made by those born after 1995.

    In a recent report released by Douyin’s shopping department, the keyword “dragon element” surged to the forefront of consumer interest, aligning with the current Year of the Dragon. Consumer interest in searches spikes every year for the relevant zodiac animal. In the first week of the festival, searches related to “Year of the Dragon” soared, hitting nearly 22 million.

    Hanfu (汉服), dynastic-era traditional Chinese Han dress, adorned with dragon motifs are very popular for Chinese new year. Image: Shutterstock
    Hanfu (汉服), dynastic-era traditional Chinese Han dress, adorned with dragon motifs are very popular for Chinese new year. Image: Shutterstock

    This trend has notably impacted the fashion industry. Sales of women’s hanfu (汉服), dynastic-era traditional Chinese Han dress, adorned with dragon motifs, surged nearly 100 percent compared to last year.

    The shifting demographics of consumers, particularly the rise of Generation Z, are reshaping traditional purchasing patterns. Younger shoppers are steering away from classic gifts, such as red underwear, which is considered to bring luck. Instead, they are opting for more personalized and meaningful items that resonate with their individual identities.

    Highlighting this shift, JD.com reported a remarkable 32-fold surge in sales of Bodhi prayer bracelets among customers born after 2000, underscoring a broader move towards items that reflect personal tastes and cultural identities. Bodhi prayer bracelets are typically made from seeds of the Bodhi tree. Bodhi prayer bracelets, made from Bodhi tree seeds, symbolize enlightenment in Buddhism. Popular in China as a “lucky item” and for spiritual practice.

    Traveling, but not home

    Zhang Jie, 24, an engineer from Shenzhen, planned to travel to Thailand with friends this New Year.

    “It's a break from tradition, sure, but it’s also a way to celebrate without the stress of family expectations. The world is big, and I want to see it,” Zhang says.

    The National Immigration Administration of China predicts that during this year’s Spring Festival holiday, which runs from February 10 to February 17, the Chinese mainland will experience an average of 1.8 million inbound and outbound passenger trips daily, approximately 3.3 times higher than last year’s level.

    Chinese New Year is the most significant celebration in China, akin to the importance of Christmas in Western cultures. Characterized by familial reunions, the holiday is anticipated to prompt a surge in travel, with an estimated 9 billion trips having been planned. Most of those trips will be for individuals returning to their hometowns.

    But a growing number of China’s youth is choosing to diverge from this custom, and is instead opting to travel.

    “Visiting relatives every day is exhausting. I still have to stay here and there, and I can only go out on the last day. I have to go back more than 500 kilometers for work, which is very tiring. We are traveling this year and not going home,” netizen Qing Qing wrote on internet forum Hornet’s Nest.

    Balancing red envelopes and financial wellbeing

    The tradition of giving red envelopes, or hongbao (紅包), has long been a symbol of luck and prosperity during Chinese New Year.

    A red envelope, also known as a red packet, is a monetary gift exchanged during holidays or significant events like weddings, graduations, and birthdays. Image: Shutterstock
    A red envelope, also known as a red packet, is a monetary gift exchanged during holidays or significant events like weddings, graduations, and birthdays. Image: Shutterstock

    In southern China, it is customary for married couples to present red envelopes to those who are unmarried. Across China, elders usually distribute red envelopes to individuals younger than 25, extending to under 30 in many areas of the three northeastern provinces, regardless of the recipients’ marital status.

    “My year-end bonus is gone after giving out New Year money,” has become a hot topic on Weibo.

    “There’s pressure to give more now that I’m married. It’s a delicate balance between tradition and personal financial reality," says Zhao Fan, 28, a newlywed from Beijing.

    The tradition of giving red envelopes is steeped in symbolism, intended as a gesture of good luck and prosperity from the giver to the receiver.

    But the financial pressure associated with giving red envelopes has become a concern for many, turning what was once a simple benevolent act into a significant financial outlay.

    Li Rui, 29, from Anhui, now working in Shanghai, shares her ordeal: “Before returning to my hometown, I withdrew around $4,000, knowing it would take three months of savings. It’s a hefty sum, but it’s about maintaining familial bonds and respect.”

    This sentiment is echoed across the board, with many young Chinese feeling the weight of honoring their elders and younger relatives through substantial monetary gifts.

    Such an economic burden has led to a pragmatic approach among some, who now set red envelope budgets aligned with their income, ensuring they don't overspend while still upholding the tradition. This balancing act between maintaining tradition and managing personal finances underscores a broader trend of pragmatic adaptation among the younger generation.

    “Giving red envelopes is about family affection. But in this economy, it has become a burden. It’s about striking the right balance without compromising our financial well-being,” Zhao Fan says.

    This sentiment is a testament to the complex interplay of tradition, familial obligations, and individual financial health that Gen Z is navigating in a context of high youth unemployment.

    Excluding students, the unemployment rate for individuals in China aged 16 to 24 stood at 14.9%, while in urban areas in December 2023, it was recorded at 5.1%.

    As members of China’s Gen Z stand at the crossroads of tradition and modernity, their approach to Chinese New Year festivities is a study in cultural adaptation. They are not abandoning the customs passed down through generations, but are instead redefining them to resonate with contemporary realities and modern demands of financial and emotional well-being.

    Key Takeaways

    2. Dragon-themed products and Bodhi prayer bracelets have surged in popularity, aligning with the Year of the Dragon and personal spiritual beliefs.

    3. Many young Chinese are choosing travel over traditional family reunions during the Spring Festival, reflecting changing lifestyle preferences.

    4. Financial considerations are influencing the tradition of giving red envelopes, with many setting budgets to manage the balance between tradition and personal finance.

    5. The adaptation of Chinese New Year practices by Gen Z indicates a broader trend of blending tradition with contemporary values and economic realities.


    1. China's Gen Z is putting a new spin on Chinese New Year (CNY) celebrations, favoring dragon-themed fashion, personalized gifts, and travel over traditional family gatherings.
    2. A significant trend is the surge in popularity of dragon-themed products and traditional Chinese Han dress (hanfu) with dragon motifs, reflecting the Year of the Dragon's cultural significance.
    3. Young Chinese are increasingly opting for travel during the Spring Festival, seeking new experiences and a break from traditional family obligations.
    4. The tradition of giving red envelopes (hongbao) is being adapted, with many young people setting budgets to balance tradition with financial prudence amid economic concerns.
    5. Gen Z's approach to CNY highlights a broader trend of blending tradition with contemporary values, as they navigate cultural practices with modern lifestyle preferences and financial realities.
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