Who doesn’t love to receive gifts? On the other hand, there are many people who love to give gifts, taking great pleasure of seeing the joy and appreciation in the faces of others as they start to open their presents…
Yet, in China, the giving of gifts is quite different from what you may be used to—and, whilst it’s important to make sure you give an appropriate gift, it’s perhaps more important to make sure don’t give anything likely to cause offence or, particularly in seriously superstitious China, perceived bad luck!
So, what sort of gifts should you give?
Well, money is always most welcome—more often than not placed in a red envelope, or hóng bāo and given to the recipient with both hands (this is the appropriate etiquette for all gift giving, by the way). Giving money for birthdays is mainly for elders and children and you may need advice on the suitable amounts to give.
Then there is fresh fruit or special, quality foods—both ideally imported or, perhaps, local snacks or food items representative of your home country—nicely displayed in a fruit basket or well packaged and visually appealing. Imported wines and bottles of whiskey or brandy will always find favour with older recipients.
Certain items of practical clothing are always welcome and, especially for the younger generation, both Chinese girls and young men, if a brand name from overseas, all the better! However, be careful with overly bright colours for the older generation.
Some may appreciate receiving health supplements such as ginseng, herbal teas or, maybe, a well-known brand of vitamins.
Of course this list is not exhaustive and, as you get to better know the people you are giving to, you may be able to personalise the giving to further meet their expectations.
Having said this, in China, sometimes the gift being received has ominous connotations and there are some gifts which should be avoided at all costs, as name of items shares a similar pronunciation to something undesirable or has negative cultural symbolism.
Such gifts to avoid include: gifts of money which include the number four (such as 40 or 400) as the pronunciation of four sounds similar to the word for death, sǐ. Hats or, more particularly, green hats, should also be avoided as the phrase to wear a green hat is used to imply that a man’s spouse is cheating on him. In a similar vein, the word for umbrella sounds like the word to separate so giving an umbrella symbolises that the relationship between you and the recipient may soon dissolve.
Another one: due to the sound connection between the phrase to give a clock and activities related to death, as you might expect, giving a clock is in bad taste—but also is giving chrysanthemums as they’re often used for funerals.
Finally, shoes: avoid buying shoes for your Chinese girlfriend as the connotation is that she may use them to walk or run away from you, thereby ending your relationship.
However, don’t worry unduly, gift giving in China not as complicated as it seems—plus, you can always ask one of your Chinese friends to help you out with your planned selection before you buy something!
Keith is the author of the website Love Asian women and has lived in Asia for over 30 years. He is adept at sharing tips about meeting, keeping relationships with and dating Asian women in order to help you find your ideal Asian bride!
How are your experiences with gift giving in other countries or especially in China?
20 thoughts on “Guest Post: Gift giving in China”
Interesting post! 🙂 The shoes part made me laugh a bit hehe. I wonder if the younger generation minds these superstitions?
I do think that even the younger generation is still rather superstitious. When thinking about how all of my wife’s friends and business customers are so very superstitious when it comes to childbirth etc…hard to imagine but they kind of believe everything they hear from the older generation/ are afraid to disappoint the older generation by not following those old superstitions
As you touched upon in this guest post, branded things as gifts are becoming more and more common. Usually I’m not a huge fan of giving branded items as gifts as they can cost quite a bit. I prefer giving something more personalised, something that will surprise them. But it’s hard because you really don’t know if a person will like a gift until they open it.
For me the fun part comes when wrapping a gift. I like to wrap a gift multiple times 🙂
I was never a fan of branded things before either however it changed later on as many people just don’t appreciat “handcrafted” or personalised items etc.
Not that I buy the most expensive thing out there but I do tend to orientate myself on certain brands depending on what gift I am planning to buy/ for whom
Some people just don’t appreciate gifts at all from what I’ve seen and experienced. It’s hard to give a thoughtful gift sometimes – brands can help, but also you don’t want to get things like the colour or size wrong lol.
When we lived in Finland we always sent to my parents handcrafted birthday cards and they loved it. However we never did something like that for my brother’s girlfriend as she is…well a very special spoiled person who only values things which cost a lot 😛
I love the history of gift giving in China; I had to learn it all before I worked there to ensure I didn’t offend. Enjoyed your post as usual.
Luckily my wife told me the basics of gift giving before we went first time to China and we also touched that topic in some of my courses at University back in the day. It is really interesting what superstitions they have in some countries when it comes to gifts!
So when — not if — my in-laws piss me off next time, I should give them an umbrella or shoes.
Haha yeah you should try that! I really wonder what your wonderful father-in-law would say
“Where’s my grandson?!” Probably.
Oh yeah, is he still calling you regarding his grandson ?
Yeah, can I borrow Nathan?
Oh Nathan wouldn’t mind, especially due to your pets. In case we would ever visit you it is very likely that he refuse to leave your home so he can spend more time with the dogs and cats…so he is a perfect fake son 😀
I really like that giving money is acceptable, as sometimes it’s stressful to think up good gifts and that one takes no imagination!
However, it can feel like there’s also a lot of pressure in China to constantly reciprocate and often I just hope nobody does give me anything…
You are right. Though it is great that money as a gift is accepted it is really annoying to always “top” the gift when giving something in return e.g. give more money to a newly wed couple than we got ourselves from them
The money thing is convenient, but sometimes it gets a little ridiculous. For my wedding gift a very good Chinese friend passed on a hong bao chock full of cash to a friend to deliver to me. He was about to have a baby, so when my delivery friend (also Chinese) gave me the envelope i said in response: “take the hong bao back to him–this is his new baby money!”
My delivery friend laughed and said, “how did you become so Chinese!?”
Haha yeah in the end the money just goes back and forth! However the sum is also increased each time by a bit which is also kind of annoying. For example all the money we got for our wedding we basically returned to the people with some interest…
Interesting article and enjoyed reading. Thanks for sharing. 🙂
Great that you enjoyed the article 🙂