The Do's and Don'ts of Gift Giving in China
For the uninitiated, gift giving in China can be faux par central. Without the necessary knowledge, your well-intentioned present could end up a fast-track ticket to Losefaceville.
There are a plethora of social codes and conventions to abide by. Never ask or expect the receiver to open the gift in front of you, always present your gift well-presented, wrapped or in a gift bag, and don’t forget to pass it over with both of your hands! But before we get to the actual giving, what exactly should we buy our Chinese friends, hosts or business associates?
We’ve put together this list of Do’s and Don’ts to point you in the right direction. The Don’ts appear to fall in to two distinct categories: gifts with inauspicious symbolism and gifts that are phonetic homonyms of other inauspicious words.
- We’ll start with the number one Don’t around - clocks. Clocks (and to some extent other time pieces) symbolize the passing of time, and ultimately our mortality. In China, the gifting of clocks means the sender wishes the receiver an un-timely death.
- The number four, 四 (sì), sounds a lot like the character for death, 死 (sǐ), and so gifts of items in groups of four should be avoided if possible.
In the west, flowers tend to be a fail-safe gift option. But in China there are a few to be avoided:
- Plum blossom 梅花 (méihuā) is a homonym for bad luck 霉 (méi).
- Chrysanthemums are reserved for mourning of the dead, and should not be given as gifts.
- The gladiolus flower 剑兰 (jiànlán) is phonetically identical to a word meaning to ‘meet difficulties’ 见难 (jiànnán) and isn't suitable as a present.
- Similarly, jasmine 茉莉 (mòlì), whilst a good idea to gift in tea form, should be avoided as a gift of flowers because it’s a homonymous with the a word meaning ‘no profit or prospect of earning’ 没利 (mòlì).
- As we’ll see below, fruit is a great gift option, but be careful not to gift pears, as the character for pear 梨 (lí) is a homonyms for the word to separate 离 (lí) and can symbolize the splitting up of your relationship.
- And it’s not just pears that have this symbolism. The character for umbrella 伞 (sǎn) symbolizes 'to leave' 散 (sàn).
- Sharp objects such as knives or scissors also symbolize the severing of ties, evident in this proverb 'to make a clean break' 一刀两断 (yīdāoliǎngduàn) and are a no-no.
- Yet more items to avoid are those associated with funerals in China, such as candles and black or white objects (a plain white shirt for example).
- Furthermore, Chinese mysticism and folk lore also prohibit the gifting of mirrors, which are said to attract ghosts; dolls, as symbols of the human form are not auspicious, as well as stones or antique objects, which may be possessed by evil spirits.
- The final item on our list of items to avoid giving are green hats... This makes the list as a Chinese saying ‘wearing a green hat’ 戴绿帽子(dài lǜmàozǐ) implies that the wearer’s partner has been unfaithful. The phrase originated from the practice of forcing Yuan dynasty prostitutes to wear green hats.
Remember, if it’s a Chinese wedding you’re attending, its traditional to give a lucky red envelope filled with cash. But for other occasions check out some of the ideas we’re put together below.
- It's well known that eating is a national sport in China, so do consider gifting high-quality snacks or food items such as nuts, fruit, chocolate, cookies or even milk. But pay attention to the presentation. Choose items with elaborate packaging or gift-bags is a must.
- Imported items are very popular in China, so consider choosing items that are imported 进口 (jìnkǒu) when choosing alcohol, cosmetics or electronics.
- If you know the receiver drinks alcohol then gifting wine or beer could also be a good choice.
- Not a drinker? Tea is a foolproof gift idea. As with other items, consider finding something of good quality, unusual or local to your home country or place of residence.
- Finally, we why not consider gifting something that's personalized and enduring. Calligraphy or other art make great gifts because it can be displayed in the home or workplace where the receiver can enjoy it daily.
We hope you’ve learned a little about some of the do's and don'ts when it comes to giving gifts in China. Remember the better you know the receiver the easier it’ll be to choose that perfect gift.