Gifts play a major role to not only demonstrate respect to elders and superiors but also to show commitment and enthusiasm toward maintaining close relationships with family and friends.
All of sudden, you are close to going to China for an internship, learning Chinese Language, travel, Teach or even get a full-time Job and then you remember keeping good relationship with the locals is needed for you to enjoy living in China. Aside from knowing about the concept of Face (Mianzi) and avoiding cultural shocks, you will need to master the art of giving in order to make good friends. This article is a comprehensive guide to giving and giving right according to the Chinese Culture.
China is has a connection-centered culture, the importance of connections lies in ‘trust.’ People like to do business with people they ‘trust’ as a mean to cut business risks, which BTW is a successful strategy. Giving of gifts is vital to maintaining lasting relationships with clients, Bosses and Business Associates. It is also used to keep influence with government officials. Otherwise, it is tough to sustain those relationships.
One may think that gift-giving has too many rules to follow; but we should not be intimidated by all these manners as making a good first impression is always a great asset, you will never get a second chance. Chinese have pride in the sophistication of their culture, and hence they are quite forgiving for foreigners who commit cultural mistakes, and mainly foreigners who cannot speak Chinese or didn’t live for a long time in China. However, giving a well-received gift, can get you more appreciation, respect, and support. Presents are after all about the gesture. If you think about the other person and you really put a thought in the present, it will be well accepted and much appreciated. Good luck with gift hunting!
When gifts are given?
At work, gifts are given at formal meetings with government officials, as well as when meeting with clients and prospective business partners. You may also present gifts to your close colleagues when they get married, buy a new house or have a child born.
Outside of the working environment, gifts are given on a wide variety of different occasions including holidays, birthdays, Chinese new year, special events, 100-days-old kid, graduating from college, weddings, visiting someone’s house, visiting a hospitalized friend, meeting your Chinese partner’s parents for the first time, returning from travel, etc.
Let’s start with some gift taboos and what gifts to be avoided:
1. Sharp Objects — Cut Off Relationship
Like scissors or knives, giving sharp objects that are used to cut things suggests that you want to sever a friendship or relationship.
2. The Number 4 — Sounds Like Death
In Chinese, the number four (四 sì ) pronounced similar to the word for death (死 sǐ). Anything related with 4 is associated with bad luck. So do not give gifts in sets or multiples of four. Other numbers such as ’73’ meaning ‘the funeral’ and ’84’ meaning ‘having accidents’ are to be avoided. Also avoid gifts with 250 numbers because it means ‘dumb’ or with SB characters.
3. Shoes — Evil
‘shoes’ (鞋 xié) sounds like ‘evil’ (邪 xié) in Chinese. Do not buy it for your Chinese girlfriend! As the thought goes, she could use them to run away from you.
4. Handkerchiefs — A Symbol of Saying Goodbye Forever
To give a handkerchief to someone (送巾, sòng jīn) sounds like 斷根 (duàngēn), a farewell greeting. This gift could refers to breakup if given between couples.
5. Clocks — Bad Luck
In Chinese, saying ‘giving a clock’ (送钟 sòng zhōng /song jong/) , has the same pronunciation as the phrase “sòng zhōng (送终)”, when the family of a deceased person has completed the burial of their loved one. So clocks or watches are a bad gift. However, there are exception when the clock comes from a very luxury brand or a very high price tag.
Moreover, clocks and watches symbolize the running out of time. This is especially true for seniors. Giving a clock or watch as a gift is the biggest no-no in Chinese culture.
6. Pears — Parting
Giving fruit is a good thing, but NOT pears. The Chinese word for ‘pears’ (梨 lí /lee/) sounds the same as the word for leaving or ‘parting’ (离 lí).
7. Cut Flowers — Presents for Funerals
Cut flowers are generally presents for funerals, so do not give them on Chinese New Year! Especially Chrysanthemums and white flowers, they represent death. While white is associated with weddings in most countries, but not in China, it’s actually the funeral color.
Other non-recommended flowers are:
8. Umbrellas — Break Up
The Chinese word for ‘umbrella’ (伞 sǎn /san/) sound like the word for ‘breaking up’ (散 sàn). Giving an umbrella symbolizes that the relationship between you and the recipient may soon dissolve.
9. Black or White Objects — Often Used in Funerals
Black and White are often used in funerals, avoid presents that are largely black or largely white, or wrapping paper or envelopes in these colors. Red is the color of luck and fortune, so red is always a great option for envelopes, or gifts.
10. Mirrors — Attract Ghosts
It’s believed that mirrors attract ghosts. Also, mirrors get easily broken, and when they are, it’s a bad omen.
11. Green Hats – Unfaithful partner
A green hat is a metaphor in Chinese 帶綠帽 (dài lǜ mào, with green hat) that means that a man’s wife is unfaithful or vice versa.
12. Necklaces, Comb – for normal friends
Don’t give a necklace (or a comb) as a gift to a platonic friend. Chinese people think things like necklaces, ties, combs, and belts are associated with intimate relations. These things are often given by boyfriends/girlfriends or couples.
13. Ornamental stones with unknown source – evil
Stones and antiques are attributable to things that are easily attached to the evil spirits.
14. Candles – for memorizing the dead
Candles are used for sacrificing the dead. Therefore, they cannot be given as gifts.
15. Dolls – refer to xiaoren
The doll belongs to the villain, in the eyes of some people it will bring evil, though this one is not critical, but you might want to avoid it too.
After reading the above, you might be astonished by the complexity and restrictions, don’t worry, there are plenty of good gifts that are well-received in China. Here we go with the best gifts:
List of Good Gifts you Can Present to Chinese
1. Home Specialties
A gift from your home country or region like a miniature of a landmark or antiques or your country special brands (Cigarettes, wine, cigars, chocolate, candies, perfumes,…) will almost always go over well; especially the sort of gifts that cannot be easily purchased in China or in tourist areas outside China. Many local businessmen (not businesswomen) greatly enjoy smoking and drinking. Therefore making a gift of alcohol or tobacco products from your home country will also be welcomed warmly.
2. Local Wine & Cigars
Wine, or cigars or a cigarette lighter from China are also acceptable. Make sure to choose a well-known brand with a more expensive price tag. Even if the receiver don’t drink or smoke they can re-gift it to someone who does.
3. Kitchen Gadgets
Cooking pots, frying pans, a set of ceramic plates are all well received.
4. Exotic Coffee
A branded overseas coffee powder of coffee beans is a modern gift that is increasingly well received.
5. Tea: Flower tea or fruit tea
A nicely wrapped box of tea is much better than giving bagged tea for gifts.
6. Engraved Pens
Whether it’s a nice pen from your company or engraved with the recipient’s name it’s a practical gift that will get used time and time again. Avoid pens with red ink–writing in red ink symbolizes severing ties.
7. A Banquet
A banquet is usually a welcome gift; since it’s likely you will be invited to one, you will have to follow Chinese business protocol and reciprocate.
Hat, Gloves, Scarf or Clothes: If you are familiar with your receivers, you can prepare a hat, a pair of gloves, a scarf or some clothes as a gift for the seniors in your hosts’ family.
9. Comb or Foot Bath Massager
In traditional Chinese medicine, massage is a gentle and effective way to repair one’s body. A high-quality comb can be used to massage the head, and a foot bath massager will improve the blood circulation of the feet, which will bring the seniors warmth in a cold winter.
10. School Supplies
Visiting your Chinese hosts with some school supplies like a writing pen, a school notebook or a nice box of painting brushes will give the kids a pleasant surprise, it would be a well received if these were bought from abroad. Books such as enlightening reading materials or one of the world’s great classics, ideally chosen according the child’s interests, are also highly recommended.
A good-quality toy is also a nice gift for your hosts’ children, such as a Barbie doll for a little girl (Barbie brand is well received, just avoid the non-branded dolls), and a remote control car for a little boy. A chess set or other game is a good gift for a teenager. Make sure you buy toys with no smells because most toys smells are associated with health implications towards kids.
12. Red Packets
are given for birthdays for Children and senior citizens. Normally 100-200 Yuan. For your parents-in-law, few thousands, ideally 2,000 or 5,000 or 10,000 Yuan. The cash will probably be given back to your Chinese partner, but the parents will feel a great deal of respect for you and a lot of face. Write your name and wishes over the red packet, even in English is fine.
Online Red Packets are becoming popular, I normally send an online Red Packet to my wife and my mother-in-law and that make them quite happy.
13. Vitamins and Health Supplements
These are great for in-laws or in-laws-to-be as Chinese are very health-conscious and love all sorts of traditional medicines and remedies. Recently there have been many health scams about Vitamins and Supplements products, so make sure to have a knowledgeable person to pick the right brand if you go with local brands.
14. Male Hi-end Supplements
American ginseng, herbal teas or a good-quality multivitamin.
15. Food/Fruit baskets
Packed full of delicious and exotic fruits, baskets are the go-to gift of choice if you have no idea what to give or if you’ve never met someone before. If your hometown is known for a special food, buy several to take along as gifts. Avoid food gifts at dinner parties or others events where meals are served. Packs of nuts and seeds are common gifts in China,
16. Home Supplies
Electrical equipment are common gifts if your hosts have moved into a new house and not long before hand.
17. Perfume and Lotions
Fragrances are becoming popular, lotions and body sprays from good brands are quite appreciated. However, avoid giving hygiene products otherwise the receipt will think that you doubt their hygiene.
Now, the above gifts cannot be given on any occasion and to anyone, so I made this Matrix to associate every gift with the appropriate occasion and receiver.
Well, the restrictions aren’t over yet, while deciding your gift, you need to use the proper formula for deciding the value of your gift.
The value of the gift
A person receiving lesser gifts from a friend may think the friend stingy, while a poorer person unable to match the expensive gifts of a friend may feel a loss of Face.
Understanding this additional concept is invaluable in maintaining healthy long-term relationships with your hosts , as well as allowing one to understand what gift values are appropriate at a certain time.
If you were wealthy, make sure to consider the financial status of your host because they will need to reciprocate it one day, or the gift will just cause a loss of face and financial pressure rather than the happiness you wanted to bring through receiving a high-value product.
After you have select the proper gift, here are few tips for wrapping…
It’s about to be over, here are few general guidelines over giving and receiving gifts that you still need to know:
- Use Both Hands to present and receive things while saying some good wishes based on the occasion
- When you are the giver, your host might decline several times, you will have to insist and push hard and I assure you they will receive it. After pushing very hard, if the offer gets accepted, always express gratitude to the recipient. As a foreigner, do not accept a gift on the first presentation. once I offered a gift which was rejected 12 times until my guest took it
- Unwrapping: do not unwrap gifts when receiving them. Open the gift after you leave, unless the giver insists more than one time. Generally, Chinese do not open gifts in the presence of giver, but this is flexible and may be done under some circumstances. Opening it in public places may put much more focus on the object than the thought
- Re-gifting: Gifting is almost a zero-sum game among friends, you are expected to reciprocate with similar values. However, don’t expect your customer or the elders to reciprocate equally
- When you offer a gift to someone with power, they are likely to reject your gift if they wish to avoid helping you later, accepting your gift means they are willing to befriend you and ‘maybe’ help you later, if you don’t know the host very well, better to invite an
- intermediary who knows the host well to give the gift on your behalf, the host then is less likely to decline.
- If your to-be-parents-in-law refused your gift, it’s a bad sign, if they accepted it, things are likely to proceed smoothly. Accepting your gift equals to allowing you into the family circle. Show gratitude.
- Timing: Among friends and family, gifts are presented at the beginning of the meeting or before dinner or lunch. Organizational gifts, are given during a toast or at the end of a meal, just prior to departure.
- For companies that have had a long-standing relationship, a framed painting of your country’s scenery is considered a good, memorable gift. Additionally, small gifts for the senior or key delegation members you are meeting serve as the extra relation building gesture.
- Price tags: Unlike in the west, it’s perfectly OK to leave price tags and receipts in the bags if it’s an expensive gift.
- A Bereaved family shouldn’t be visited or gifted if they had the funeral less than a month, as this is said to be unlucky (bringing more funerals in the coming year).
- 8 & 6: Eight is seen as one of the lucky numbers according to the Chinese culture. So next time you receive eight items, or a money within the ranges of 8, consider it a gesture of goodwill. Six is regarded as a blessing for smoothness and problem free advances.
- Keep records of how much money/gifts received. Some might give unmarked envelopes, so you need to write up the names of the givers because you will need to reciprocate later with similar value.
- Greeting cards are rarely used in China, so gifting without a card is perfectly fine.
- Lavish gift giving has been an integral part of the Chinese culture but today, official policy in Chinese business culture forbids giving gifts; this gesture is considered bribery, so be careful.
- Privacy: For business, if you wish to honor an individual, you should do so in secrecy, and always portray a friendly gesture, not business. Otherwise, this will cause embarrassment and possible problems for the recipient, given the strict rules against bribery. Also do not take any photograph of any gift giving unless it is a symbolic gift presented to the organization as a whole.
When Giving a gift to an organization, but not to a specific individual, is acceptable in Chinese business culture under the terms below:
- All business negotiations should be concluded before gifts are exchanged.
- Also indicate that the gift is from the company you represent and explain the rationale behind it
- Always make sure the gifts are given to the negotiation team Leader
- Don’t present too expensive gifts, so that the company will not feel obliged to reciprocate.
- Always make sure that staff members of equal rank get gifts of same measure. If they later notice any difference, it will not be taken lightly
These lessons are also applicable while giving during the Chinese New Year or any other traditional festivals