Gift Giving in China

October 15, 2019

Navigating the concept of gifts in any new culture can be tricky. In China, gift-giving comes with a set of complex cultural norms which can be downright baffling for a foreigner.

Understanding the rules of gift-giving in Chinese culture will not only help you make sure you don't offend anyone or embarrass yourself, but also will allow you to build and maintain relationships with Chinese friends, coworkers, and business partners.

Read on to learn the best and worst gifts to give in Chinese culture, the do's and don'ts of Chinese gift-giving etiquette, and some Chinese phrases for giving and receiving gifts.

Taboo Gifts in China

1. Clocks, watches, or anything related to time

Timepieces signify that time is running out. Giving a clock or watch as a gift in China should be avoided at all costs, especially for the elderly. Moreover, the phrase “to gift a clock” (送钟 sòng zhōng) sounds like the phrase “to complete a burial” (送终 sòng zhōng).

I'll say it again: gifting a timepiece in Chinese culture is among the biggest taboos. Do. Not. Ever.

2. Shoes

The word for “shoe” (鞋 xié) sounds like the word for “evil” (邪 xié). Buying your girlfriend shoes is a particularly big no-no. The thought is that she might use the shoes to run away.

3. Sharp objects

This implies that you will sever ties with the person. Snip, snip.

4. Mirrors

In traditional Chinese folklore, mirrors are believed to attract ghosts. Also, the superstition of a broken mirror bringing bad luck stands in China as well, so it is best if a mirror never even enters the equation.

5. Anything related to the number four

The Chinese word for “four” (四 ) sounds like the word for “to die” (死 ). Other numbers to avoid include 73, 84, and 250.

6. Green hats

In Chinese culture, green hats are a metaphor for an unfaithful partner. This is true for gifting as well as wearing a green hat. Unless you want to spill the beans on an affair, best stay away from green and hats.

7. Umbrellas

The word for “umbrella” (伞 sǎn) sounds like the word “to scatter” (散 sàn), implying that your friendship will soon dissolve.

8. Cut flowers

Cut flowers are common at funerals. Chrysanthemums and white flowers both represent death, so steer well clear of both.

9. Black and white objects

Black and white are both traditional funeral colors. Enough said.

10. Candles

As memorials for the dead, these are not the cheeriest gift to bestow upon someone.

Gifts to Give with Caution in China

1. Necklaces, combs, ties, and belts

In China, necklaces, combs, ties, and belts make good gifts for a man or woman if you are in a romantic relationship. They are not for platonic friends or business partners! Implying intimacy, you should only give a necklace to your girlfriend or boyfriend.

Unless of course you are looking for a subtle way to start the "What Are We" talk with your "it's complicated" friend…

2. Cups

The word for "cup" (杯子 bēizi) sounds the same as the word for "lifetime" (辈子 bèizi). This is another rather romantic gift for couples.

3. Pens

No red ink! Red ink symbolizes the end of a relationship.

4. Fruit

Most fruit is a welcome gift. Stay away from pears though, since the word for "pear" (梨 ) sounds like the word for "parting" (离 ).

Good Gifts to Give in China

1. Gifts from your home country

Pretty much everyone, including business partners, will appreciate a little something from your hometown or home country, especially if it is not common in China. Safe bets include chocolates, candies, wine, or liquor.

2. Local alcohol or cigarettes

These gifts tend to go over well on most occasions. If you are shopping in China, be sure to choose a well-known, high-quality brand. These make especially good gifts for a man in China.

3. Red envelopes

Red envelopes filled with money are a common Chinese traditional gift in China, but you may be wondering "how much should I put in a red envelope?" Generally, you'd want to use Chinese lucky numbers as a guideline. For example, six and eight are both lucky numbers in Chinese culture. Giving money in amounts of six or eight (for example, 666RMB or 888RMB), or even gifts in sets of six or eight is considered auspicious and demonstrates goodwill.

Note that the red envelopes must be brand new and that the bills inserted in it should never be folded.

Numbers carry meaning in China, so make sure you don't make a gift-giving faux pas!

Do's and Don'ts of Gift-Giving Customs in China

1. Buy a financially appropriate gift

If you give a cheap gift, the recipient may think you are stingy. If you buy an expensive gift and the recipient is financially unable to respond with an equally expensive present, they may feel embarrassed.

2. Wrap the gift properly

Plain red paper is usually a safe option. Gold, silver, and pink are usually fine as well but double-check about color associations in your region. Stay away from yellow, white, and black wrapping paper, as these are funeral colors.

3. Use BOTH hands to present and receive gifts

This is considered polite. It also does not hurt to exchange some well-wishes appropriate to the occasion.

Don't speak Chinese? Sign up for Chinese lessons and impress your friends with your gift giving manners!

4. Expect gifts to be rejected a few times

It is rude to accept a gift immediately, so you may need to push for the recipient to accept your gift. As a recipient, you may also be expected to decline gifts at first offer.

5. Do NOT unwrap the gift immediately

Opening a present right away, especially in public, is a faux pas that could cause embarrassment to both parties involved. However, if the gift-giver insists several times, you may open the gift.

6. Price tags

In China, it is acceptable to leave price tags or receipts on or with the gift.

Want more guidelines and gift suggestions? Check out “The Art of Giving Gifts According to Chinese Culture” by CIP.

What to Say When Giving a Gift in Chinese?

When presenting a gift in China, you can say “这是我的一点儿心意 Zhè shì wǒ de yīdiǎn er xīnyì ”. This especially means "this is a small gift for you" or "this is a token of my appreciation" in Chinese. If the recipient declines your present, you can add “请收下 qǐng shōu xià”, which is Chinese for "please take/accept it".

You can also tailor the gift-giving phrase to the occasion when presenting a gift in China. So, if you're giving someone a birthday gift, feel free to say “生日快乐 Shēngrì kuàilè” ("happy birthday in Chinese), and if it's for Chinese New Year, a simple “新年快乐 Xīnnián kuàilè” or any other Chinese New Year greetings will do.

What to Say When Receiving a Gift in Chinese?

It is customary to decline a gift a few times before accepting it in China. To decline a gift in Chinese, you can casually say “不,不 bù bù ” (no, no) or “您的心意我领了,东西就不要了 Nín de xīnyì wǒ lǐngle, dōngxī jiù bùyàole” for a more formal response.

Be mindful not to refuse the gift too many times as this might make things a bit awkward. After declining twice or three times, accept the present while expressing your gratitude by saying 谢谢 xièxiè ("thank you" in Chinese).

Here's a short gift-giving dialogue in Chinese to help you understand how all these phrases are used in practice:

A: 这是我的一点儿心意 Zhè shì wǒ de yīdiǎn er xīnyì
(English: This is a small gift for you.)

B: 不,不 bù bù
(English: No,no.)

A: 请收下 qǐng shōu xià
(English: Please accept it.)

B: 您的心意我领了,东西就不要了 Nín de xīnyì wǒ lǐngle, dōngxī jiù bùyàole
(English: I appreciate your kindness but I don't need it.)

A: 请收下吧 qǐng shōu xià ba (English: Please accept it.)

B: 好,那我就收了,谢谢 Hǎo, nà wǒ jiù shōule, xièxiè
(English: Ok, I'll take it then, thank you.)

About the Author

Eden has been learning Chinese since 2008. She fell in love with the language, food, and culture and never looked back! Eden lived in China for six years, including in Harbin, Beijing, and Dali.

Eden- Author