Navigating the concept of gifts in any new culture can be tricky. For a foreigner, deciphering the process of gift giving in China can be downright baffling.
Well, we've learned some of these lessons the hard way, so you don't have to. Read on to learn how not to embarrass yourself or others while gift giving in China...
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.
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.
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 sì) sounds like the word for “to die” (死 sǐ). 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.
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.
As memorials for the dead, these are not the cheeriest gift to bestow upon someone.
Gifts to Give with Caution
1. Necklaces, combs, ties, and belts
These are not for platonic friends! 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…
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.
No red ink! Red ink symbolizes the end of a relationship.
Most fruit is a welcome gift. Stay away from pears though, since the word for "pear" (梨 lí) sounds like the word for "parting" (离 lí).
Good Gifts to Give in China
1. Gifts from your home country
Pretty much everyone 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.
3. Increments of 6 or 8
Six and eight are both lucky numbers in Chinese culture. Giving gifts in sets of six or eight, or even giving money in amounts of six or eight (for example, 666RMB or 888RMB) is considered auspicious and demonstrates goodwill.
Numbers carry meaning in China, so make sure you don't make a gift giving faux pas!
Gift Giving Customs in China to Keep in Mind
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.