When giving and receiving gifts in China, there is a whole etiquette involved. Some gifts you shouldn't give at all, and some gifts or kinds of gifts are only acceptable in certain circumstances. Bear in mind that as a foreigner, Chinese people will certainly not expect you to know the intricacies of gift giving etiquette; however, it is always useful to know what objects are considered particularly positive or negative in Chinese culture in order to avoid an embarrassing faux pas.
This article is a general - but not extensive - guide to giving and receiving gifts in China.
- Chinese etiquette when receiving a gift is always to appear modest and not greedy, so the recipient may try to refuse the gift 2 or 3 times when you give it to them. The gift giver should keep insisting until they accept it.
- Upon accepting the gift, they may also put the gift to the side for later rather than open it in front of you, as is common in many western cultures. You should also consider this when you are given a gift by a Chinese person - unless they insist or if you are friends already, you are better off opening it later rather than in front of them.
- Always present (and receive) gifts with both hands.
- Not only is the gift itself important, but the wrapping of the gift can be symbolic, too. Gifts should be wrapped carefully, and the colour should suit the occasion: red is the general "happy" colour, gold and silver are lucky colours for weddings, but black and white should only be used for funerals. Never give anybody over 50 a gift wrapped in black or white, as you're basically telling them that they're going to die soon.
- It is customary when returning from a holiday or business trip (especially if you have ventured outside of China) that you bring back gifts - usually food - for your co-workers. Local delicacies, especially those that come in many small portions (so they can easily be shared), are especially good for this.
- Chinese are as modest about giving gifts as they are about receiving gifts. When you give a present, consider saying 小意思 (xiǎoyìsi - "a mere trifle") to express that the gift is only something trivial and nothing significant. Note that such a statement has nothing to do with the size, quality or value of the gift and is instead a social tool used to maintain face.
- A common gift in China for weddings and Spring Festival are 红包 - hóngbāo, "red envelopes". These contain money.
- 8 is considered an especially lucky number in China, and 0 is also considered lucky because circles represents 'completeness' in Chinese culture. Therefore, receiving hóngbāo containing money in amounts with lots of 8s and 0s (e.g. 1888 RMB, 1800 RMB, 888 RMB, 880 RMB, 800 RMB etc.) is especially lucky.
- Like any other gift, when receiving hóngbāo you should always take it with both hands.
Good gift ideas
- Chinese people enjoy receiving gifts in sets of two (for example, 2 bottles of wine, 2 packets of cigarettes, etc.). This is generally to show that the giver is generous, and in some cases (e.g. bottles of alcohol) it also means that the recipient can enjoy one gift whilst displaying the other.
- It is also considered lucky to receive gifts in groups of 6 or 8: 6 represents good luck, and 8 represents prosperity.
- Gifts that are not widely available where the recipient lives (whether in China as a whole, or in the area of China where they live) are especially prized by Chinese people. Items from your own country, or from another area in China where you have travelled, or - if you're crafty - hand-made gifts all make excellent presents.
- 'Sweetness' is a key concept in Chinese gift giving, as it carries a connotation that you hope the recipient will have a 'sweet life'. This is why fruit, cakes and sweets are very common gifts. Because circles are also very lucky as they represent 'completeness', apples and oranges are very good inexpensive gifts. Peaches are also great gifts as they have a long tradition of being lucky gifts, especially to old people.
- Good quality or regional tea makes an excellent gift, and is a safe option as almost everybody in China drinks tea.
- If you know the recipient is a smoker, buying them a carton (or even better, two cartons) of foreign cigarettes is an excellent gift.
- Alcohol, especially good quality wine, spirits or báijiǔ, generally make good gifts, unless you know that the recipient does not drink alcohol.
- Gifts for your boss or clients at work, generally speaking, are simpler: good whisky or cognac, and foreign cigarettes and wines usually make excellent gifts.
Bad gift ideas
- Clocks and watches are bad gifts because they symbolise time, and time symbolises death (i.e. the time the recipient has left of their life). The Chinese phrase to "give a clock as a gift" is 送钟 - sòng zhōng, which is a homophone of 送终 - sòng zhōng, meaning "to bury a parent".
- Knives and scissors are also bad gifts because they symbolise cutting, i.e. the breaking of a relationship.
- Contrary to what is said above, some gifts that come in sets of two (e.g. chopsticks) can be inappropriate since they have a connotation of being 'together', so giving somebody a set of chopsticks can be misinterpreted as a sign that you want to be with that person romantically.
- Avoid giving any gift in groups of four: the word for four in Mandarin (四 - sì) is very unlucky as it sounds a lot like the word for "death" (死 - sǐ).
- Giving somebody a belt shows that you want to 'hold them forever', so only give somebody one if you have romantic intentions with them.
- Although fruit is generally a great gift (see above), bear in mind that even though there are circular pears in China, the Chinese word for "pear" (梨 - lí) sounds like the word for "separate" or "depart" (离 - lí), so giving pears is a bad idea, as it can symbolise that you want their family to separate.
- Flowers are usually a good gift, but with two major caveats: firstly, white flowers (especially white chrysanthemums) signify death. Secondly, when giving flowers it is always better to buy a potted plant (representing 'growth') rather than cut flowers (representing something that 'dies quickly').
- If you're bringing food along to a dinner party, don't bring a main dish. This implies that the person does not have the skill or money required to provide the requisite dishes themselves. Bringing luxury foods such as chocolates or a rich dessert is much better.
- Don't give umbrellas as gifts - especially not to business clients. The word for "umbrella" (伞 - sǎn) sounds like the word for "fall apart" (散 - sàn)
- Never give anybody a green hat. It sounds oddly specific, but the phrase "to wear a green hat" (戴绿帽子 - dài lǜ màozi) is Chinese slang for "cuckolded", so giving somebody a green hat implies that their wife is being unfaithful to them.