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The Chinese art of gift giving

In Chinese culture, gift giving is just as important in the business environment as in private life. Why? Giving gifts is a way to create ties with Chinese people. As symbolism is highly present in the Chinese culture gifts can symbolize both luck, money and health. However, not all gifts have positive symbolism – some gifts symbolize bad business, illness or even death. For a foreigner relocating to Beijing it is therefore important to get an understanding of the art of giving gifts. This blog post will teach you the basics of gift giving in four steps so that you can avoid future gift giving pitfalls!

Step 1: Successful gifts!

First of all, no matter what you choose to give, always avoid giving gifts in sets of 4 as the word 4 (四, ) sounds like death (死, ). Instead, choose sets of 8, which is considered the lucky number, or 6 which symbolizes a blessing. An even number is in general the best choice since odd numbers symbolizes bad luck.

Fruit. Giving fruit baskets is always a modest gift. To the elderly, peaches is a great choice. This fruit is considered a very healthy fruit that will expand your lifespan. Giving it to an elderly person symbolizes that you wish them a long and healthy life. To a newlywed couple pomegranates is instead a perfect gift since its many seeds symbolized fertility. No matter what fruit you give, avoid pears (梨, lí) since the sound is similar to separation (离, lí).

Wine and cigarettes. Many local businessmen enjoy both drinking and smoking. The best choice would be an international brand, for example a brand from your home country. If you buy this gift in China, preferably choose a known brand holding an expensive price tag.

Red envelope. The most well-known and traditional gift in Chinese culture is the red envelop (红包, hóng bāo). A red envelope filled with 100 yuan notes is a perfect choice if you are attending a wedding in Beijing. In addition to weddings, red envelops are also given to children and senior citizens during for example birthdays and the Spring Festival.

Also OK: Health supplemental products, regional specialities and tea.

Step 2: Things to avoid

The Chinese culture is characterized by hierarchy so should, for example, in the business environment avoid giving a nicer gift to someone who has a lower position than a person of a higher position. In this situation it might be better to choose a gift that can be shared among many people, for example food.

Clocks. Giving a clock as a gift is something that should be avoided. The words of giving a clock (送鐘, sòng zhōng) in Chinese sound similar to the words of attending someone’s funeral. In addition, clocks symbolize that the time is running out which could be perceived as the end of a relationship.

Certain cut flowers. White flowers and yellow chrysanthemums are commonly used at funerals. Giving someone these types of flowers in other occasions will therefore symbolize death.

Green hats. This specific piece of clothing carries a metaphor, (帶綠帽, dài lǜ mào), for an unfaithful wife.

Also avoid: Umbrella, handkerchiefs, knife/sharp, mirrors and shoes.

Step 3: Wrap it up!

Be careful when you wrap your gift. If you choose to have wrapping paper, the colours of red and gold are great choices as they stand for luck and happiness. When it comes to other colours the best choice is to ask a local for advice. Be aware that a specific colour might have one meaning here in Beijing, and another meaning in Shanghai.

Don’t worry about adding a card to your gifts. Cards are not only difficult to find; they are not expected in the Chinese culture.

Step 4: The giving phase

Don’t expect Chinese people to open the gift in front of you. Chinese people do not want to seem too eager to receive a gift and people who open a gift in front of the giver will be perceived as both greedy, rude and disrespectful. A person who instead puts the gift aside and opens it later in private is perceived as a modest and cultured person. In addition, be prepared that Chinese people politely will refuse the gift 2-3 times before accepting it.

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Louise Andren
Louise Andren

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