Gift giving in China

Gift giving in China is not easy. After all, there is nothing really simple in China. There are things you should do, can do, shouldn’t do and definitely cannot do. Most of the rules are about what you “should not” or “cannot” do, of course. Chinese people love to play with their language and with Chinese characters. Reason is, many things sound very similar or exactly the same, but they are actually written very differently and they have different, sometimes even opposite, meanings. So most of the gift giving rules have something to do with the language. For example, a thing that you should never give is a clock. Why? Because “give a clock” (送 钟) sounds like “to bury” (送终). Therefore, never giving a clock is one of the most important things. Even worse would be to give four clocks (but why would anybody do that, right?). Number four is pronounced the same as death (死 / 四). Thus, in China you can often encounter that the fourth floor is missing inside some hotels. Odd numbers are not good in general. But the numbers eight and six are very popular.

Other taboos are shoes. It’s the same message; shoes are used when walking, and when somebody walked away / left, in China, it means somebody died (人 走 了). Never give an umbrella…it is pronounced the same way as to lose something (散 / 伞). Don’t give a book to somebody doing business or someone who has an important race or competition ahead (book is pronounced the same as to lose – 书 / 输). A pear is a NO as well (it’s pronounced like to break up – 送 梨 / 送 离, 分 梨 / 分离). You shouldn’t give a tangerine to couples or to any family (it’s pronounced the same as divorce and to break up 分居 / 分 橘). And NO green hats. Why? In Chinese you say, “somebody gave someone a green hat” (给 绿 帽子) when you want to say somebody cheated on his partner. So no green hats, and most importantly do not give a green hat to your partner! Even a handkerchief is a problem; it symbolizes crying about the dead. Also, no sharp objects – these symbolize cutting ties, splitting relations, etc. The same goes with red ink. A pen is a suitable gift, but not with red ink. Finally, no chrysanthemums. Why? The traditional reason is that these flowers are usually used at funerals. The more contemporary reason is that chrysanthemum in the modern Chinese slang stands for anus.

OK, the ‘Don’ts’ was a long list, I know. Sorry for that. But I believe that it was very interesting. Now, what are the DOs? Pear NO, but peach YES. Giving a peach to older people especially has beautiful symbolism; peaches are in fact the fruit of immortality in Chinese myths. Chinese like to give cigarettes, but only because they like to smoke – nothing mystical about that one. On the other hand, a very thoughtful gift is the following combination of fruits: dates + peanuts + longan (also called dragon eye) + lotus seeds. Why? Because if you take the initial characters of each of these words and create a sentence, it is pronounced exactly like “May you soon have a son“ (枣 生 桂子 / 早 生 贵子). This gift is my favorite because it is really sophisticated. The last one I am going to mention is debatable – an apple. In the North, an apple can be given because in Putonghua, the standard Chinese language, it is pronounced the same as peace. But it is different in Shanghai because in the local dialect it is pronounced the same as die from a disease (苹果 / 病故).

What to do and what not to do, we’ve already covered. But how do you give a present? It’s best to wrap it in red paper. Never use white paper. White is the color of death, while red is the color of happiness, and gold is the color of wealth, etc. Each color in China means something. Well you have Wikipedia for that; this is about gift giving … Use both hands and do not be surprised if a Chinese person will not open the present in front of you. In China people open gifts in private. It is rude to express emotions in public. Or at least it used to be. Young people have changed a lot. This custom in particular is disappearing very fast.

Dear reader, are you confused? If so, please read this last part. Many of these things are unknown even to young people in China. Just like in the West, the younger generations are forgetting about their country’s customs and traditions. Sometimes they know about the customs, but they just do not care anymore. Modern China is very different than it used to be. It depends where are you in China, how old the partner is that you are dealing with, how traditional they are, etc… Maybe never give a clock, but a red pen will probably be OK. And if you are a foreigner, Chinese people are generally very lenient. If you do something wrong, they will not feel insulted; they will probably just think the poor old stranger did not know any better. On the other hand, if you do something very “Chinese” (like dates + peanuts + longan + lotus seeds), people will remember it! They will remember that you care about their traditions and culture and it can help you in any situation. Anyway, if you are not sure about what to give, then give a “hongbao”, which is the most traditional gift in China – a small red envelope with money. Why, how much, and what is the origin? I will write about that in the next article, so subscribe to my newsletter.