Gift-giving is an important aspect of Chinese culture.  To tie in with our recent articles on Chinese New Year dates, gift options like tiger plush and chopsticks, now we would like to elaborate on etiquette and symbolism.

Due to the tonal nature of the language words which sound alike can have very different meanings and a lot of Chinese humour also involves these “Puns” as we would call them in English.   Also, gift giving and lucky numbers are frequently associated with simlar sounding words.

A simple rule to remember is that anything that symbolizes prosperity, longevity or good fortune is highly valued for symbolic aspect.   Below are a list of things to avoid & seek when giving gift to a Chinese person.

Avoid giving

  • Books to gamblers – sounds like “loss”
  • Clocks – sounds like “death” in Chinese
  • Gifts in single or strange numbers – implies loneliness or separation eg. 4 (death) 73 (funeral), 84 (to have accidents)
  • Handkerchiefs – associated with funeral/ mourning
  • Sharp objects (knives, letter openers, and scissors) – imply the severance of a relationship.
  • Shoes (includes sandals, flip flops, high heels) – sound like “rough” or “uneven” in Cantonese. Giving it means wishing recipient a rough road ahead
  • Umbrellas – resemble separation
  • Wrapping gifts in white, blue or black – associated with funerals
  • Writing in red ink – imply the severance of a relationship.
  • Wok / frying pan– Means small disaster in Cantonese. Giving it means asking recipient to take blame for something which went wrong

Definately do give

  • gifts in pairs or even numbers -6 (smooth), 8 (prosperity), 9 (longevity), series of 8 or 9, 138/ 168 (continuous fortune)
  • with wrapping in red, yellow or gold – lucky

Appreciated Gifts

  • “Lai See” or Lucky pockets (red envelope with words of blessing printed on it along with small amount of token cash.   US$1-5 is acceptable if giving to your doorman during Chinese New Year for example)
  • Cigarettes/ cigarette lighter
  • Dried seafood/ bird’s nests
  • Fine pen (not with red ink)
  • Fruit baskets
  • Gold plated Chinese zodiac figurine
  • Handicrafts
  • Jewellery or ornament
  • Kitchen gadgets
  • Stamps
  • Wine/ liquor

Gift giving etiquette

  • Receive and give gifts with both hands to show respect
  • Ensure that gifts to people of same rank are of same value, or it might lead to a strain in business relationships
  • Do not give gifts which are very expensive as it would put receiver in an uncomfortable position to reciprocate
  • Do not open gifts in the presence of the giver to show that the thought is more important than the material value of the gift.
  • The Chinese will refuse to accept the gift at first to not appear greedy. You are expected to persist and they will accept it eventually.
  • When they ask you what you would like as a gift, you could show an appreciation for Chinese culture by requesting for items such as paintings, tea, chopsticks (or something gold if you want to try your luck).