Have you been to China for business occasions or worked with a Chinese person where you need to bring along gifts? It’s no secret that every country has their own practices and culture. You have to understand these culture differences to please your stakeholders and most importantly not to offend anyone! In this episode of gifting etiquette, we will look into the guidelines of gift-giving in China and to Chinese people!

In Chinese culture, gift-giving is an important part of life, in particular for business occasions.

The Chinese language is arguably one of the most complex languages in the world history. In the Chinese language, many words have the similar meaning though written differently, or they are written the same way but have different meaning. You would have to carefully consider the gifts that have words written on it, or greetings that you say while gifting. You might upset people if these words convey across unintended messages.

A general rule of thumb is that anything or words that symbolises, happiness, longevity, fortune and prosperity would be well-received.


Gifts to Give and to Avoid

Here’s a list of gifts that you must give, should give, and should avoid giving to the Chinese.


Must give:

  • Gift wrapping in Red, Yellow and Gold colours – These colours signify positivity, prosperity, longevity, prestige and etc, in the Chinese culture. For example, during the Chinese new year celebrations, all of the decorations are typically in red, yellow or gold colours.
  • Gifts with the number 6 – In Chinese language, “6” sounds like “Smooth”. If you want to wish your recipient smooth progress ahead, it’s good to have the number 6 somewhere on the gifts.
  • Gifts with the number 8 – In Chinese language, “8” sounds like “Prosperity”. 8 is probably the most popular and well-liked number in the Chinese culture. Chinese people would love to decorate their belongings and associate themselves with the number 8. For instances, they would want their home unit number or car license number to have as many “8” as possible!
  • Gifts with the number 9 – In Chinese language, “9” sounds like “Long duration”, which implies longevity.


Can consider giving:

  • Wine and alcohol – Drinking is a big part of the Chinese culture. Gifting them with good grade of wine and liquor would be a good choice.
  • Cigarettes and cigarette lighters – Large majority of the Chinese population smokes. Smoking with them could possibly strengthen your social relationship with them.
  • Fine pen (Black or blue ink) – Remember to avoid red ink!
  • Jewellery, ornament and gold plated gifts
  • Handicrafts
  • Chinese zodiac figurine – The Chinese believes in the Chinese zodiac and often have figurines with the design of the respective year’s zodiac animal.
  • Fruit baskets, dried seafood, bird nests – These are popular choices of food among the Chinese.
  • Red packets/envelope – Only when appropriate and necessary to be gifting cash, usually in small amount. For example, when gifting small token of appreciation for your doorman, the cash should be given in red packets, similar to those that are given out during Chinese New Year celebrations. These red packets typically have words of blessings and lucky symbols imprinted on it.


Avoid giving:

  • Cash – Giving cash would seems like outright bribery!
  • Wok – In Cantonese, “Wok” signifies disasters.
  • Writing in Red ink – Red ink implies the severance of a relationship.
  • Sharp objects such as scissors and knives – Similar to writing in red ink, it signifies severance of a relationship.
  • Gift wrapping in White, Blue or Black colours – These colours are used in Chinese funerals and hence symbolises death.
  • Handkerchiefs – Commonly associated with funeral and mourning.
  • Umbrellas – In Chinese language, “umbrella” has the same pronunciation as “separation”, which has negative connotation.
  • Clocks – In Chinese language, “Clock” is pronounced the same way as “death”!
  • Gifts with the number 4 – In Chinese language, “4” is pronounced the same way as “death” too!
  • Books – In Chinese language, “Book” sounds like “lose”. Giving books to people is implying that you are hoping that they will fail and lose in whatever they do.
  • Shoes (including slippers, heels, etc) – In Cantonese, it sounds like “rough”, hence it seems like you are wishing your recipient a rough life ahead.


Gifting Etiquette for Chinese

Now that we know what are the gifts that we must give, should give and should avoid giving, let’s look at the etiquette that we should observe while gifting to Chinese people.

  • Always show respect by giving and receiving gifts with both hands.
  • It is not uncommon for the Chinese to ask you for the gifts that you prefer. In such case, it is wise to demonstrate an appreciation for the Chinese culture by requesting for items such as ink paintings, tea and chopsticks. In general, ask for items that have strong cultural meaning.
  • If the Chinese give you gifts, be sure to always reciprocate back. Not doing so is a form of bad etiquette.
  • Do not be too frugal, but do not be too generous as well. A cheap gift shows that you are not sincere while a gift that is too expensive would put the recipient in an awkward position to reciprocate your gift.
  • The Chinese might refuse to accept the gift at the beginning as it might reflect them as greedy. However you are expected to insist on giving them till they accept it. It is their practice to reject the gifts at your first offer, but eventually accept them.
  • Do not open the gifts in the presence of the giver as it will show that you are more concerned about the material value of the gift. You want to show that you appreciate the thought of the act, more than the material value of it.
  • Ensure that gifts that are given to people of the same rank are of similar value or grade. The differences in the value signifies that you value them differently, when supposedly they are of the same level of importance and value. This will lead to a strain in your business relationships with them.


Our Take

Do your due diligence and ensure that your gifts to Chinese people carries positive messages and do not have any negative connotations. Other than the selection of the gifts itself, the etiquette of gifting is not to be neglected as well. Gift away!


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