Gift-giving etiquette and traditions in China

Chinese culture is full of mystery and superstitions and, of course, people believe in different signs. They are closely connected with daily life. One – lucky and unlucky numbers – we already told you some time ago. Today is already the middle of December, very soon we all will celebrate Christmas. And one of that holiday’s traditions is to give gifts. Choosing a present for Europeans is not a big deal, we don’t have any taboos, so you can find it easily, depending on the relationship with the person. But what if we want to give a nice Christmas gift to a Chinese colleague or to European friend but according to all Chinese traditions (or at least you can save this post for further celebrations)? What should we choose? In China, this is a very important question because you can get into trouble and “bring” bad wishes along with your gift. And, of course, we don’t want that, do we?


The tradition of giving the most fitting presents started some decades ago. For example, in the 1950s, there was a food deficit in China, so the best gift that time was different foodstuffs; in the 1960s, when food was served in the canteens, but politics were all the rage, the most popular gifts were the books Mao Zedong’s Collections or Quotations of Chairman Mao. Do I need to mention that those books influenced an entire generation? The 1970s were the time of the “cultural revolution”, and the best gift was called “three pieces of treasure” – a washbasin, a towel and a china cup (usually, all the items were with red stars and revolutionary slogans); in the 1980s, food became the best gifts again (mostly cakes or other desserts, but tea and sugar were also welcome); in the 1990s, after the economy had developed, people became more wealthy, and fashionable gifts became popular (such as watches and sunglasses) but good tea, wine and cigarettes played the main role. In the new century, the 2000s, giving healthy things became popular as a gift but people would on occasion also give luxuries such as cosmetics, jewelry, high-grade tea or wine.


Nowadays, there is a special gift-giving etiquette, which includes choosing, wrapping and presenting it. The most popular present is money in a red envelope – “hóng bāo (红包)” in Chinese. The Chinese always give them on weddings or during Spring Festival, but other occasions are also acceptable. The only thing you have to avoid is choosing an amount including the number four because in Chinese culture – four, or (四) sounds similar to 死 (, death).


If you are ready to spend a lot of money, some art work or jade will be a good present, especially if a person collects such things.


Another valuable gift is a Chinese seal with a painting, calligraphy or poetry. Especially when it is made of jade, carnelian or other semi-precious materials, a seal with the receiver’s name could also be a very sweet gift.


China is a country with a very rich history, and if the present is a part of the history, it is always a very good idea. Such typical traditional gifts include Chinese shadow puppets, water calligraphy practice copybooks, Chinese musical instruments, Chinese porcelains, Chinese combs, fans, oil-paper umbrellas, Pekin opera masks, kites, Chinese knots, snuff bottles, Chinese paper cuts, the cheongsam (“qipao”), or even Chinese embroidery, are all good choices. Your Chinese friends will be pleasantly surprised of your knowledge about Chinese “traditional” gifts and will be happy to decorate their homes with them. And your European friends will like to get something unusual and with a long history.


Chopsticks, one of the most famous Chinese things outside of China, are also a good gift. Usually, they are made of wood and symbolize heaven from the eating end and earth from the square side. People say that it is because maintaining an adequate food supply is the greatest concern between heaven and earth. Moreover, the first chopsticks were created over 5000 years ago, in China, of course.


Without any doubts, we have Chinese tea in this list. There are around 1500 kinds in China. And as we already know, tea has been a good gift for a very long time. Tea houses and shops will help you find the right tea for your friend.


As we have already told you before, all panda bears on the planet belong to China, so what else can symbolize this country better? A toy panda cannot be a bad gift. Children (and young ladies) love them and will be very happy to receive this cute black and white animal as a present.


The gift is chosen and the next step – to wrap it correctly in order not to mix up with Chinese signs. The problem is not in wrapping but in colors of wrapping paper/boxes. Some colors are appreciated and some have bad meaning, so be especially careful. The best colors are red (which means lucky), golden (which means fortune and wealth), pink and yellow (which mean happiness), so choose these colors – and you will not encounter any awkwardness. Avoid white, black and blue colors because they are used in funerals and symbolize death.


According to gift-giving etiquette, you should present your gift with both hands, this is the way of politeness and a sign of respect.


As I said before, it is very important to choose an appropriate gift for Chinese people, otherwise your face can be as red as that of British minister Lady Kramer in 2005. She presented a “taboo” watch as a gift to Taipei’s mayor. In Mandarin, watch or clock is pronounced “Zhong” which means “the end”. If you give this, you say: “your time is up” and this is offensive, especially for elders.


If you have a Chinese girlfriend/boyfriend never present him/her with an umbrella or a pear, because in Chinese umbrella is “San” and pear pronounced as “Li” and these both mean “separation”. So, if you don’t want to break up, choose another gift.


Avoid giving a green hat to a man because it means that his wife has an affair, which is very offensive for every man.


Medicine as a gift mean that you wish that the person will get sick. Only choose them if the receiver is your very close friend or family member and you know they needs these pills.


Shoes are also an unacceptable present for non-family members. Shoe, or “Xie” in Mandarin, means “evil”, so shoes as a gift will bring bad luck. Also in Chinese, they have an expression – “give someone tight shoes to wear” with the meaning “make things hard for somebody”, so this is obviously not a great gift choice for a friend.


Now you know everything about gift-giving, so, you can feel safe during the coming holidays. The Landing East team wishes you good luck in your gift search and would appreciate if you share this post with your friends. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Written by Inna Mironova

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