Chinese Gift-Giving: What Not to Give

Generally speaking, picking a gift is an acquired skill. This is especially true in Chinese culture. As a country carrying a long heritage of courtesy (礼lǐ), gift-giving in China is certainly a gesture of art. Presents, 礼物(lǐwù) in Chinese, literally means “a courtesy item”. While courtesy is a cultural construction, if one does not know what is considered inappropriate in the Chinese culture, it is easy to make mistakes and give the other person “No Courtesy (无礼wúlǐ)”, which is namely, offence. Therefore, it is good to know and to avoid the pitfalls in gift-giving in China. In this blog, we will discuss which items you’d better NOT to give and what you should pay attention to when you give gifts to Chinese people.

No. 1: Clock (zhōng 钟). Clocks are the No.1 item to be avoided. Due to its similar pronunciation as another Chinese word (终 zhōng: the end [of life]), giving a clock to someone unfortunately sounds like giving someone “the end”. Thus, your kind gesture of giving a clock as a gift can be associated as “attending upon someone’s death”, which is the last thing a Chinese person wishes for.

No 2: Shoes (xié 鞋). Shoes come as a close 2nd in the items that you should avoid to give. Just like clocks (zhōng 钟) can be associated as zhōng (终 the end), the word for shoes shares the same sound as the word for “evil” ( xié 邪), and thus comes the negative association for shoes. Imagine giving a pair of “evil”(xié 邪)! Moreover, for couples it is also linked with superstition: if you give your partner shoes, they will take your beloved one away.

No.3 Knife (dāo 刀). Not only does a knife conveys a sense of danger becasue of its sharpness, for Chinese, it also sends out a message that “I want to cut off the relationship with you”. In Chinese we say “yī dāo liǎng duàn (一刀两断)”, which literally means “one knife, two halves”. Thus if you give someone a knife, it may unintentionally send out a message that I don’t want to be friend with you anymore.

No. 4: Umbrella (sǎn 伞). Umbrella has a similar pronunciation with the Chinese word for “apart”/ “separate” (sàn 散). Thus, giving an umbrella has a negative association that you’d like to be apart from someone.

No. 5: Green hat (lǜ mào zi 绿帽子). Green is a nice colour and hats are handsome accessories, but the combination of the two is not appreciated in China. That is because “wearing a green hat” (带绿帽子 dài lǜ mào zǐ) is a slang in Chinese which indicates “your partner cheated on you”. Green hat therefore, is deemed as the symbol of one’s misfortune due to an unfaithful partner. If you want to give someone a hat, make sure it is not green!

No. 6: 4 of something. Be aware of numbers related to “4”. Chinese people do not fancy number 4 much, because it has a similar pronunciation with death (sǐ 死). So following the same logic, 14 and 44 etc. are not preferred either. Therefore if you give someone flowers or other gifts, make sure the quantity doesn’t fall on these numbers.

Furthermore, for Chinese people, a gift is not just a gift, it is important as well how the gift is “given”. First of all, the gift needs to be nicely wrapped, preferably with red or golden wrapping paper, as red / golden colours stand for luck and happiness. Secondly, if you give presents to elderly people, teachers, or people who have a higher social status than you, always present it with both hands as a way of showing respect, while saying some good wishes based on the occasion. Last but not least, do not be surprised if the Chinese do not open the presents in front of you. That is because opening the presents and giving comments about it is considered rude and disrespectful in Chinese culture.

If we compare the gift-giving in western culture, we could easily see that gift-giving ends at “giving” for Chinese people, yet it is common for western people to open the presents and give compliments and gratitude to each other. However, it does not mean that presents are underappreciated in China; the person who gets the presents will first give their thanks to everyone. After the presents are opened in private, the person may also thank the present-givers individually, or save the thanks until the next time they meet.

One may think that gift-giving is a serious thing in China and there are too many rules to follow; but on the other hand, one should not be intimidated by all these manners. Presents are after all about the gesture. If you think about the other person and you really put thought in the present, it will be well accepted and much appreciated. Good luck with gift hunting!

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