How to Properly Exchange Gifts With a Chinese Person
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When the British transport minister presented a watch to the mayor of Taipei, her act was described by BBC as a “cultural gaffe”. So why is a “watch” not a good gift in Chinese eyes? And what are the right and wrong choices for gifts to Chinese business associates and friends? The answer lies in the Chinese language.
Giving someone a clock or a watch as a present is traditionally a taboo in Chinese culture due to “giving a clock” and “attending a person’s funeral” having the same pronunciation, regardless of the different written characters. Therefore, avoid presenting a gift which has “the same pronunciation of any unlucky meaning” is important in building relationships with Chinese people. Other than clocks and watches, here are some other examples of gifts you should avoid:
(characters and pinyin)
|In English||Same pronunciation
(characters and pinyin)
|giving a clock||attending a funeral|
White: related to funerals
White or yellow chrysanthemums are widely used for funerals, thus, they do not make good gifts. Besides the “to be avoided” items described above, remember not to wrap gifts in white as white is related to funerals in the Chinese tradition.
Token of esteem or gratitude
Gifts are given as tokens of esteem or gratitude and are very important part of Chinese culture. Although your Chinese friends and business associates would warmly welcome your visit without gifts, it is generally expected to bring something small when formally visiting someone.
Great gifts in China
At a personal level, souvenirs from your country, books, wine, liquor or local specialties from your country or chocolates are considered good choices. In the business world, items with company’s logo, pens, wine, liquor or special products of your country are appropriate.
For companies who have a long-standing relationship, a framed painting of your country’s scenery is considered a good, memorable gift. Additionally, small gifts for the senior or key delegation members you are meeting serve as the extra relation building gesture.
1. Sharp Objects — Cut Off Relationship
Giving somebody a sharp object insinuates that you want to cut off your relationship with them. A common Chinese saying goes “one slash and its in two parts” to mean the end of a relationship between people.
2. The Number 4 — Sounds Like Death
In Chinese, the number four (四 sì /srr/) sounds similar to the word for death (死 sǐ). Therefore, anything with the number 4 is considered unlucky — do not give gifts in sets or multiples of four.
That is why there is no floor four in some buildings and hotels, for example. Often a number 8 is added in front of the 4 for hotel rooms on the fourth floor.
Click to see Lucky Numbers and Colors in Chinese Culture.
3. Shoes — Evil
Shoes are a bad idea for a present for Chinese New Year because the word for ‘shoes’ (鞋 xié /syeah/) sounds exactly like a word for bad luck or ‘evil’ (邪 xié). On top of that, shoes are something that you step on, and are thus not good gifts. Avoid shoes at all costs.
4. Handkerchiefs — A Symbol of Saying Goodbye Forever
People generally give handkerchiefs at the end of a funeral, and are a symbol of saying goodbye forever. Giving someone a gift like this insinuates you are saying goodbye forever, and severing all ties.
5. Clocks — Bad Luck
In Chinese, saying ‘giving a clock’ (送钟 sòng zhōng /song jong/) sounds exactly like the Chinese words for ‘attending a funeral ritual’ (送终 sòng zhōng) and thus it is bad luck to gift clocks or watches.
On top of that, clocks and watches also symbolize the running out of time. This is especially true for seniors. Giving a clock or watch as a gift is the biggest no-no in Chinese culture.
6. Pears — Parting
Giving fruit is a good thing, but pears are taboo. This is because the Chinese word for ‘pears’ (梨 lí /lee/) sounds the same as the word for leaving or ‘parting’ (离 lí).
7. Cut Flowers — Presents for Funerals
Cut flowers are generally presents for funerals, so do not give them on Chinese New Year! This is especially so for Yellow Chrysanthemums and any white flowers, which represent death. White is an unlucky (funeral) color in Chinese culture, so white flowers should be avoided.
8. Umbrellas — Break Up
Umbrellas are a bad idea to give as gifts, because the Chinese word for ‘umbrella’ (伞 sǎn /san/) sound like the word for ‘breaking up’ (散 sàn). Giving somebody an umbrella may insinuate that you feel your relationship with them has fallen apart.
9. Black or White Objects — Often Used in Funerals
Black and White are important colors in funerals, so avoid presents that are largely black or largely white, or wrapping paper or envelopes in these colors. Red, however, is believed to be a festive and fortunate color, so red is always a great option for envelopes, or gifts.
10. Mirrors — Attract Ghosts
Mirrors are a bad idea for gifts throughout much of Asia, as they are believed to attract malicious ghosts. On top of that, they are easily broken and breaking things is a bad omen.