The Art of Giving Gifts in China

1 December 2016

When should a gift be given in China? What types of gifts are acceptable?

As we are approaching Christmas and Chinese New Year, you may want to give a gift to a Chinese friend. Westerners may have trouble fully understanding why the Chinese give gifts and the rules of etiquette behind the practice of gift giving. When should a gift be given in China? What types of gifts are acceptable?

The Culture of gift giving

Chinese culture has many aspects of Confucianism which are based largely on respect, relationships, and rituals; the purpose of which is maintaining harmony within one's family, network of friends, colleagues, and society at large. Gifts are a key part of this as they allow Chinese people to demonstrate their respect to elders and superiors and show their commitment and enthusiasm toward maintaining close relationships with family and friends.

Gifts also play an important role in building new relationship networks with other business people. At work, gifts can be given at formal meetings with government officials, as well as when meeting with clients and prospective business partners. Outside of work, gifts are given on a wide variety of different occasions including holidays, birthdays, and special events. A more complex understanding of the concept of gift giving does not just include gifts, but favours and other types of assistance or favours as well. The most significant part of a gift to the Chinese is the meaning behind it (e.g., your respect, commitment, devotion, etc.). Thus, in the Chinese business world, physical gifts are often part of a wider demonstration that can include meals, karaoke, and compliments.

Acceptable gifts

Close up image of hands holding a present
Gift giving in China

There are many different types of gifts that can be given to Chinese friends and business partners. A gift from your home country or region will almost always go over well as many Chinese people do not have the opportunity to travel abroad so gifts from other countries, (especially those that cannot be easily purchased in China) are highly valued.

Recommended gifts include fruits, food, and health supplements. Packs of nuts and seeds are common gifts in China, especially from outlying areas, and peaches are thought to increase longevity. Teas, especially rarer and older blends, are praised for their health benefits, and Chinese traditional health supplements are also welcome.

However, there are also certain gifts that can be (though this is changing in modern China) viewed as taboo and thus can potentially sour a budding friendship or business relationship. Clocks (though not watches) should be avoided, as the word for clock in Chinese can be associated with death. Pears should be avoided, as the word for pear in Chinese sounds like the Chinese word for leaving or parting. Umbrellas can also be associated with the breaking up of a friendship or partnership and are not the best choice for a formal gift. For men specifically, green hats are not a good choice as a gift as these have been historically given to husbands by unfaithful wives. When in doubt about gifts, its best to check with a Chinese friend or associate.

Advice for Westerners

For a Westerner doing business in China, while it is unnecessary to observe these practices as strictly as local Chinese people, its always good to make an effort to respect local culture when travelling.

Before you leave on a business trip to China, make sure to stock up on local mementos from your hometown or home country. And before attending an important meeting in China, you may want to pick up a little something to show your respect. Remember, a gift is most of the time a method for building and maintaining a strong and mutually beneficial relationship. Thus, when in doubt, give a gift and smile while you do it.

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