This month’s Illuminant’s Chinese Takeout focuses on China’s gift culture: what gifts are good, auspicious and lucky, and which gifts you should avoid giving!
As our infographic says in its introduction, receiving a gift from a Chinese business or government contact and not having an appropriate gift to give in return causes embarrassment and a sense of debt (which is unhelpful in a Chinese negotiation). Conversely, the giving of a gift to a Chinese party (and catching him or her without a response) can put you into a stronger position, at least to be able to secure a follow-up meeting!
If you find this month’s infographic helpful, please consider checking our other Illuminant’s Chinese Takeouts: A Realistic Overview of China, Understanding Chinese Holidays for Better Business Outcomes, and Colors to Use and Colors to Avoid in China.
Scroll to the bottom to download a high-resolution version in PDF.
Special credit for this month’s infographic goes to our awesome researcher Nicky Ruan for the topic and research, and our funky new designer Gina Kim for her terrific illustrations.
PLEASE CONSIDER THE OTHER INFOGRAPHICS OF ILLUMINANT’S CHINESE TAKEOUT “ENTER THE DRAGON” SERIES
TRANSCRIPT OF THIS INFOGRAPHIC
ILLUMINANT’S CHINESE TAKEOUT
China in a box
ENTER THE DRAGON: GIFTS IN CHINA
A CHINA-ENTRY GUIDE·PART 4 OF 12·SEPTEMBER 2012
The Importance of Gifts
Chinese culture is a gift culture. Every important meeting is made auspicious by the exchange of gifts. To be empty-handed when receiving a gift from your Chinese host is not only somewhat rude, but will put you into a position of debt in the mind of the Chinese side—this is obviously not an optimal situation in negotiation between you and them!
Learn the important do’s and don’ts of gift-giving in today’s contemporary Chinese business and government context, and improve your standing and trustworthiness with the Chinese side. Be thought of as a “Zhong Guo Tong” (a foreigner “who understands China”) and prosper in the middle kingdom!
All types of clocks should be avoided as gifts. The word 送钟 (song zhong, send clock) sounds like 送终 (song zhong, the funeral ritual). Giving a clock is the big daddy of Chinese taboos—if you happen to receive a clock from any Chinese source, get your butt to the airport, pronto!
Gifting fruit is a wonderful gesture, especially at festival times, but giving pears means you hope their family will become separated, as the word for pear 梨 (li) sounds like 离 (li, separate/leave/part from). Remember that China has pears that look like apples, so take great care when choosing fruit.
The Chinese word for umbrella, 伞 (san) sounds like the word 散 (san, loose/fall apart). Offering a promotional umbrella to a colleague or partner will make them feel that your relationship has ended.
Handkerchiefs are usually given out at the end of a funeral, as a symbol of saying goodbye forever (to the deceased), so please avoid giving handkerchiefs as business gifts.
Offering implements used to cut things means you intend to sever the relationship. The Chinese say “one slash and it’s in two parts” to mean “make a clean cut in the relationship”. Imagine what it’s like to your business partner or government regulator if you offer the slash!
These flowers are used only at funerals or when visiting graves. Never give them (or images of them) as gifts.
Bad: GREEN HATS
Wearing a green hat (带绿帽子 dai lv mao zi) implies that the wearer’s wife is unfaithful. Promotional green hats are a poor choice for a conference gift (or corporate uniform).
There are several reasons to avoid mirrors as gifts. Firstly, many Asian cultures have superstitions that mirrors attract malevolent ghosts. Secondly, mirrors are easily broken, and “breaking” anything is a bad omen in China.
Like mirrors, shoes should be avoided as gifts for several reasons. Firstly, the Chinese word for shoes (鞋 xie) sounds like 邪 (xie, evil/heretical0, which could prompt negative feelings. Secondly, shoes are something trampled underfoot. Thirdly, if the shoes are small, it would remind people of the traditional Chinese phrase 穿小鞋 (chuan xiao xie, wearing small shoes), meaning “to create difficulties for others”. Finally, shoes can indicate that the giver wants the receiver to “hit the road” by literally vacating or leaving the business he or she is in. Avoid.
Bad: ANYTHING IN WHITE OR BLACK
These colors are often used during funerals. Symbolic gifts, wrapping paper and envelopes in these colors should be avoided. However, if the product itself is black or white (such as an iPod), the utility of the gift can override the taboo (just don’t wrap a white gadget in white paper, and avoid giving such gifts to people over 50).
In recent years, Chinese business and government people have developed a love for wine. Foreign “grape wines” (as it’s called in Chinese) generally are an excellent gift, especially if from your home country. A gift of wine will be seen as a toast to the recipient’s health. Just remember to include a corkscrew—it’s a nice and practical gesture.
One of most “practical gift options”. China has a large population of smokers are not the social pariahs as they often are in the west. Because quality cigarettes are very expensive in China, the gift (to a confirmed and enthusiastic smoker) greatly boosts the giver’s “face” and prospects.
Good: HEALTH SUPPLEMENTAL PRODUCTS
An appreciated gift to older people in China (especially if from your home country). You know you are old when people suddenly are giving you these products!
Peaches are a traditional sign of longevity. The reason is quite complicated. Long story short, peaches are frequently seen on the banquets of gods and demi-gods in Chinese mythology. Consider presenting these, or peach-shaped things, to senior citizens, especially on the occasion of their birthdays. The peach tradition is fading these days, so be a “Zhong Guo Tong” by making the gesture and keeping an old tradition alive!
Good: REGIONAL SPECIALTIES
In China, regional specialties are considered a very proper gift. Ever wondered why airport duty free stores are stacked with [Insert your city here] Chocolates? This is the root of those Chinese-focused souvenir gifts. Say if you are from the USA, a miniature of the Empire State Building might impress people more than a bottle of fine French wine.
Good: RED ENVELOPES
With, um, cash inside. Red itself is the luckiest Chinese color, and wrapping cash with a red envelope means good intentions and wishes. People usually give these to family kids during China’s Spring Festival. Certain commercial events also conventionally call for lucky money, but remember that bribery is a serious infringement of the law, but there are (complicated) established protocols and exemptions, so seek the advice of a local expert before deciding on red envelopes.
Another practical gift option, like wine and cigarettes. Tea is to China what coffee is to Americans. Good quality tea (avoid jasmine tea and consider pu’er tea) is a gift for all people and purposes.
Good: GIFTS IN SETS OF SIX OR EIGHT
If you’re angling for a lot of “face”, consider giving your gift in sets: 6 and 8 are great numbers for such occasions. 6 represents good luck in pop culture, while 8 means prosperity. 6 bottles of good wine will bring about a great result; 6 iPads will give you a giant measure of “face”.
Good: CHINESE DATES, PEANUTS, LONGANS AND LOTUS SEEDS
When offered together, these are very traditional and lucky gifts to newlyweds. Why? Combining the words of the food names 枣生桂子 (zao sheng gui zi) sounds like 早生贵子 (zao sheng gui zi), meaning “will get a baby soon”.
*Please always comply with your home country’s laws concerning the use of gifts in business and government contexts, and observe relevant laws of the People’s Republic of China.
This Chinese Takeout by: