Gift Giving in China

Posted on 19. Dec, 2014 by in Culture, festivals

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been asked on numerous occasions by my students about the culture of giving gifts when it comes to Christmas:

“Who do you give gifts to?”

“Which gifts are the most common in your family?”

“How much should you spend on a gift?”

This got me thinking about the differences in gift giving between Western and Chinese culture. For those of you unfamiliar with gift giving in China, here are some common questions on the topic followed by short explanations:

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Does China have a gift giving culture?

Thanks to its long history of being a predominantly Confucian society, gift giving is a big part of Chinese culture. The principles of Confucianism are largely about keeping the peace and harmony not only in a family, but in society at large. This means showing respect and developing relationships with people throughout your life. As such, it should come as no surprise that gift giving is important. Gifts are given to family members, friends, colleagues, teachers – you name it.

When do Chinese people give gifts?

Gifts are commonly given on holidays (especially for Spring Festival) and birthdays. They’re also given for first-time or important meetings, at weddings, and at other special events. When invited into someone’s home, it’s also common to bring along a gift.

What are some common gifts in China?

Image by James Creegan from

Image by James Creegan from

For the Spring Festival and weddings, the most common gift is a “hong bao” (红包 – hóng bāo) – a red envelope stuffed with cash. Here are some things you should know about the most traditional Chinese gift:

  • Only children receive hong bao for the Chinese New Year – once you’re out of college, no more red envelopes for you.
  • The amount of money depends on the child’s age and the relationship the giver has with them.
  • When it comes to weddings, the amount given also depends on the relationship. It should at the very least be enough to cover the costs incurred for you to be in the wedding.
  • Only new notes should be placed in the envelope, and you should avoid the number 4 (四 – sì) at all costs, as it sounds like the word for “death” (死 – sǐ).

Other common gifts include cigarettes and alcohol – especially in the business world. Tea, fruit, nuts, and other local specialties from different regions are also quite commonplace. More important than the actual gift itself is the meaning behind the gift.

What is the gift giving etiquette?

Courtesy demands reciprocity” (礼尚往来 – lǐ shàng wǎng lái) is a famous Chinese saying that tells a lot about the gift giving culture of China. Whereas gift giving in the West is often simply for fun (think secret Santa or bachelor parties and the gifts one might bring to those), it’s critical that one keep a tally of gifts both given and received in China. If a friend treats you to a nice meal, it’s important that you remember that and return the favor sometime in the future. Similarly, if you give someone a gift, you can expect to receive one from them somewhere down the road. You can’t give something that is much cheaper or much more expensive than the gift they gave you, either – try to keep it at about the same level.

How should gifts be wrapped or opened?

As mentioned before, the most common gift is a red envelope. Even if you’re not giving cash, try to use the colors red or gold in the wrapping – red is lucky and gold symbolizes wealth. Avoid the colors white and black, which are associated with funerals and death. You don’t really need to include a card with gifts in China, but at weddings you can write out a nice Chinese idiom such as “happy union for a hundred years” (百年好合 – bǎi nián hǎo hé). When it comes to presenting a gift, it’s best to give it with both hands. The receiver should also grab the gift with both hands. It’s not culturally acceptable to immediately open the gift – in fact, some people might even refuse a gift a few times before finally accepting it. Unless asked to do so, it’s best to wait to open a gift.

Are there any gift giving faux pas?

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There are some things that foreigners should keep in mind when giving gifts in China:

  • Avoid the number four and the colors white and black in the wrapping, as mentioned above.
  • Don’t give someone a clock. The phrase “give a clock” (送钟 – sòng zhōng) sounds like a funeral ritual (送终 – sòng zhōng).
  • Don’t give a loved one a pear. “Share a pear” (分梨 – fēn lí) sounds like the word for “separate” (分离 – fēn lí).
  • Don’t give dudes a green hat. “Wearing a green hat” (戴绿帽子 – dài lǜ mào zi) means that your girlfriend or wife is unfaithful.

As a foreigner, the best thing you can offer as a gift is something from your hometown or country. Whether it’s a pack of Marlboro cigarettes or an “I <3 NY” t-shirt, you can’t go wrong with something interesting from a different country.

For some more reading, check out this great NY Times article entitled “The Fine Art of Giving Gifts in China” and this list of ten tips about gift giving in the Middle Kingdom.

Guangzhou Video Tour

Posted on 16. Dec, 2014 by in architecture, architecture and landscaping, Art, Beer, Culture, Education, food, history, Leisure, Philosophy, sightseeing, travel

We’re continuing our exploration of China’s third largest city, Guangzhou, with a short video tour. Munch on dim sum, stroll around a European island in the city, get cultured in an ancient Chinese academy, check out the modern side of Guangzhou, and wind down with Chinese food and craft beer.

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广州 – guǎng zhōu


广东省 – guǎng dōng shěng

Guangdong province

点心 – diǎn xīn

dim sum

沙面岛 – shā miàn dǎo

Shamian Island

陈家祠 – chén jiā cí

Chen Clan Academy

珠江新城 – zhū jiāng xīn chéng

Zhujiang New Town

大盘鸡 – dà pán jī

big plate of chicken

A Day in Guangzhou

Posted on 12. Dec, 2014 by in architecture, architecture and landscaping, Art, Beer, Culture, Drinking, Education, environment, food, history, housing, Leisure, religion, sightseeing, travel

On our recent trip from Hong Kong to Kunming overland, we had to include an overnight stay in Guangzhou (广州 – guǎng zhōu) for transportation reasons. Having previously only seen Guangzhou from the window of a train and having heard from a friend who spent some time living there that it’s “the place dreams go to die,” I wasn’t exactly thrilled about visiting the capital city of Guangdong province. If there’s anything I’ve learned throughout my travels, though, it’s that you can never dismiss a place without actually visiting. As such, we tried to make the best of our one day there and give this Chinese mega-city a chance. Here’s a little rundown of how to spend a day in Guangzhou:

Enjoy a Dim Sum Brunch

Dim sum in Guangzhou.

Dim sum in Guangzhou.

There’s no better way to  kick off a day of exploring the place formerly known as Canton than with some real Cantonese food. A brunch of dim sum (点心 – diǎn xīn) is a dining experience not to be missed. Take your pick from countless tasty little morsels, from pork buns to little scrumptious shrimp dumplings. Wash it all down with a few pots of tea and you’re ready to rock.

Visit a European Island

Architecture of Shamian Island.

Architecture of Shamian Island.

The “Sandy Surface Island” (沙面岛 – shā miàn dǎo) is a little slice of Europe in a Chinese metropolis. Once a part of the French and British concession, this island has beautifully restored buildings and is a nice escape from the chaos of the city. Check out the architecture, enjoy a stroll through gardens, and grab a cup of coffee in one of the cafes. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t cooperating with us on our visit, but we still enjoyed our short visit to Shamian Island. I especially liked the interesting statues, such as the one with a Chinese and European man jamming together.

Gardens and statues around Shamian.

Gardens and statues around Shamian.

Visit an Ancestral Temple

The Chen Clan Academy of Guangzhou.

The Chen Clan Academy of Guangzhou.

After getting a bit lost trying to navigate the streets in the rain, we ended up at the Chen Clan Academy (陈家祠 – chén jiā cí). Built in 1894 by a wise man named Chen to serve as an ancestral temple and study hall for his family, it’s now a museum full of artifacts and artwork. This is a great place to visit for a dose of Chinese culture and history in Guangzhou.

Some of the rooms in the complex.

Some of the rooms in the complex.

It’s a large and impressive complex, and there are things to see in each and every room. It has been well preserved, and at just 10 RMB for the ticket it’s a good, cheap option for sightseeing in the city. My personal highlight was all of the intricate carvings and works of art. Some of these things must have taken weeks to finish.

Some of the impressive displays.

Some of the impressive displays.

Wind Down the Day with Craft Beer

Good beer!

Good beer!

Beer lovers have it rough in China, as Chinese beer tends to be incredibly watered down and tasteless. Things are changing, though, thanks to places like the Strand Beer Cafe in Guangzhou. Here, you can try some of their own locally brewed craft beer on tap. You can also order a variety of bottled beers from around the world. We were happy to wind down our day of running around the city munching on peanuts, throwing back a few tasty beers, and chatting.

Before calling it a day, we took a stroll in the new part of the city along the Zhujiang River to see some of the modern architecture. On the other side we could see the Canton Tower (广州塔 – guǎng zhōu tǎ), the world’s tallest TV tower. There’s probably a great view from up there on a clear day, but we weren’t about to drop 150 RMB to head to the observation deck on a cloudy day.

Stay in a Local Apartment Hostel

A nice hostel in Guangzhou.

A nice hostel in Guangzhou.

We loved staying at the Plum Flowers Hostel, which is set up in a local apartment with a nice garden out front. The owner and his mom run the place, giving it a real homey feeling. It was great sitting out in the living room or hanging out on the porch and enjoying the view. It’s too bad we had crappy weather for our short stay, but we still had a good time and would definitely go back to Guangzhou again. There’s lots else to do there – parks, museums, temples, and of course lots of great Cantonese food.