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Gift Giving in China Posted by on Dec 16, 2019 in Culture

Relations (关系 guān xì) play an important role in today’s Chinese society. Social connections are a fundamental key to success in the Chinese community. A common way to strengthen one’s relationships is by giving gifts (送礼 sòng lǐ) to show affection, respect, or closeness.

Image via Pixabay

A unique Chinese traditional gift everyone loves to receive is the Chinese red envelopes called 红包 (hóng bāo). 红包 are small rectangular red envelopes containing money (notes only, no coins). It’s a common gift given during holidays, weddings, graduations, for a baby’s birth, and other special occasions. You can buy them at stationary shops at any time of the year, but make sure the characters on the envelope fit the occasion.

Another traditional Chinese gift is local tea. My Chinese friend Xiaodong, for example, returned home last Spring Festival with money for his parents, and a gift to his grandpa: a large gift box (礼品盒 lǐ pǐn hé) from one of the city’s famous tea shops. Tea box (茶包裝盒 chá bāo zhuāng hé) is one of my favorite Chinese gifts to give. It’s practical, authentic, and elegant.

When I returned home for one of my vacations, many Chinese friends who came to bid farewell gave me fruits (水果 shuǐ guǒ). Fresh fruit is a common Chinese way to show you care when visiting friends, relatives or elders. I received my fruit in plastic bags, but today there are fruit gift boxes (水果礼盒 shuǐ guǒ lǐ hé), containing apples, pears, kiwis, oranges, and other goodies, for sale in supermarkets and even on the popular Taobao website.

Mutual giving and receiving are basic factors to maintain one’s 关系 (relations). As the Chinese saying goes 礼尚往来 (lǐ shàng wǎng lái) – courtesy demands reciprocity. If you are treated by a Chinese friend with a gift, meal, or some help, reciprocity will be expected in the future.

But be aware – the etiquette of gift-giving in China may be a little different from western countries. There are some gifts you shouldn’t send your Chinese friends, classmates, or relatives. Avoid giving clocks, for example, because the phrase 送钟 (sòng zhōng, to give clock as a gift) sounds like the phrase 送终 (sòng zhōng) which means to make funeral arrangements. Shoes are also not appropriate as a gift, because the word (xié) for shoes sounds like the word (xié) for evil, or misfortune. Candles (蜡烛 là zhú) are not a proper gift either, since they were used for mourning the dead in ancient China.

Another thing to pay attention to is the color of the gift and its wrap. Red, yellow, and gold are festive colors, while white and black are considered unlucky colors because they are used in funerals. When I asked my calligraphy teacher to write a beautiful greeting for a friend’s wedding, she refused to do so without a red paper. Numbers are important, too. Four should be avoided, because its pronunciation (四 sì) is similar to the pronunciation of the Chinese word for death (死 sǐ). Eight, on the other hand, is the favored number in Chinese culture. Eight is associated with wholeness and completeness in Daoism. In modern China, the number eight is allotted a new association with wealth, because it sounds (八 bā) similar  to the verb (), that means to prosper, to become wealthy, to get rich.

Hopefully, this post will be handy as Christmas approaches. Merry Christmas, everyone! 圣诞节快乐 (shèng dàn jié kuài lè)!

Text vocabulary 

关系 guān xì = relations

礼物 lǐ wù = gift, present

送礼 sòng lǐ = to send gift, to give somebody a present

红包 hóng bāo = red envelope

盒 hé = box

礼品盒 lǐ pǐn hé = gift box

茶包裝盒 chá bāo zhuāng hé = tea box

水果 shuǐ guǒ = fruit

水果礼盒 shuǐ guǒ lǐ hé = fruit gift box

鞋 xié = shoes

蜡烛 là zhú = candle



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