Presenting gifts, the do's and don'ts of Chinese culture

door Regina Coeli

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) 
In English 
   giving a clock   attending a funeral
  umbrella    separation
   plum blossom    bad luck
   gladiolus flower    getting difficulties
   jasmine   no profit or  no prospect of earning money 
   pear   departure
   appel (for Shanghai and around area)   to die of illness

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.

Presenting a gift in China

Gifts are presented with two hands in China. The receiving person may decline the gift at first (or even up to three times). It is part of the custom for Chinese to do so as they consider themselves not worthy of the gift. However, do not withdraw the gift as your persistent trying will persuade the Chinese into accepting your gift. If presenting organizational gifts, it is done during a toast or at end of a meal, just prior to departure. In modern time China, sometimes a business meeting is planned on short notice and can be quite short. In this case, organization gifts are exchanged after the first speaker of meeting parties or just before the end of the meeting.

It's the thought that counts

Generally, Chinese do not open gifts in the presence of giver, but they can be flexible on request. For the Chinese, it is not the gift that count, it is the thought. Opening it in public places may put much more focus on the object than the thought. Unlike the stereotype that demands expensive gifts must be given, the majority of ordinary Chinese do not determine the value of a gift by how much it cost, but by the thought put into the gift.

My Chinese friend once gave me a pair of extra long wooden chopsticks for cooking and I love that inexpensive gift forever. It was her thought of making my cooking experience easier that touches my heart.


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