The Art of Giving Gifts in China

CCC_GiftsMany Western business people who come to China for the first time will likely observe the Chinese custom of giving gifts to friends, colleagues, and business partners. However, it is also likely that these same business people will 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? And how is giving a gift different from giving a bribe? In this article all of the core concepts relating to giving gifts in China are explored to provide Western business people will  the relevant information they will need to successfully give gifts in China.

Related Article: Learn How to Give Gifts on China’s WeChat App

The Culture of Gift Giving

China possesses an ancient culture steeped in Confucianism— 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 play a key role in this as they allow the Chinese people to not only demonstrate their respect to elders and superiors but also allow them to show their commitment and enthusiasm toward maintaining close relationships with family and friends.

 “Giving a gift is necessary to maintain relationships with clients and to maintain influence with government officials, otherwise it is very hard to sustain those relationships.”

-Michael Qin, Manager, Shanghai

Gifts also play an important role when 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 favors and other types of assistance or favors as well. While it’s true that a gift is just a gift, what is more important to the Chinese is the meaning behind the gift (e.g., your respect, commitment, devotion, etc.). Thus, in the Chinese business world, physical gifts are often intermixed with meals, karaoke, and compliments.

Acceptable Gifts

Gifts in China, bribery in ChinaThere are many different types of gifts that can be given to Chinese friends and business partners. First of all, a gift from your home country or region will almost always go over well; most Chinese do not have the opportunity to travel abroad and therefore gifts from other countries, especially those that cannot be easily purchased in China, are highly valued.  Regional specialties are also good choices both from within China and outside. Many local businessmen (not businesswomen) greatly enjoy smoking and drinking. Therefore making a gift of alcohol or tobacco products from your home country will also be welcomed warmly.

Wine, cigarettes, or cigars from China are also acceptable, though it would be wise to choose a well-known brand with a more expensive price tag. Other 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 touted for their health benefits, and Chinese traditional health supplements are also welcome.

However, there are also certain gifts that can be (though not always 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 also possess a phrasing that can be associated with the breaking up of a friendship or partnership and are best not given as a formal gift. Specifically for men, green hats are not a good choice as a gift – these have been historically given to husbands by unfaithful wives. When in doubt on gift ideas, you can also check with a Chinese friend or associate.

Courtesy and Reciprocity

The Chinese have a saying, “courtesy demands reciprocity” or Lǐ Shàng Wǎng Lái (礼尚往来),  and it plays an important role within the context of giving gifts. The relationship between two Chinese people is made stronger by acts such as friendly gestures, giving gifts, offering favors, and enjoying meals together. However, unlike some Western countries where the act of gift giving is more free spirited or casual, in China to maintain an equal and harmonious relationship a tally must be kept.

“You need to be careful when using “Li Shang Wang Lai” in the workplace to ensure that it does not become bribery. If someone gives me a gift, but I feel that the value is too high, then I will refuse it. In my personal life, I always try to give more than is given, only thus being able to maintain consistent and harmonious relationships.”

-Samuel Hu, Deputy General Manager, Shanghai

For example, when a Chinese person is treated to dinner by a friend, it is expected that the kindness will be returned at a future date. When a Chinese couple receives a gift for their child from a friend, not only will they feel compelled to buy a gift for their friend’s child, but they will also take care to give a gift of at least an equal value to the one received. If this balance is not kept among ordinary Chinese (e.g., one person constantly repays gifts with less expensive ones), then there is the potential for relations to sour. A person receiving lesser gifts from a friend may think the friend stingy, while a poorer person unable to match the expensive gifts of a friend may feel a loss of Face. Understanding this additional concept is invaluable in maintaining healthy long-term relationships with the Chinese, as well as allowing one to understand what gift values are appropriate at a certain time.

How Bribery is Different

At this point it is important to observe a key difference between this type of gift giving and the traditional bribe. The goal of a regular gift is to demonstrate your respect for an individual and your commitment to creating or maintaining a relationship. Giving the gift will not “seal the deal,” but not presenting a gift may make you appear impolite, uncultured, and lacking of proper character. In contrast, a bribe in China is often a specific sum of hard currency within a red envelope, known throughout China as a “Hongbao.” Hongbaos, while  traditional gifts of spending money during the Chinese Lunar New Year, are also synonymous with a bribe in China’s business and political arenas. Other common forms of bribery within China take the form of company stock, cuts of profits, and expensive gifts, such as cars and high-end electronics. Therefore, giving high-value gifts, even from the list of acceptable items above, can cause worry or embarrassment among the Chinese.

On one hand, an expensive gift can give the impression that a bribe is actually being offered. On the other hand, it may cause the intended recipient to worry that coworkers and superiors may view it as a bribe, which can be more damaging to the recipient in the long run. In contrast, with an actual bribe, an individual may demand (or expect) that “the gift” will lead to or ensure a specific desired outcome. However, the exact difference between a “gift” and a “bribe” can remain unclear within the somewhat murky Chinese business environment, and it has not been uncommon in recent years for companies and government offices to set limits on the value of gifts that can be given or received.

 Advice for Westerners

For the Westerner doing business in China, while it is not necessary to observe these practices as strictly as local Chinese may feel the need to, it is recommended to pay more attention to close Chinese friends, important business contacts, and anyone within the government bureaucracy who has the power to make your life or business difficult. 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, giving a gift is not always a bribe in China, and most of the time it is 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.

Thanks for reading!

Do you have any additional questions regarding gift giving in China? Do you have any interesting gift related stories to share? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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24 replies

  1. I have a student in my class who is from China. She brought me long noodles made by her grandmother on my birthday. What type of reciprocity would be appropriate?

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    • Hi Laura.

      If you are fellow students then the easiest thing to do would be to give her a nice gift on her birthday or before she heads back to China (if she is a exchange student, that is). It would be nice if it was something you made, or even a recipe passed down through your family.

      If you are a teacher, it becomes a little more complicated as appearing to show favoritism could potentially cause some problems. While you could give a nice gift to a student to reciprocate something nice they have done for you, other students should also be given some kind of small gift at the end of the year too. In the end this is something that teacher would have to feel out for themselves, in terms of the classroom atmosphere and relationships with students, before deciding which course is most appropriate.

      Hope this helps.

      Like

  2. Thanks. Very helpful article.

    Like

  3. my boyfriend has traveled in Asia before and advised me to take altoids made in America as gifts along with a crisp dollar bill and a new quarter. is this acceptable?? I will be teaching in China for a couple of weeks and want to make a good impression on my host and teachers I will work with.

    Like

    • Hi Amanda,

      It’s certainly a good idea to prepare gifts for coworkers before you head to China. However I would not recommend money. Instead, bring some local gifts/snacks that represent your home town or state. Also, try to make sure everyone receives the same gift to avoid potential hurt feelings.

      Like

  4. Im looking for a jinqi banner. Any idea where i can get one with english words translated? I live in california. Want to send as a gift to Shanghai.

    Like

    • Hi Tim. You can buy decorative banners in Chinatowns and online, though there is generally a much better selection on Chinese language sites. In terms of getting it translated, since you want it to be a gift, I would advise you to seek out the services of a professional translator, as machine translations can’t be trusted. Hope this helps!

      Like

  5. are kitchen appliances such as knifes, pots, pans be considered as taboo in china?

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    • Hi there. I can’t say I know for sure, but I have never heard of kitchenware being taboo. The only thing that comes close in my experience is when you places chopsticks into your rice bowl vertically. That way they look similar to joss (incense) sticks, which make Chinese people think of death.

      Speaking of death, while kitchenware in and of itself may not be taboo, some Chinese people may object to receiving sets of four, as the pronunciation of the word for “four” sounds similar to the word for “death”.

      Like

  6. Your advice was appreciated, but could you cover the other case?

    I had a young engineer visiting for two weeks from our China office present me with a gift (a wooden carved brush pot) here in the USA. What are the expectations of reciprocity? I do want to respond, but it is difficult if they don’t drink, souvenirs do not exist for the local area, and they did not tour much.

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  7. I saw a post saying that i should avoid giving jasmine tea as a gift, could you confirm this and explain why this is?

    Like

    • Thanks for commenting Charlotte. I never heard of this specific gift-giving taboo before, so I took a look at the Chinese language threads on Baidu (China’s Google). One possible explanation is that Jasmine tea can symbolize that you like someone (romantically). I’m not sure how much embarrassment gifting the wrong tea could cause, but an easy fix is to just give a type of Green Tea, such as TieGuanYin or Pu’er.

      Like

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