Many 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.
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
There 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!
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