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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30 replies

  1. I have been told that a couple in china should exchange gifts to declare their love for each other..is this the normal custom.

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  2. Thanks for the cool article about gift giving in China. It’s interesting to learn that a tally should be kept so that they know when kindness should be returned in the future. I’m curious to learn if this should be equivalent based on what the original gift was, like if a small gift should be returned with an equally small gift.

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    • Hi Taylor, glad to hear you enjoyed the article. Yes, in terms of a tally that Chinese people might keep for gifts given, it could relate to not only the number of gifts but also the overall value.

      For example, if a friend spends 100 RMB on a birthday gift for you, but you spend 3 times as much when his/her birthday comes around they might feel embarrassed. In contrast, if you spend less than them, they might consider you cheap or not focusing as much as you should on the friendship. While many in other countries may consider this type of behavior necessary or silly, China and many Asian countries put a big emphasis on harmony.

      Lastly, it’s true that younger generations sometimes have different and less strict interpretations of this rule, and that the specifics can vary from person to person. But until you get to know someone better in China, it’s always safer to match value for value, and amount (of gifts) for amount, within reason of course.

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  3. I’m visiting friends of my step mothers while in China. My step Mother is also GodMother to one of the friends child. The GrandMother offered me Jasmine tea that was valued at $1000.
    As a Canadian I accepted ( because I grew up with the idea of a gift being given without expectations of return) and once my step mother found out she told me to refuse the gift. I’m confused…..
    To refuse in my culture is rude but to accept in Chinese sounds like a heavy burden.
    I look forward to your reply.

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    • Hi Chantel,

      It’s true that it’s common in China for people to give gifts with some expectation of return or a future relationship. though this is not always the case. I would guess that it was the high dollar value of the gift that prompted your stepmother to ask you to refuse the gift.

      If I was visiting a relative’s close friends in China for the first time, USD 50-100 would be the max I would spend on a gift per person. That would allow a generally positive (if not deep) relationship, without huge obligations in the future.

      Like overseas, family matters can often be complicated in China, and it’s not uncommon for a Chinese person (Here I’m assuming your stepmother in Chinese, but I also realize it may not be the case) to have conflicting feelings about one member of a family group while wanting to maintain good relations with the rest. So, it’s certainly possible she is trying to prevent you from getting drawn into a complex situation.

      In the end, however, every situation is unique. If you are truly interested in understanding what happened, I would suggest you talk more with your stepmother. Tell her you are interested in learning more about Chinese culture, and why she asked you to refuse the gift.

      Thanks for reading!

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  4. Hello Shaun
    I will be part of a business delegation to Shanghai and Chongqing.
    We will be looking for potential investors or master franchisors for a music program
    and musical instrument range.
    I do not know who I will be introduced to in advance.
    What would be your advice re gift giving under these circumstances.

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    • Hi Steve,

      If you are going to be introduced to government officials it might be advisable to skip the gifts as there have been strict crackdowns in recent years aimed at eliminating corruption. I’m sure it still goes against the grain for many, but they will likely be much more concerned with avoiding any hint of impropriety.

      For businessmen (and women) you can’t go wrong with a nice bottle of wine. You can also inquire with whoever helps set up the meetings once you are in Chna, as they will likely know what will be appropriate for individuals if they are the ones introducing you.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. We are westerners and my husband buys for his business from a Chines gentleman. The Chinese man, his wife and son were visiting at our house. It happened to be during Chinese New Year. He presented us with 4 red envelopes…one for our 3 grandchildren and one for me. After he left I opened my envelope and it contained $510, as did my grandchildrens. We are wondering how to reciprocate and what the meaning of 510 would be

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    • Hi Wendy,

      Thanks for commenting. I’m happy to provide my thoughts on your experience with Red Envelopes.

      1) First of all, on the meaning of $510 dollars, I wasn’t 100% sure initially and neither were some Chinese friends I discussed it with. It does sound similar to 我要你 (wo yao ni; I want you), so it is possible this gentleman is wanting to maintain good relationships. That, coupled with the rather generous amount of the envelopes (in my individual experience, and especially if they were presented to your grandchildren as well) makes me think the Chinese gentleman is wanting to maintain good relationships as a supplier to your husband.

      2) In terms of the proper way to reciprocate the simple answer is to find a gift (possibly wine, possibly something from where you are from) and present it to him as a gesture of friendship when your husband visits China.

      A more complicated answer would take into account the extent of your business with this man, how important he was overall among all your suppliers, your interest in maintaining long-term relationship with him, any potential legal issues to worry about with regarding to gifting over a certain amount (in both China and your home country), and other issues dependent on your individual situation.

      As I can’t advise you on the specifics here, I’d simply suggest both you and your husband think more on the above points before reciprocating. Also, if you have any other Chinese friends or colleagues who are more familiar with your business situation/relationship, they’d likely be better placed to advise on appropriate gifts to give in return.

      Like

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