Gift Giving and Receiving Basics in Chinese Culture

Gift Giving and Receiving Basics in Chinese Culture
Gift giving is a big part of any culture. Especially growing up Chinese, every chance we got there were opportunities for exchanging gifts. There were unspoken protocols in my family as well, which are common in many Chinese families, around gift giving.

When to give gifts
  • Visiting others. It’s quite customary to bring gifts for your host when you visit others. These gifts can be "luxury" foods, such as cakes, sweets or wines that are not critical to the meal but rather supplementary. Or they can be more personal to the host in the form of pictures, artwork, trinkets, or knickknacks. Potted plants, as opposed to cut flowers, are also a welcomed addition as they represent growth and life.

  • Children. It is very common to give children "hung bao", or red envelops with money inside. The amount varies depending on the generosity of the giver, the closeness of the receiver, and the age of the child. Since children represent the future, this is often a way to say we are giving/building to the future and thus a sign of good tiding for times to come.

  • Gifts to family elders. It is very common for the young to give something back to the grandparents of the family. This is equally a way of showing respect in the reverse way and paying tribute to ones ancestors and heritage.

  • Holidays. The Chinese culture is truly no different in this sense from most of the world. Holidays are a big time during the year that presents are exchanged. The biggest traditional holiday for most Chinese is New Years; however, with the ever growing influence from the West, holidays such as Christmas are celebrated by many families.

  • Major life events. This is especially true during happy life events, like marriages and births. Chinese weddings are often huge banquets where food is very abundant and the normal gift is something monetary in nature. Births are often celebrated at least one month after the actual birth of the child because of superstition. Gifts during a birth are like wishes for the child in the future, often things having to do with luck, completeness, beauty, etc.

    Receiving a gift
    As with most cultures, it is polite and often expected that you thank the giver of the gift. Thank you notes, a phone call afterwards, or any other gesture of thanks is greatly appreciated in the Chinese culture as well.

    What varies perhaps slightly is how the receiver reacts. Chinese tend to be humble about receiving a gift, repeatedly expressing how truly unnecessary the gift was immediately followed by sincere thanks. For those not accustomed to this type of exchange, it may feel awkward to have someone repeatedly inform you "you shouldn't have." It does make it difficult for some to interpret between a true, no you shouldn't have and one of politeness. But it all really has to do with the tone it is delivered and the context.

    If the gift is something other than money, some people open the gift immediately. If it is opened, it is customary to give it many compliments and spend some time in the conversation discussing the merits of the item. The item is put into a place of honor for all the guests take a moment to admire.

    Finally, do not be surprised if the receiver tries to reciprocate in some way. Chinese tend to be a very give-and-take culture in which the expectation is to return what is received at some point. How that is returned varies from person to person; but some gesture of exchange is normally made.

    For gift ideas, please view the next article on "Gift Etiquette in Chinese Culture."

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