Gift Etiquette in Chinese Culture
Things to consider.
- Candies, cakes, sweets. Anything sweet is often viewed as a wish that someone will have a sweet future. This is particularly true during the Chinese New Years time when a lot of sweets are presented and passed around.
- Things that make complete circles. Circles are powerful symbols in the Chinese culture that shows completeness. Giving something that is round, be it a ball form like an Asian pear or orange, or a ring, is a powerful way to symbolize giving someone a fulfilling life, a completeness.
- Fruits like oranges, apples, or round (Asian) pears. This is a combination of the above two concepts – sweetness and completeness. Again, a powerful symbol of the thing you wish to give someone.
- Things with the number 3 or 8. The number three is particularly significant in weddings or births as the sound of the word for three, "san", is homonymous with the word for beginning or birth. The number 8 is a lucky number and gesture of good will.
- Numbers that end in zero. Zero in the Chinese culture is the idea of completeness, rather than emptiness as in the Western world. Thus, when giving monetary gifts, it’s often a sign of good luck to give things that are multiples of ten.
- Red wrapping, especially around New Years. The color red is for luck and can be seen everywhere during Chinese New Years.
- Items of personal significance. Items where the giver can give some history or some story behind often hold more weight to the receiver than just a random item. It means there was thought behind giving the item and that makes it all the more special.
- Things that are gold. The colors gold and red are significant in the Chinese culture. Gold is the color of luck and things lavish.
Things to avoid.
- Anything to do with time. The first syllable for time, "si jin" is homonymous with the word for death. Thus you are wishing someone the passage of time to their death.
- Anything with the number 4. Again, similar to the time concept, the word for four "si" sounds like "death" and thus a bad omen.
- Non-requested necessary food to a dinner party. Whereas it is fine to bring foods which can be considered a luxury, if one brings a main dish without first asking, it’s considered somewhat rude. It is conveying the message that you do not believe the host has enough skill/money/whatever to feed the group properly.
- Red pens. Though the color red is a symbol of luck, red pens in business especially means a negative or end to something.
- Cut flowers. This varies a bit from family to family. But in general, if you have the opportunity to bring something that is potted instead of something that is cut and going to die, it is better to err on the side of something that will grow. Growth is an important part of the Chinese agricultural background.
- Any solid white, especially clothing or gift wrappings. White is the color of funerals in Chinese culture and the family of the deceased will often wear all white. So to present a person with an all-white article of clothing is to present them their funeral garb. Of course, times have changed and this isn’t as much of a stigma as it once was.
- Sharp items such as knives or blades. The message here is that you wish for them to cut or kill themselves.
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