Purchasing a gift is not always easy especially it is for someone from a different culture. This article provides some interesting information if the gift is for a Chinese.
As China is a big place with many provinces, the culture can vary depending on which province the person comes from; but there are some general themes that can be followed to avoid some embarrassments.
What you need to know?
To the Chinese, anything that brings prosperity, longevity or good fortune are fine and anything related or ‘sounds like’ death must be avoided. This rule applies to both numbers and colors that are being used in almost any occasions.
Note: The pronunciation is referring to Cantonese.
Bad numbers – number 4 is the most unwelcome number simply because it has a similar pronunciation as ‘death’.
Good numbers – number 8 sounds like prosperity and number 9 for longevity. Series of 8’s or 9’s such as ‘888’, ’99’ are even better. Numbers ‘168’ and ‘138’ are also very popular for they sound like ‘continuous fortune’.
Bad colors – black and white are usually for funeral or mourning. Therefore, you should only send white flowers to a funeral and the gift wrapping paper should not be plain white or black.
Good colors – red and gold are for celebrations such as birthday and wedding.
Items to avoid – sharp objects such as knives or scissors as they would ‘cut-off’ a relationship. Umbrellas resemble separation. Clock sounds like “attend a funeral”. Handkerchiefs are for mourning. Books are not for Cantonese people who love gambling because it sounds like “loss”, otherwise is fine.
Exceptions: although wearing black or white to a wedding is not a tradition, it is acceptable if the wedding ceremony is held in a church which follows the western style.
Do not be offended if your hosts do not open the gift in front of you as it is not polite in the Chinese culture unless you insist. Also, they do not normally accept your gift immediately in case you feel they are greedy.
What are the popular items?
Cash can be used in almost all occasions. For happy occasions, it should be put inside a ‘red envelope’ that has some words of blessing pre-printed on it. Red envelopes can easily be found at most Chinese grocery stores; always check with the staff to find one for the occasion you want if you do not understand the Chinese characters on the envelope otherwise you might give away one for the wrong occasion.
The amount inside the envelope should follows the numbering rules as mentioned before i.e. use even numbers except number 4. Also, if you are a couple then you should give two envelopes instead of one to cover for both.
If it is used in a funeral, which is normally used for donation to the charity or assist the grieving family financially, you can put small amount of cash in ‘odd’ number in a normal ‘white envelope’.
There is no doubt that Chinese love foods, this is always a good bet especially for older people. When visiting someone in person, it is always a good manner to bring a food basket containing fruits, biscuits or nice table wine. If he or she is a smoker then a good brand cigarettes is also fine. In the upper range you can give away food such as dried oysters, dried seafood, mushrooms or bird’s nests. For individual fruits such as oranges or apples, count them in even numbers e.g. 6, 8 or 10 pieces.
Jewellery or ornament
Normally given in big celebrations such as wedding, new born baby, 21st birthday, 60th birthday, 90th birthday and so forth.
Baby – parents like to host a banquet for their new born baby after one month of birth. Jade, gold or silver bracelet or necklace is a good gift, otherwise baby clothes.
Birthday – If you know the person’s Chinese zodiac sign, another hot item is a gold plated Chinese zodiac figurine represents the animal sign of the person.
Wedding – jade or gold bracelet or necklace resembles long lasting relationship.
What sort of gifts for festivals?
There are many festivals in China, but you will most likely be invited to join a family celebration in the following festivals:
Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) – this is the most important festival for the Chinese people which brings family members, friends and relatives together. It is a custom to give money in a red packet from married couple to single people or children. If you are single it is considered to be polite to bring a food/fruit basket to your hosts.
Mid-Autumn (Moon) Festival – This is the day when people would sit down with family and friends to watch the full moon and serve moon cakes and other type of food. Therefore, bring some moon cakes or food along to your hosts is the best gift you can offer.
Dragon Boat Festival – Rice parcels as big as a purse are made during this festival to honor a patriotic scholar named Chu Yuan who drowned himself to protest against the emperor. Before his body was recovered, people make the rice parcels and threw them into the water to stop any fish eating his fresh. Another saying is dragon boats were used to scare away ‘water spirits’ because dragon is the God of the oceans. Rice parcels are made out of glutinous rice, pork and egg yolk wrapped with bamboo leaves which are sold in most shops during the festival.
If you are interested in cooking, bring along some home made rice parcels will surely impress your hosts.
Return from a vacation – small souvenirs to your neighbors, friends, colleagues and relatives when returning from a trip.
Farewell – cash in a red packet or small gift such as a sailing boat meaning smooth sailing to the new destination.
Visiting someone at home – food basket.
Visiting someone in the hospital – food plus health drinks (e.g. Ginseng) that will help speedy recovery.
Generally speaking, dealing with people from a difficult culture requires understanding. Some of the traditions have been practiced for a long time but are diminishing in the new generations. Chinese people are normally understandable in terms of culture conflict since they have over 2000 years of history and have different culture from different province. It is beneficial to know the customs but do not need to be strictly followed so long you stay away from the ‘death’ business you should be safe.