Buying a gift isn’t always easy, especially for someone with a different culture. This article provides some interesting information if the gift is for a Chinese person.
Since China is a large place with many provinces, the culture can vary depending on which province the person is from; but there are some general themes that you can follow to avoid some embarrassment.
What do you need to know?
For the Chinese, anything that brings prosperity, longevity, or good luck is fine and anything that is related or “sounds like” death must be avoided. This rule applies to both numbers and colors used on almost all occasions.
Note: the pronunciation refers to Cantonese.
Bad numbers – number 4 is the most unwelcome number simply because it has a pronunciation similar to ‘death’.
Good numbers – number 8 sounds like prosperity and number 9 sounds like longevity. Series of 8 or 9 like “888”, “99” are even better. The numbers “168” and “138” are also very popular because they sound like “continuous luck”.
Bad colors – black and white are usually for funerals or mourning. Therefore, you should only send white flowers to a funeral, and the wrapping paper should not be white or black.
Good colors – red and gold are for parties like birthdays and weddings.
Items to avoid – sharp objects such as knives or scissors as they would “break” a relationship. Umbrellas resemble parting. The clock sounds like “attending a funeral”. Handkerchiefs are for mourning. The books are not for the Cantonese who love gambling because it sounds like a “loss”, otherwise it’s fine.
Exceptions: Although wearing black or white for a wedding is not a tradition, it is acceptable if the wedding ceremony is held in a church that follows the Western style.
Don’t be offended if your guests don’t open the gift in front of you as it’s not polite in Chinese culture unless you insist. They also don’t normally accept your gift immediately in case you are feeling greedy.
What are the popular articles?
Cash can be used on almost any occasion. For happy occasions, it should be placed inside a “red envelope” pre-printed with some words of blessing. Red bags are easily found in most Chinese grocery stores; always check with the staff to find one for the occasion you want if you don’t understand the chinese characters on the envelope otherwise you may be giving one away for the wrong occasion.
The amount inside the envelope should follow the numbering rules mentioned earlier, ie use even numbers except the number 4. Also, if you are a couple, you should give two envelopes instead of one to cover both.
If it is used in a funeral, which is normally used for charitable donations or to financially assist the bereaved family, you can put a small “odd” amount of money in a regular “white envelope”.
There is no doubt that the Chinese love food, this is always a good bet especially for older people. When visiting someone in person, it is always a good idea to bring a basket of food containing fruit, biscuits or good table wine. If he or she is a smoker, a good brand of cigarettes is fine too. On the high end you can gift food like dried oysters, dried seafood, mushrooms or bird nests. For single fruits like oranges or apples, count them in even numbers, such as 6, 8 or 10 pieces.
Jewelery or ornament
Normally given in large celebrations such as weddings, babies, 21 years, 60 years, 90 years and so on.
Baby: Parents like to organize a banquet for their newborn baby one month after 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 interesting item is a gold-plated Chinese zodiac figurine representing the person’s animal sign.
Wedding: The jade or gold bracelet or necklace is reminiscent of a long-lasting relationship.
What kind of festival gifts?
There are many festivals in China, but you will most likely be invited to attend a family celebration in the following festivals:
Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) – this is the most important holiday for the Chinese people which brings together family, friends and relatives. It is customary to give money in a red packet from a married couple to single people or children. If you are single it is considered polite to bring a basket of food / fruit to your guests.
Mid-Autumn Festival (moon). – This is the day when people sit with family and friends to watch the full moon and serve moon cakes and other types of food. Therefore, bringing some moon cakes or food to your guests is the best gift you can offer.
Dragon boat party – Bags of rice the size of a bag are produced during this holiday to honor a patriotic scholar named Chu Yuan who drowned in protest against the emperor. Before his body was recovered, people prepare packages of rice and throw them into the water to prevent any fish from eating its fresh. Another saying is that dragon boats were used to scare away “water spirits” because the dragon is the god of the oceans. The rice packs are made 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 some homemade rice packs with you that are sure to impress your guests.
Return from a vacation – small souvenirs for your neighbors, friends, colleagues and relatives upon returning from a trip.
Goodbye: Collect a red package or small gift like a sailboat which means smooth sailing to your new destination.
Visiting someone at home – food basket.
Visit someone in the hospital – healthy food and drink (eg Ginseng) that will help you recover quickly.
In general, dealing with people from difficult backgrounds requires understanding. Some traditions have been practiced for a long time but are decreasing in the new generations. The Chinese are normally understandable in terms of cultural conflict as they have over 2000 years of history and have different cultures from different provinces. It is useful to know the customs, but it is not necessary to be strictly followed as long as you stay away from the business of “death” you should be safe.
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