Ask the Yangxifu: Chinese Wedding Gifts for the Parents

Two rectangular boxes wrapped in red-and-gold heart-patterned wrapping paper, set on a red velvet background
What gifts should you give to the parents for a Chinese wedding? (photo by Klaus Post)

Les asks:

My English son is getting married to a Chinese lady. What would be the right gift to offer her parents?

Okay, here’s a topic that’s long overdue  — what gifts should you give the parents for a Chinese wedding?

For answers, I looked at engagement gifts in Chinese weddings. Why? Because this is the gift exchange where parents are part of the receiving end. Generally engagement gifts are exchanged not between the bride and groom, but between the bride’s family and the groom’s family. This is also usually the largest gift exchange that goes on in the wedding. Traditionally, engagement gifts fostered goodwill between the two families, and meant both sides were firmly committed to the marriage.

The custom still continues today. But what do they give?

Laura Lau and Theodora Lau — the authors of Wedding Feng Shui: The Chinese Horoscopes Guide to Planning Your Wedding — offer these suggestions:

The groom’s family starts the gift exchange by sending a traditional gift basket to the bride’s family home.

The traditional gift basket can be quite elaborate. This list includes coconuts, palm fruit, dried lychee, longan, walnuts, red beans, green beans, water lily seeds and peanuts (still in their shell), loose tea, candles, wedding calligraphy banners, two pieces of red silk cord, wine, fish, roast chicken, live fish, and tai bing cakes. The items are highly symbolic of wedding wishes….All the gifts are given in pairs or good supply and are accompanied with a cash gift in a traditional red envelope….

After the bride’s family receives the gift, they acknowledge the gesture by splitting it in half and sending back half with some additional gifts. The gesture of sharing represents closeness between families. The additional gifts usually placed in the groom’s family gift basket are water lily roots, ginger roots, pomegranate, cypress pine, coconut leaves, and pastries. [These gifts are] also rich with symbolism….

But given the authors’ Cantonese last names (Lau) and the tropical items (such as coconut and palm fruit), you have to take these suggestions with “a grain of rice” — chances are, this is just the tradition for people in parts of South China.

After all, consider what Bonnie Adrian reported in Framing the Bride: Globalizing Beauty and Romance in Taiwan’s Bridal Industry, when she wanted to determine the modern standard for Chinese wedding gifts in Taiwan:

To my disappointment, recently married brides and bridal industry workers insisted that few families rely on written guides in planning their traditional wedding ceremonies.

So much for standards. 🙁

Still, Adrian offered a few general hints:

At the betrothal, the groom’s side also provides gifts of foodstuffs, including boxes of cakes or cookies known as xibing. Afterward, the bride and groom distribute the cakes or cookies to the bride’s family and friends by visiting their homes or workplaces….

In previous times, live pigs and handmade noodles were part of the customary betrothal gifts. Today, ritual supply stores provide commercially packaged hames and noodles in pink or red wrappers, carried and displayed on rented pink or red trays. Also available are red velvet-lined boxes with glass ropes for the presentation of cash and jewelry to the bride’s family.

But, remember, she’s talking about Taiwan.

That brings me to my own experiences with Chinese wedding gifts. Even though we were long past the betrothal state, my Chinese in-laws prepared what you might consider the equivalent of “engagement gifts” for my entire family (my parents, grandparents and even uncles and aunts). These included high mountain green tea, jade pendants, smoked tofu from their home village, knit scarves made in a local factory, and even several fist-sized boulders rich in jade crystals the color of amethyst.

My parents reciprocated, but (I hope you’re not reading this, Dad), some of their gifts didn’t hit the mark. I applaud the rare coin sets and the gold cross they gave to my husband’s grandmother (she’s a Christian). The leather purse for my Chinese mother-in-law? Mmm, not bad. But they probably shouldn’t have bothered with the T-shirts (this past summer, I stayed with my Chinese family more than three months and never saw those T-shirts worn even once).

But what about me? you ask. What should I give to the Chinese parents? Here are my thoughts, based on what I’ve learned:

Jewelry and Precious stones. If you’re going to give a little sparkle, go for classic or conservative pieces. Find some inspiration from the jewelry in Things Remembered, but remember it’s not the last word in good gifts in this category. Precious stones and rocks will also delight, as they did with my own family.

Gourmet foods. Think fancy chocolates or sweets, fruit/nut baskets, and dessert gifts and pastries. But check before you stock up for that wedding in Beijing or Singapore — some things don’t travel well because of regulations (fruits/meats) or weather (chocolates in summer or in the tropics? forget it).

Local specialty items. Just about every town I’ve visited boasts of some special food or product you just can’t find elsewhere (or, at least, within a 100-mile radius). So why not bring your new Chinese family the best of your hometown? I can’t help you on specifics, but I’d stick with gourmet foods, jewelry, precious stones, and fine arts and crafts.

Cash. In Chinese weddings, cash still reigns. If you decide to give money, choose an auspicious amount (examples from US and from China) and present it in a red envelope (you can usually buy these in Chinatown stores or, if you’re headed to China, in banks or the greeting card sections of large supermarkets).

Do as most families in China do — give several different items as gifts. If you’re not sure how much to give, find out what the local tradition is for the family (or at least, how much they’re probably going to give) and go from there.

Whatever you choose to give, always, always, always get it in a box — red and gold, if possible. Don’t forget to spread the love by giving something to the grandparents, uncles, aunts and siblings.

And (sorry Dad) never, ever give T-shirts. 😉

What do you think? What gifts would you give to the parents for a Chinese wedding?

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8 thoughts on “Ask the Yangxifu: Chinese Wedding Gifts for the Parents

  • September 23, 2011 at 7:22 am
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    Ah, I am really at sea here. But reading what the Laus wrote, I remember the traditional wedding basket here in Malaysian exchanged between the wedding parties. Not all but some of the items mentioned, with some local variations. But live chicken instead of live fish. As for modern wedding gifts, I believe Jocelyn has given a very good coverage. Whatever the gifts, it is always a good idea, as Jocelyn has mentioned, to gift wrap them in red or gold because red and gold are the auspicious colours of the Chinese, especially the red.

    Reply
  • September 24, 2011 at 12:46 am
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    I would go for food + money – Chinese people love both. If there is some local delicies that you think they could try, bring them as a gift. Coffee is becoming more and more popular in China – could be an idea? Cash still reigns surpreme though 🙂

    Reply
    • September 24, 2011 at 1:05 pm
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      @ordinary malaysian, thanks for the comment! Interesting that there are similarities between the customs you remember in Malaysia and what the Lau’s mentioned. Maybe there are more Southern Chinese influences where you live?

      @hamlover, good point on the cash, and also the coffee. Coffee is definitely becoming popular — and people there especially love Starbucks. Though my sense is that seniors — which may include any parents in a wedding — might be less interested in coffee, so that might be a better gift for the younger people in the family.

      Reply
  • September 25, 2011 at 7:55 pm
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    I got married a few months ago to a Chinese girl, and I can honestly say this is the first time I heard of these traditions. There were no gift exchanges between families, just an informal banquet with plenty of drinking and warm toasts over the booze.
    Mind you, my wifes family did decide (at the last minute) that the date wasn’t particularly auspicious and wanted to change the date of the wedding in the days before the banquet (my family were already here etc..). In the end she had to go back home a day earlier, and they held the “official” banquet on that, more auspicious, day, the banquet we held the next day was an unofficial celebration.
    Gifts here still mystify me though, I remember visiting an ex’s parents for the first time and rushing to the supermarket on the way to buy gifts. “Maybe I can buy them some expensive washing up liquid” I quipped, my ex thought this was a marvellous idea and we spent a good ten minutes in the kitchen area before I could convince her there was no way I was buying cleaning products as gifts. I think we ended up buying a jar of raisins..

    Reply
    • September 26, 2011 at 12:30 am
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      @Dingle, thanks for sharing. I’m sure your experience in China is not uncommon — a lot of these exchanges are more traditional, and in China weddings are not always as traditional as they might have been in the past. In my case, the exchange really happened as a result of our wedding (having my parents come in) and wasn’t any sort of official thing (which is different from what I read about weddings in Taiwan).

      Wish you and your wife a happy future together! 白头偕老!

      Reply
  • September 26, 2011 at 11:51 am
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    @Jocelyn, there are many Hokkiens here who originally migrated from southern Fujian. I myself am Hokkien.

    Reply
  • September 26, 2011 at 12:03 pm
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    @Dingle, I don’t think that the Chinese will appreciate washing liquids as gifts, even expensive ones. LOL. Anyway, here’s wishing you both a happily married life. I second Jocelyn in wishing 白头偕老 (baitou xielao) or the Chinese idiom for living to a ripe old age in conjugal bliss.

    Reply
  • June 15, 2013 at 1:21 pm
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    Don’t know if anyone is still following this? My wife is from Nanjing also my step daughter who just married a young man from Hong Kong here in the USA. My wife is upset because his family didn’t buy any traditional gifts or send money. I on the other hand is trying to be understanding, his mother lost her husband years ago and is about to lose her father. She has a small business and lives with her daughter. Her daughter has a good job. My wife is angry to the point where she doesn’t want my step daughter to return her mother inlaws phone calls. I think it’s just not worth it, for other things in life are more important.

    Reply

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