Ask the Yangxifu: Gift Ideas for Chinese New Year

If you’re buying for your Chinese sweetheart, consider giving them some new clothes for the new year — such as this red sweater from Metersbonwe (photo from http://metersbonwe.tmall.com/)

NOTE: If you’re looking for a more comprehensive list of Chinese New Year gifts, have a look at my post 7 Great Chinese New Year Gifts Sure to Impress Friends, Family and Coworkers 

Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of e-mails with the same question:

What gifts should I give to my Chinese boyfriend/girlfriend/friend and their family during Chinese New Year?

So to answer that, I’ve compiled a simple guide for navigating the world of gift-giving during Chinese New Year.

New Clothing

If you’re family — or will be family — of your Chinese hosts for the New Year, consider adding clothes to your gift-shopping list. In my Chinese husband’s family, it’s traditional to start the new Lunar year dressed in a new outfit from head to toe.

Don’t worry, though — chances are, no one expects you to furnish everyone in the family with a new set of clothes. That said, you might at least consider buying your boyfriend/husband or girlfriend/wife a little something special that will keep them warm, such as a new sweater or knit shirt, a new coat, a new hat and gloves, or even a new pair of socks. Opt for anything in red or pink, those auspicious colors for the new year.

And remember — if your Chinese sweetheart is about to enter their Chinese zodiac year (also known as their ben ming nian — běnmìngnián, 本命年)), don’t forget to buy them some red underwear! (See my ben ming nian gift-giving guide for more on this, as well as other gift suggestions.)

Nourishing and Nutritious Foods/Supplements/Herbs

Gouqi, or wolfberries, are a favorite nourishing fruit during the winter months (photo by Wstefano at English Wikipedia)

As the Chinese saying goes, dongling jinbu (冬令进补) — roughly, winter is the time to nourish your body. And Chinese New Year is the time to give gifts of nourishing foods, supplements and herbs.

In supermarkets in Mainland China, Taiwan and beyond, you’ll find an entire aisle devoted to nutritious herbs and medicines, usually already boxed and ready to gift — royal jelly, ginseng root, spirulina, and more. Beware, though — many of these items are for more senior folks, which means a twenty-something Chinese relative might not necessarily appreciate your ginseng root. Ask the store’s associates — or, better yet, your Chinese sweetheart/friends — for suggestions on what to purchase. Still, if I am going to purchase ginseng, I love buying American ginseng roots, which are available on Amazon.

Some of the best — and safest — bets for this category include upscale versions of those nutritious foods that Chinese families commonly enjoy in the winter months. Think guiyuan, Chinese jujubes, gouqi (wolfberries), or even black sesame seeds. Opt for organic or “green” choices where available, and be sure to get it boxed and/or wrapped to make a good impression.

Chinese also love nourishing teas — such as those made from ginseng, or even the ginger/Chinese jujube one I discovered in the summer of 2011.

Don’t forget one of the most nourishing options — vitamins. You’re usually better off giving them to your senior family members. My preferred choice of vitamins in China comes from the brand By-Health (汤臣倍健) — you can purchase them online on Taobao and also find them in most major supermarkets.

And here, if you’re buying them abroad:

Nowadays, foreign-made vitamin supplements are just as ubiquitous in China as McDonald’s — but that doesn’t mean you should always buy in China. After all, sometimes the relatives appreciate the cache of foreign-bought gifts.

Sometimes you can score better quality for less abroad. Whole Foods, for example, offers great value with fish oil supplements, multivitamins, vitamin E and more, under their 365 brand. The same could easily apply to many quality supermarkets across the Western world.

Or, in other cases, you find something impossible to get in China. Years ago in Hangzhou, my neighbors begged me to buy Amway’s garlic supplements (not sold in China) during my trip back to the US.

Spirits and Smokes

Spirits such as this double black Johnnie Walker make great Chinese New Year gifts for Chinese men (photo by rakyan ‘boyan’ tantular)

Not sure what to buy for the men in your Chinese family? Consider boxed/wrapped fine spirits or cigarettes, either of which will find a welcome home during the many dinners and social visits during the holidays. In China, the foreign brands still hold more cache, so consider my previous advice:

Alcohol. If he’s a drinker, consider picking up a foreign brand of scotch, whisky or brandy, such as Jack Daniels, Johnnie Walker or Glenlivet. Chinese men will also love French or Italian wines as gifts.

Cigarettes. Foreign smokes still light up many a Chinese man’s face — as a gift. Consider major brands such as Marlboro or John Player.

Fruits, Nuts and Candies

“Here, have an orange.” Whenever I visit someone’s home in Chinese New Year, invariably someone thrusts a piece of fruit into my hands — and more often than not, they’ll also push trays bursting with mixed nuts/sunflower seeds and individually wrapped candies right in front of me.

When in doubt, give them a fruit basket (photo by Matthew Hoelscher)

So guess what also makes a nice gift during the Chinese New Year holiday? Gift baskets and fruit baskets.

When in doubt, go for a fruit basket, preferably with something more exotic than the local apples. Though keep in mind, auspicious choices include oranges and Mandarin oranges (they remind people of golden coins), but not pears (whose Chinese name sounds like the word for separation).

If you opt for nuts or candies, make sure they’re something unusual or special. In other words, avoid the peanuts but go for the hickory nuts or Chinese nutmeg yew nuts (delish!). For candies, if you really want to make a splash, choose a foreign brand such as Godiva Chocolates.

Want to send a gift basket to China from overseas? Make it easy by purchasing from Gift Baskets Overseas, where you can find an excellent selection of fruit baskets and gift baskets filled with wines, spirits, chocolates, cookies and more. (Disclosure — I’m an affiliate for this company.)

Learn more about gift baskets with my post 4 Tips for Giving Gift Baskets in China.

Whatever you choose, remember that presentation matters. So, if it isn’t already, don’t forget to box it and wrap it!

Also, don’t miss my post 7 Great Chinese New Year Gifts Sure to Impress Friends, Family and Coworkers.

What did I miss? What else would you recommend as gifts?

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13 thoughts on “Ask the Yangxifu: Gift Ideas for Chinese New Year

  • January 18, 2013 at 10:50 am
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    Love this post! You don’t know how much I used to struggle with this every Chinese New Year. I was so worried I would buy something inappropriate like a clock that I usually just opted for American chocolate candy. This is a great guide for people everywhere!

    Reply
  • January 18, 2013 at 11:37 am
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    Another favourite for friends or relatives with a new born is milk powder. But only I you have bought them abroad as they are still suspicious of the milk powder produced in China.
    My boyfriend and I brought about 10 kg of Belgian pralines. And they really loved it and asked if we can bring more next time because they also want to give it to their Chinese friends :p.
    But my relatives and friends in China are not fond of the major Cigarette brands we have here though, they don’t like the tast of it because they like the stronger Chinese cigarettes.

    Reply
  • January 18, 2013 at 12:37 pm
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    Lots of good suggestions here! This year, I’ve moved my annual New Year’s Day Mah Jongg Marathon from January 1st to February 10th, and I’d appreciate tips on how to decorate, what food to serve, etc. in order to make it festive. We’ll have 3 to 4 tables of players and will serve lunch before settling in for an afternoon of both American and Hong Kong style Mah Jongg fun. I wish you were here to join us, Jocelyn!

    Reply
  • January 18, 2013 at 2:42 pm
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    This is fantastic! Wish I had known this the year that I brought sunflowers and my hopefully future sister in law pulled me aside and explained that is a “death” flower. That wasn’t fun..

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  • January 18, 2013 at 3:26 pm
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    Great gift idea. Hopefully I’ll use it someday.

    Reply
  • January 18, 2013 at 7:37 pm
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    Not sure about cigarettes. Since I don’t smoke, I will not encourage others to smoke 🙂

    Reply
  • January 19, 2013 at 10:02 pm
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    Each time I ask my bf what I should give to his relatives for the Spring Festival he says: red envelope… and seriously I have an impression that they are not into this gift-giving custom. But maybe my parents will come to China for the New Year so they’ll bring sth cool from Poland 😉
    It’s funny that in China it’s wrong to buy clocks as a gift cause my bf’s dad is a watchmaker, he works in Omega and I already got two watches from him… or maybe he’s just trying to tell me that in fact he doesn’t like me at all 😉

    Reply
  • January 20, 2013 at 3:03 pm
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    @Barbara – Both watch and clock tell time, but pronounce differently. I bet you know that 🙂

    Reply
    • January 20, 2013 at 3:48 pm
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      @forest, good call — that is true, clock is “zhong” (which can sound like “the end”), whereas watch is “shoubiao”. As far as I know, a “shoubiao” doesn’t sound like anything pejorative in Chinese. And as I recall, my father-in-law, like his contemporaries, had to buy a watch in preparation for his wedding.

      BTW forest, I don’t disagree w/ you on the cigarettes. Actually, I would NEVER give anyone cigarettes during the new year b/c I cannot stand smoking. I only list it because some people may not mind and might consider giving it.

      @Barbara, I think money is also not a bad idea for gift-giving. Do you give money to the elders as well? Where my husband lives, the tradition usually dictates that elders give money to the children — yasui qian — so we normally will not give it to his parents or grandparents.

      Reply
  • January 20, 2013 at 8:59 pm
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    A few years back I gave Olive Oil which went down well also tins of biscuits (cookies). For kids I bought mix lolloies like frogs, milk bottles and snakes.

    Reply
  • January 20, 2013 at 11:52 pm
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    Hey Jocelyn I just stumbled upon your blog today and I am loving it! About yasui qian — the tradition depends on the region. In the north only married couples give it to single relatives. In the south (Guandong especially) people tend to give them out to anyone they run into during those first few days of Chinese New Year (and the amount is small, like 5-10 RMB or HKD).

    Here are some more gift ideas from a native Chinese guy:
    — No need to always stay within the boundaries of traditional Chinese gifts. Your man or his family will probably receive plenty of those from other Chinese relatives. Give him something unique from your own country. If you’re American, a pair of Ray-Ban aviators, or an MA-1 flight jacket. If you live in Europe, a nice pair of leather shoes or a Swiss army knife. Watches are always good, if he is not already a watch collector. Here is a great one, for example:
    http://www.amazon.com/Invicta-8926OB-Collection-Coin-Edge-Automatic/dp/B000JQFX1G/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1358749359&sr=8-2&keywords=8926

    — You all know how much Chinese love foods. High-quality produces from western countries are always appreciated. Like Mira said, olive oil makes a wonderful gift. So is balsamic vinegar and wine. Sun dried tomatoes, tasty dry salami, real ham, cheese (not Munster) can all be very unique gifts.

    — For older folks, western-made royal jelly products, American ginseng, melatonin (yes that’s right, it’s marketed as a high-end brain nutrition supplement in China, called “nao bai jin”), and canned abalone (a very expensive delicacy in Chinese cuisine).

    Here is a good royal jelly product, made in the USA:
    http://www.amazon.com/Durhams-Delight-Propolis-Beepollen-Capsules/dp/B003ALLHLM/ref=sr_1_cc_2?s=aps&ie=UTF8&qid=1358750212&sr=1-2-catcorr&keywords=royal+jelly+capsules

    And most of all, keep in mind that this is not the China 30 years ago, and the Chinese people are aware of the cultural differences. Its the thought behind the gift, not just the gift, that counts.

    Reply
  • January 21, 2013 at 10:09 am
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    @forest, so they really like me! what a relief!!! 😉

    @Jocelyn, no, they also give money only to the kids. However, I think that giving money to children is just wrong so I don’t do it (because it won’t really make them happy, they won’t remember it, they don’t know the value of money and so on).

    Reply

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