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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