How NOT to Give Gifts in China

I’ve written a lot over the years on what gifts to give – so much so, the number one post on this site is all about gifts.

But what are the things to avoid? How should you NOT give gifts in China? Here are 4 ideas you won’t want to try:

Photo from

#1: Give something really cheap

I once came across a foreign woman in China staying with a family during her trip to Beijing. When I asked her what gifts she had prepared for them, she gleefully dug the hotel shampoo samples out from her suitcase. “Won’t these be perfect?”

I mentally cringed at the sight of those sad little plastic bottles, realizing this girl was on the verge of embarrassing herself in Beijing. That’s when I took her aside and clued her in on the reality. That one of the biggest no-nos for gift-giving in China is giving something cheap (or, worse, free).

Think of a gift as a version of your public face. When you give something cheap, you’re saying you don’t value the person or the relationship enough. Not exactly the kind of Hallmark sentiment you were aiming for, eh?

How much does the quality of your gift matter? Let me put it to you this way – Chinese would rather spend less on themselves just to buy the perfect gifts for their friends, family and valued business partners. It’s that important.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t shop around for a good deal. As I write this, I’m currently doing my shopping for Chinese New Year gifts. And trust me, I always hunt around for the best deal. But for me, the bottom line is a good price on quality gifts. It has to be quality, otherwise I won’t buy it.

So ditch the freebies and samples, and go for quality, name brand goods.

Photo by pheezy
Photo by pheezy

#2: Make your gift look sloppy

Growing up, I struggled with the art of wrapping Christmas and birthday presents. My corners bulged. I never seemed to be able to fold the edges without them getting unnecessarily wrinkled. And I used way too much tape. Sometimes, the result looked as though the box had fallen down the stairs a couple of times.

In other words, they were sloppy. Really sloppy.

I got away with sloppy gifts because I was a kid. But in China, if your gifts look sloppy, you may not get the same pass.

How your gift looks matters in China. It’s so important that, during Chinese New Year, most new year gifts include neat little gift boxes or bags. They’re usually a sturdy red plastic, embossed with golden characters and festive décor (such as the year’s Chinese zodiac animal). How cool is that?

Let me tell you, I adore those gift boxes and bags. Not only do they make the gift look gorgeous, but they also mean I don’t have to wrap anything. I’m better off staying far away from wrapping paper – otherwise I’ll end up with a sloppy and totally embarrassing gift.


#3: Give a gift that reminds people of funerals or death

Chances are, you’ve probably heard the advice to avoid white colors or clocks . Why? Because white is the traditional funeral color, and the Chinese words for giving a clock (songzhong) sound like sending someone death. (Yikes!)

Let’s face it – invoking death and funerals is not exactly the best way to show you care. Apart from joke gifts or Halloween paraphernalia, I’ve never met someone in the US happy to receive, say, a miniature coffin or a tiny gravestone with their name on it. Why would it be any different in China?

So how do you avoid this trap? Simple. Besides the general moratorium on white or clocks, I’d also avoid sending anyone a wreath of multicolored flowers. Folks in China place them on gravestones.

Photo by Muffet Greed
Photo by Muffet Greed

#4: Be stingy

If you’ve ever attended a banquet in China, then you’ve probably left thinking, “What a waste of food.” Yes, most banquets mean ordering ungodly amounts of food – so much that nobody in their right mind could possibly finish it all. I’ve left many a banquet shocked by the amount of leftovers.

But there’s a reason why hosts will ply their guests with more delicious food than anyone could possibly eat. In China, it’s important to be generous with what you give to others. (This explains why my mother-in-law always tries sending us home with heaping bags of vegetables from her garden or freshly made tofu.)

This idea of generosity is also true for giving gifts. Which is why being stingy with amounts will always get you into trouble.

Whenever I buy gifts, I generally opt for larger sizes or larger amounts. I want to give them an abundance of goodness, whether that’s a heaping basket of extra-fresh fruit or a case of imported French wine. There’s no better way to show you care than with a little more.

What are your gift-giving don’ts for China?

P.S.: Need some suggestions on what to give your friends and family in China? I highly recommend reading my Huffington Post article The Top 6 Gifts Sure To Please Your Chinese Family. You can also peruse my Holiday Gift Roundup post, which includes my most popular post, Giving Gifts to Your Chinese Family – A Modest Guide.

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