The new year may be upon us — but in China, there’s another one just around the corner. Chinese New Year, of course!
Chinese New Year is also a time for giving gifts, especially when it comes to the tradition of bainian, where you visit friends and family bearing gifts known as nianhuo or Chinese New Year goods.
What makes a good gift for Chinese New Year? While I have a list of suggestions below, here’s my bottom line for Chinese New Year gifts. Always go for quality and don’t forget to get it wrapped and/or in a gift box.
The good news is, there are plenty of quality Chinese New Year gifts available, and if you purchase in China, most goods on sale usually come all boxed up, often in auspicious red and gold packaging. All you need to do is buy and give, it’s that simple!
So here are my 7 suggestions for great Chinese New Year gifts:
#7: Hongbao (red envelopes)
Children all across China eagerly await Chinese New Year for a lot of reasons, including the many hongbao (red envelopes) they’ll receive, filled with auspicious amounts of money, as the World of Chinese notes:
If you’re stuffing it with hundreds, go for even numbers for good luck: 200, 600, or 800. Don’t hand out bad luck with a gift of 400, or anything with the number four, the unluckiest of all numbers. Instead, stick to ones, fives, and, best of all, eights.
So if there happen to be kids with the people you’re visiting, don’t forget to give each of them a hongbao as a Chinese New Year gift!
Hongbao are also terrific for those in your employment, such as an ayi who might clean your home or care for your children. Think of it as a year-end bonus for the hard work they’ve done.
But hongbao can sometimes be tricky as a Chinese New Year gift, as “traditional red envelopes have often been used as a vehicle for, ahem, bribes.” When in doubt, consult your Chinese friends or colleagues — or, better still, consider my other suggestions for Chinese New Year gifts.
As I wrote a few years back in my post The Top 6 Gifts Sure to Please Your Chinese Family:
Say what you want about China’s national hot beverage. It really makes one fantastic gift….
What home in China doesn’t have a top-shelf box of tea (or even two), ready and waiting to entertain guests? Plus, everyone…loves drinking it.
But if you’re going to give tea as a gift, be prepared to pay top money for it. Most Chinese can taste the difference between the expensive, high-grade varieties (which are great gifts) versus the cheaper average teas (which you should never buy for anyone but yourself).
I wouldn’t buy tea online. Your best bet is to find a high-end tea shop in your vicinity and try the teas before purchasing this for Chinese New Year gifts.
#5: Nuts and dried fruits
No Chinese New Year is complete without the requisite hours of lazing around with friends and family, snacking on everything from walnuts and pecans to dates and raisins. They also make outstanding Chinese New Year gifts.
Nuts: Here in China, I’ve seen walnuts, pecans, hickory nuts, macadamia nuts, almonds, pine nuts, sunflower seeds and chestnuts given as gifts. You’ll even encounter Chinese New Year gift boxes that offer an assortment of nuts, nicely packaged up and ready to give someone you know or love.
Dried fruits: Dried jujube dates are always excellent Chinese New Year gifts because the name sounds auspicious. Dates are known as zǎo （枣）, and the name sounds like the character zǎo (早) in the phrase 早来福到 （zǎoláifúdào), which means good fortune comes early. So if you bring dried jujube dates, it symbolizes your hope the recipient will enjoy good fortune soon. While there are lots of varieties of dates available, I happen to love the large Xinjiang dates, which you can always find online on Amazon and in China on Taobao, including the Tmall Supermarket, and usually at your local supermarket.
Raisins from Xinjiang (particularly the Turfan region) are also a special treat to send someone during Chinese New Year, and are incredibly delicious. Amazon has them. If you’re in China, check Taobao, including the Tmall Supermarket, to buy online. Your local supermarket may also have some available.
Or, if you can’t decide on dried fruits or nuts, consider buying them this ingenious Chinese creation — dried jujube dates stuffed with walnuts. They are so heavenly they’ve become my favorite snack, and your recipient will love them because they combine two of the most nutritious winter foods together in one convenient bite-sized morsel.
#4: Chocolates, candies and cookies
Sweets — including chocolates, candies and even cookies — have become as ubiquitous as the standard nuts, dried fruits and fresh fruits you see at homes during Chinese New Year. Even I can’t resist, often stopping by the candy plate to devour a small chocolate — or two.
If you’re going to give chocolates for Chinese New Year gifts, I recommend imported brands such as Ferrero Rocher (their traditional chocolate hazelnut candies wrapped in gold foil are always a festive addition at Chinese New Year), Dove, Hershey’s or even Godiva. You can find all of these online at Taobao or Amazon, most at Tmall Supermarket, and also many at your local supermarket.
Imported cookies in gorgeous gift tins, such as Danish butter cookies, are also a good choice for Chinese New Year. Besides Amazon, buy them in China at your supermarket or online at Taobao’s Tmall.
And if you’re shopping from abroad, Gift Baskets Overseas offers gift baskets with chocolates, candies and/or cookies that you can send to most cities in China.
#3: Traditional herbal remedies and vitamins
There’s a saying in Chinese — dōnglìng jìnbŭ (冬令进补), which refers to how winter is a season for increasing your nutrition with a good tonic or medicinal herbs/foods. So naturally, these have also become popular Chinese New Year gifts, particularly for people over 50.
You’ll encounter lots of possible herbal remedies and foods in China, many related to traditional Chinese medicine. But sometimes even I find the selection overwhelming! Personally, I like to stick with the ones I know and recognize. For example, ginseng is something I’ve bought for family members with great success, and it’s available on Taobao. And if I’m in the US, I love to stock up on American ginseng, prized for its medicinal and nutritional qualities, to give as gifts, including during Chinese New Year. You can buy American ginseng on Amazon.
Vitamins are the “modern version” of these traditional health foods, and can also make wonderful Chinese New Year gifts if your recipients would use them. I’ve found that people living in cities tend to be more open to taking vitamins, compared to those living in rural areas — but it’s always good to ask ahead of time. Foreign brands make a better impression, so I try to buy overseas as much as I can (including on sites like Amazon). That said, you can still buy in China. Besides foreign brands, one option is By-Health (汤臣陪建), available online and in most supermarkets.
#2: Wines and spirits
Ganbei (“empty glasses” in Chinese) is the equivalent of “cheers” you’re sure to hear around the table during Chinese New Year, as people toast each other, usually with wine or spirits. It’s no wonder these make terrific gifts for Chinese New Year.
One option is top-shelf baijiu, such as Moutai or Wuliangye, especially if your recipient is a fan of China’s most fiery liquor.
But because I’m a foreigner who knows next to nothing about baijiu, I prefer to give imported wines, usually red (since red is the lucky color for Chinese New Year). Wine from France is highly cherished among the Chinese, so French red wine is an excellent choice. If it’s in your budget, French champagne is also sure to impress for Chinese New Year. But generally speaking, any quality imported wine will be a welcome addition to the Chinese New Year table.
In China, you can purchase baijiu either online or at your local supermarket or wine and cigarette store. If you’re not bringing your wine from abroad, you’ll find excellent options available online on Taobao, including the Tmall Supermarket; you can also shop your local supermarket for imported wine too, though you may be more limited in options.
If you’d like to send wine over to China, one option is Gift Baskets Overseas, which has a number of gift baskets available that include wine and spirits.
#1: Fruit and fruit baskets
If you’re still totally stumped on what Chinese New Year gifts to buy, please repeat after me: fruit!
As Huan Hsu, author of The Porcelain Thief, once wrote, “Fruit is China’s apple pie.” Chinese people treasure fine fruit because it’s often what’s for dessert, and always a favorite to snack on anytime during Chinese New Year. You’re sure to endear yourself with any host in China if you show up with, say, boxes of Xinjiang Aksu sweetheart apples (冰糖心苹果), or even a fruit basket loaded with everything from sugary mandarins and crisp fresh dates to fragrant pomelos and tangy kiwis.
Where you can purchase fruit? If you’re based in China, there are lots of great deals on boxed fruit on Taobao (including the Tmall Supermarket, which offers next-day delivery in most major cities in China). You can also visit your supermarket or neighborhood fruit store, where you can purchase not only boxed fruit but also fruit baskets.
If you’re based overseas and buying for someone in your country, Amazon has a lot of great fruit basket options.
But if you would like to send fruit baskets to China from abroad for Chinese New Year, Gift Baskets Overseas is a reliable option.
You can learn more about fruit baskets through my post 4 Tips for Giving Gift Baskets in China.
P.S.: Still want more advice on giving gifts in China or for Chinese New Year? Don’t miss my most popular post on gifts, Giving Gifts to your Chinese family – A Modest Guide, or The Top 6 Gifts Sure to Please Your Chinese Family. And if you’re buying from abroad, you might also enjoy my post Gifts to Buy Abroad for Chinese Family and Relatives.