Chinese Gift-Giving: What Not to Buy
Why Some Gifts to Chinese Friends and Acquaintances Should be Avoided
While giving a gift is much appreciated in Asian countries as everywhere, there are some gifts that are absolute no-nos in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
In these countries, politeness, in particular, polite language, is an important part of gift-giving. It is always polite to give gifts at festivities, or when you're attending special celebrations such as a wedding or housewarming, visiting the sick, or attending a dinner with people one doesn't know well.
Some gifts have subtle meanings associated with the name or the pronunciation of the name. You wouldn't want to remind a sick person about death or funerals, nor would you want to hint to people you've never met that you never want to see them again. Here are some gifts which have names with subtle linguistic impoliteness. Avoid these Chinese gift-giving blunders.
Gifts with Subtle Meanings
Clocks of any type should be avoided because 送鐘 (sòng zhōng, send clock) sounds like 送終 (sòng zhōng), the funeral ritual. Clocks also symbolize the truth that time is running out; therefore, giving a clock is a subtle reminder that relationships and life have an end.
To give a handkerchief to someone (送巾, sòng jīn) sounds like 斷根 (duàngēn), a farewell greeting. This gift is especially inappropriate for a boyfriend or girlfriend — unless you want to break up.
Offering your friend an umbrella may seem an innocent gesture; however, its subtle meaning is that you want to end your friendship with him or her. If it is raining and you are worried he or she will get wet, it is better for both of you to huddle under your umbrella until you reach your friend’s destination. Then, take the umbrella back home with you.
Gifts in Sets of Four
Gifts in sets of four are not good because 四 (sì, four) sounds like 死 (sǐ, death).
Shoes, Particularly Straw Sandals
Giving shoes 送鞋子 (sòng xiézi, give shoes) sounds similar to the word for break up. Also giving two shoes sends the message that you want the person to go his or her separate way; thus, ending your friendship.
A green hat is a metaphor in Chinese 帶綠帽 (dài lǜ mào, with green hat) that means that a man’s wife is unfaithful. Why green? A turtle is green and turtles hide their heads in their shells, so calling someone a ‘turtle’ will get you in trouble because it's like calling the person a coward.
Gifts Which Explicitly Refer to Funerals or Break-ups
Towels are gifts which are usually given out at funerals, so avoid giving this gift in other contexts.
Sharp Objects Like Knives and Scissors
Giving sharp objects that are used to cut things suggests that you want to sever a friendship or relationship.
Cut Flowers Particularly Yellow Chrysanthemums/White Flowers
Yellow chrysanthemums and white flowers of any kind are used at funerals, so giving white flowers is synonymous with death.
Anything in White or Black
These colors are often used during funerals so presents, wrapping paper and envelopes in these colors should be avoided.