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August 12, 2013

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The dos and many don’ts of gift giving in China

A British expat asks us:

Are there any rules about giving gifts in China? What types of gifts should I give to locals? Which ones should I avoid?


A: China has a long tradition of giving gifts. We give presents on many occasions such as festivals, business meetings, weddings, promotions and birthdays. Moreover, we always give gifts when we visit someone’s home. In that case, fruit, dim sum and teas are the most common things to give. The value of the presents should be decided case by case.

We recommend you consider the background and the personal interest before choosing a gift for someone. Here is a list of items that you should avoid when giving gifts, according to Chinese customs:


In Chinese, clock sounds the same as zhong, which literally means “the end” and elderly people will associate it with “death.”


Just like we said earlier, fruit is the most common gift to take when visiting friends or relatives. But some fruits should be avoided, especially pears, which sounds the same as li, meaning literally “separation.” You can’t give pears to couples and lovers.


Umbrellas are unlucky gifts as the Chinese word sounds like san, which also literally means “separation.”


Shoes should not be presented to your boyfriend or girlfriend because, hypothetically speaking, he or she can run away from you after wearing them, which suggests the end of a relationship.

Sharp objects

Sharp objects can easily hurt people. On the other hand, as the saying goes yi dao liang duan, or make a clean break, if you give a knife to someone, they may link it with cutting off the relationship.


Never gift green hats to anyone. In China, “wearing a green hat” is an expression that is used when a woman cheats on her husband or boyfriend. The Chinese phrase sounds similar to the word for cuckold.


Chrysanthemums are often used to commemorate the dead. So it is definitely a bad gift choice when visiting friends or attending any celebration.

Certain numbers

Four sounds like si in Chinese, meaning “death,” so we should avoid this number or any other number that contains four. And 13 has become increasingly unacceptable to Chinese people in recent years.



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