Cultural Gifting

Is This for Me?

Giving gifts in China has always been a tricky business. Which gifts are “OK” and which are frowned upon? When should one give gifts and to whom? Dr. Caryn Voskuil and Haiyan Wang explain

A survey taken in the United States asked people to identify their least favorite gift. The most unwelcome gift turned out to be fruitcake, a traditional Christmas present in England and America. Number two on the list was ‘nothing’ — in other words, most Americans would rather receive nothing for a gift than receive a fruitcake!

Everyone has had the experience of receiving such a gift – one that they would rather not have at all. However, we are also taught to receive gifts graciously, no matter what our feelings about them may be. As gift-givers, we would all prefer to think that our gifts are both welcomed and cherished by the receiver. When one is in a foreign country, the task of selecting an appropriate gift becomes even more difficult. This is because different cultures have different traditions and expectations when it comes to gift-giving. China and the United States are no exception. For this reason, it might be useful to take a look at how gift giving differs in these two countries.

Personal Gifts in China and in America

In America, gifts are as different as the people receiving them. However, there are a few taboos to keep in mind. One should not give a gift of too personal a nature, such as clothing or makeup, to people who are not close friends or family members. Gifts of money are also considered uncouth in many instances, such as between lovers, friends, or business colleagues. The best guideline is to focus on what the person receiving the gift would like, not what we might like, because our tastes may differ greatly from theirs.

Gifts in China are also quite varied, and cultural norms are changing. Until relatively recently, for example, many Chinese did not regularly celebrate birthdays. Today, however, the celebration of a birthday is a common event, and the guidelines regarding gifts are much like they are in the U.S.A. There are, however, some uniquely ‘Chinese’ guidelines that one should follow when giving gifts for birthdays and other occasions. Appropriate gifts for younger children are generally toys and clothes, but for older persons, some prefer traditional gifts with special meanings. For example, peonies are given to older persons because they symbolize wealth and rank. Peaches are given as gifts to symbolize longevity, and to wish the person a long life. Cranes and turtles also symbolize longevity, so a gift which features cranes or turtles in the design is a particularly appropriate gift. While Chrysanthemums also symbolize longevity, they are considered unlucky, so do not make good gifts.

One should never give a clock to an older person, because the sound a clock makes sounds like the Chinese word for ‘end’, and therefore clocks are considered unlucky. Husbands and wives do not give each other pears because the Chinese word for ‘pear’ is ‘li’, which sounds the same as the Chinese word for ‘separate’. Additionally, gifts that are either black or white in color are considered inappropriate. This is because white is the color of mourning and represents deep sorrow, while black is associated with disaster and grief. Gifts should also never be wrapped in black or white paper.

Gifts for Social Situations

In America, when one is invited to dinner or a social event at someone’s home, it is considered appropriate to bring a token ‘hostess’ gift, such as a bottle of wine or flowers. Sweets are also an appropriate gift in these situations.


In China, fruit is the most common ‘hostess’ gift. Something delicate and beautiful is also acceptable – such as flowers, a picture frame, or anything that can be useful or attractive in the home. Tea is also an excellent gift for such situations, and an old saying points out that even though tea is light in color and taste, as a gift it signifies a great depth and weight of friendship between two persons. If the host has a child, then it is also appropriate to bring the child a gift, such as a small toy or a piece of clothing.

Gifts for Weddings

In America, it is today considered common for a couple to invite many persons to their wedding whom they may never have met or whom they donot know well. For this reason, registries have become all the rage. The couple selects a few favorite stores and at each picks out a list of items. Invitees can choose a gift for the happy couple from the list. Money is also generally considered an appropriate gift for weddings.

In China, money is the favored gift for weddings. In the past, practical household items were more common gifts, but money has become more and more popular in modern times. Interestingly, there is a regional divide pertaining to wedding gifts in China today: Weddings gifts in Northern China still tend to be practical, household items, while in the South, money is more common.

Gifts in the Workplace

In America, giving gifts in the workplace has become both a complicated and sometimes touchy issue. Many companies celebrate everything from employee birthdays to employee weddings and graduations. Gifts are often given for showers (wedding and baby) and the company policy will dictate the size and appropriate cost of such presents. For holidays such as Christmas, it is generally acceptable to give a small gift to one’s ‘secret Santa’ partner, or to supervisors and subordinates. However, this may vary greatly depending on the work environment. Be sure to check company policies before giving any gifts in the workplace.

In China, it is quite common for employees on business trips to bring back edible local specialties from the areas to which they have traveled to the home office to share with fellow employees. Baby showers are becoming more common in China, but it is more traditional to visit and give useful baby gifts to a newborn who has reached one month of age. At work, baby gifts are reserved for close friends, and are not given by those who only have a working relationship. Likewise, one does not hold bridal showers at work, and wedding gifts are given only by those who are invited to the wedding banquet. Always keep in mind that in all situations in China, it is considered bad luck to give an uneven number of something as a gift. Even numbers represent wholeness and harmony, while odd numbers are considered ominous and unlucky.

Clearly, there are both similarities and differences in beliefs and attitudes regarding gift-giving in China and in America. If one remembers the few simple guidelines above, however, one will be sure to give a gift that is treasured by the person who receives it!

This article was written by Caryn Voskuil and Haiyan Wang