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International Gift Giving Etiquette - China

GIFT GIVING IN CHINA* - Gift Giving Etiquette


General Guidelines

  • Lavish gift giving was an important part of Chinese culture in the past. Today, official policy in Chinese business culture forbids giving gifts; this gesture is considered bribery, an illegal act in this country. Consequently, your gift may be declined.

  • In many organizations, however, attitudes surrounding gifts are beginning to relax. In any case, you will have to approach giving gifts with discretion, as outlined in the following points.

  • If you wish to give a gift to an individual, you must do it privately, in the context of friendship, not business.

  • The Chinese will decline a gift three times before finally accepting, so as not to appear greedy. You will have to continue to insist. Once the gift is accepted, express gratitude. You will be expected to go through the same routine if you are offered a gift.

  • In the presence of other people, never present a valuable gift to one person. This gesture will cause only embarrassment, and possibly even problems for the recipient, given the strict rules against bribery in Chinese business culture. Do not take any photograph of any gift giving unless it is a symbolic gift presented to the organization as a whole.

  • Giving a gift to the entire company, rather than an individual, can be acceptable in Chinese business culture as long as you adhere to the following rules:

  • All business negotiations should be concluded before gifts are exchanged.

  • Specify that the gift is from the company you represent. If you can, explain the meaning of the gift to the receiver.

  • Present the gift to the leader of the Chinese negotiating team.

  • Do not get anything that is obviously expensive, so that the company will not feel obliged to reciprocate.

  • Valuable gifts should be given to an individual only in private and strictly as a gesture of friendship.

  • Make sure that the gifts given to people of the same level of importance are equitable or of similar grade. Somehow, they may find out later, and the difference may lead to strains in your relationship.

  • Do not wrap a gift before arriving in China, as it may be unwrapped in Customs.

  • If possible, have your gifts wrapped in red paper, which is considered a lucky color. Plain red paper is one of the few “safe” choices since a variety of meanings, many of which are negative, are attributed to colors in Chinese culture.

  • Pink and gold and silver are also acceptable colors for gift wrap. Wrapping in yellow paper with black writing is a gift given only to the dead. Also, do check the variations from region to region about colors.

  • Because colors have so many different meanings in this culture, your safest option is to entrust the task of gift-wrapping to a store or hotel that offers this service.

Appreciated Gifts

  • a good cognac, or other fine liqueur

  • a fine pen [not a pen with red ink--writing in red ink symbolizes severing ties]

  • solar calculators

  • kitchen gadgets

  • stamps, if the recipient is interested in them [stamp collecting is very popular]

  • a cigarette lighter, assuming the recipient is a smoker

  • Often, gifts are not opened in the presence of the giver.

  • Acceptable gifts for a company include items from your country or city, such as handicrafts, or an illustrated book. Be sure to bring a supply of these items with you, so that you can reciprocate if it happens that you are presented with a gift.

  • A banquet is usually a welcome gift; since it's likely you will be invited to one, you will have to follow Chinese business protocol and reciprocate. In some parts of China, although senior local officials host the welcoming party, you might be expected to pay for the cost of the banquet. Check this out and be prepared.

  • Gifts of food are acceptable, but not at dinner parties or other occasions where appetizers and meals will be served. Candy and fruit baskets, however, are acceptable as thank-you gifts sent after these events.

  • Eight is considered one of the luckiest numbers in Chinese culture. If you receive eight of any item, consider it a gesture of good will. Six is considered a blessing for smoothness and problem free advances. Four is a taboo because it means 'death.' Other numbers such as '73' meaning 'the funeral' and '84' meaning 'having accidents' are to be avoided.

Gifts to Avoid

  • Scissors, knives, or other sharp objects can be interpreted as the severing of a friendship or other bond. As a gesture of friendship, if you do want to give these items as a gift, ask your friend to give you a very small amount of money, such as 10 cents or One RMB in return for this gift. By doing so, you would have 'sold' it to him rather than given it to him.

  • The following items are to be avoided as they are associated with funerals: Straw sandals, clocks, handkerchiefs, four of any item [the Cantonese word for “four” sounds similar, in the same language, to “death”], gifts or wrapping paper in white, black, or blue.

*Chen, Peter P.W.  China Business Etiquette - Gift Giving.  Executive Planet.  30 July 2004 <>


Above:  The flag of China

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