What gifts not to give your Chinese friends

Like everyone else, the Chinese love to receive gifts but some are very superstitious and the wrong gift could easily cause offense. These guidelines are intended to help you avoid the embarrassment of making a mistake.

Traditionally, the Chinese only gave gifts at the Lunar New Year, or for weddings and new births. These were given in the form of the well-known “little red packet” containing money, the red of the packet being indicative of good fortune. In modern times, as Western influence has increased, it has become more common for gifts to be exchanged at Christmas and birthdays. However, some  gifts could easily upset a Chinese.

Among the gifts to be avoided are:

  • Four of anything or anything containing the number four - in Chinese (both Cantonese and Mandarin in particular) the word for four is a homonym of the word for death and is therefore considered to be extremely unlucky. (The number eight, on the other hand, rhymes with to get rich and is looked upon with favour).
  • Knives and cutting utensils - these are unwelcome gifts from friends as they suggest that the relationship might be severed, which is probably the opposite of what the giver intends.
  • Textbooks - the word used for textbook rhymes with the Chinese word meaning to lose. Any Chinese who likes to gamble, even if only occasionally, would regard the gift as a harbinger of bad luck.
  • Flowers – the Chinese do not give flowers as gifts as they as they are closely associated with death and funerals. White flowers, in particular, are to be avoided as white is a funereal colour.
  • Clocks - the Chinese expression for giving a clock sounds just like that for attending a funeral and is clearly unwelcome.
  • Handkerchiefs - because of their association with wiping away perspiration and tears, handkerchiefs are suggestive of disappointment and grief and should therefore be avoided as a gift choice.
  • Shoes - the Cantonese do not like to receive shoes as a gift as their word for shoes sounds like a sigh. Shoes, therefore, have unhappy connotations.

If you bear these tips in mind you should be able to avoid offending your Chinese friends. However, if you really want to give someone a clock or set of knives or similar taboo item there is a way around the problem. It might seem embarassing but if you ask for a token payment he item is no longer a gift and the bad omens are removed.

A little knowledge of your friends’ culture can save a lot of grief and embarrassment. Of course, not all Chinese are superstitious but, if you are in any doubt about what to give, baskets of food like fruit and biscuits are an acceptable and safe option.