red envelopes

Red Envelopes
Photo Credit: _YoYoH_ via Compfight cc

It’s the holiday season, and you’ll probably be giving lots of gifts. Sometimes it can be a challenge to decide what is appropriate to a particular situation. The challenge is even bigger when you’re dealing with people in another culture.

We’d like to share some things we’ve learned about gift-giving in Chinese culture.  These are only simple guidelines, but we hope you find them useful.


In a business setting, if you give a gift, only do so after negotiations are concluded. Specify that the gift is from your entire company, and explain the meaning of the gift (for example, if it is unique to your home city).  Present the gift to the leader or highest ranking person.  Bring something for the whole team that can be shared, like candy or fruit.


A gift might be politely refused, one or more times.  Offer it again, but if the refusal continues and is profuse do not push the issue. The person is probably embarrassed that they don’t have a gift to give you, or is otherwise concerned about the propriety of accepting a gift.  For example, a gift may be refused if there is a possibility it might be perceived as a bribe.


Present a gift with both hands—the gift is an extension of yourself.  Always accept a gift with two hands as well to show respect.


Don’t expect someone to open a gift in front of you—the recipient does not want to appear greedy. Similarly, you should not open a gift immediately.  Say thank you when it is received, and open it later.  If you are traveling on business you should pack several additional tasteful gifts in case you are given a gift you did not anticipate, and which you would like to reciprocate.


Wrap gifts in red paper (luck) pink paper (happiness) or gold paper (good fortune).  Do not use black, white, or blue wrapping paper, which connote funerals and mourning.  Beyond this general rule, there might be regional differences in color meanings, so it’s a good idea to have a gift wrapped at a local store or hotel if they offer this service.  If you are bringing a gift from your home country to China (or any other foreign country for that matter) don’t wrap it before you put it in your luggage, because it might be unwrapped to be inspected at Customs.


Never give a gift that numbers four items. The number four sounds like the word for death.  Eight is a very good number of items to give. If you are visiting someone’s house, eight Gerbera daisies are a safe choice. Click here for meanings of other flowers.


Don’t give a man a green hat (“to wear a green hat” means someone’s wife is unfaithful!)  Also don’t give clocks as gifts, as they signify counting the minutes before death, and “to give clock” in Chinese sounds a lot like “attending a funeral.”  Don’t give a fan, as it signifies scattering and dispersal, or knives or scissors, which can suggest the severing of a relationship.


If you include a gift tag or message, do not write in red ink, especially the person’s name, because this is considered bad luck.


For Chinese New Year and weddings—give cash in Red Envelopes. Bills should be crisp, clean and new, not folded, dirty or wrinkled. Red Envelopes on New Years are left unsigned, but for birthdays or weddings you might include a short message.

There are many, many spoken and unspoken rules about giving gifts in all cultures, so always do a little research to increase the chances that gift giving will bring joy to both the recipient and the giver!