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The art of giving and receiving gifts in China

Even though Christmas has just passed, the major gift giving season approaches in China: Spring Festival (it is also a major time for illicit gifting). Giving and receiving gifts in China is something of an art, and the ritual can be as important as the gift itself. At work, my office is responsible for hosting visitors from other provinces and countries, so today I want to share with you some of the finer etiquette points I’ve picked up from watching this process dozens of times in the last year.

The Art of Receiving a Gift

If you’ve ever seen the fight for a bill at dinner, then you’ll understand why I’m starting with receiving first.

If you haven’t, it looks something like this: A group of friends are sitting around the table finishing a meal. One of them stands up and claims to be going to the bathroom or gives some other excuse and heads over to pay the bill. Suddenly the whole table jumps up and rushes over to the cashier, each person shoving money into the poor waitress’ hand. The friends take turns pushing each other’s money away from the waitress providing examples of why they should be the one who pays (yes, physically push). Finally, one person’s money is accepted, and the others thank them while insisting that they will pay next time.

What might seem at first as an argument is actually all part of the ritual. The person who has invited their friends to dinner is the one who will pay the bill, but if their friends don’t “try” to pay it could be seen as rude.

The same applies to receiving a more tangible gift. The person will hand the gift to the recipient, who is expected to at first refuse the gift. They will push it away saying something along the lines of “this really isn’t necessary,” or “it’s far too nice a gift to receive.” This isn’t done once, but several times. A person who easily accepts a gift could be seen as greedy or having an inflated sense of self-worth.

I’ve heard some people say that traditionally it should be refused three times, but from experience the number of times has to do with the relationship and the value of the gift.

Once you have accepted the gift, do not open it unless you are instructed too (often I am told to open the gift). Again, if you rush into opening the gift you will be seen as too eager. That being said, many Chinese people are aware that in the west people often open a gift in front of the giver.

Once you open the present, and say what a wonderful gift it is, there will be a second round of denial. The giver will say, “it’s just something simple,” but here you should insist that it is great.

I had this once go terribly wrong with a delegation from Germany. My hospital’s president said, “This is just a simple meal, we wish we could have provided something more delicious.” To which the German delegate said, “That’s ok, we have a tight schedule.” Luckily the translator stepped in and made up that the German had responded  appropriately.

The Art of Giving

For the most part when it comes to choosing a gift, the same rules apply as anywhere else in the world; what you give is a reflection of you and a symbol of your relationship to the recipient (co-worker, friend, boss…). However when it comes to giving gifts in China, there are a few additional tips that I have learned.

Firstly it is important to remember that gift giving is often reciprocal, if you give something the recipient is then expected to give something in return. A large gift might create a social burden that the recipient can’t repay, which would cause them to lose face. Give a gift that you could imagine receiving from the person to help maintain the social balance. (The essential cultural anthropology story of reciprocity pdf)

This is also important to keep in mind when receiving a gift. That phone call inviting you to that new fancy restaurant might have an ulterior motive (in my experience this is frequently followed by a request to teach someone’s kid English). If you don’ have any intention of returning the gift, it’s best not to accept it. If there is no existing connection, you are in the clear, but with friends, refusing a gift can be seen as an insult.

You can also earn face by giving a gift to someone closely connected to the person you are trying to build a relationship with. For example, I often give my co-workers’ children gifts which has the same social effect as giving it directly to them (kids can be easier to please and it puts less of a burden on the recipient). It is also helpful for avoiding much of the gift receiving routine.

I had a Chinese friend whose mother was a great seamstress. One of this mother’s friends wanted curtains made, but my friend’s mother refused to accept any pay for the work. Her friend was now in her debt. On my friend’s birthday though, she received a large gift from her mother’s friend who had never given her even a card before. Thus the debt was repaid, and her mother avoided the appearance of working for a friend (something of a social demotion).

If you have more helpful tips on gift giving and receiving in China, please share them below


8 Comments

  1. Augis says:

    In some situations these rituals can create awkward situations.
    For example, how exactly can I decline invitation (for dinner, for example) if I really do mean it!
    Possibly, the one who proposes will think I am just modest and will repeat the invitation again and again.
    Does it mean that I have to refuse it 4 times or are there any “hidden codes” signalling that we are just “playing the ritual”?

    • Tom says:

      There are some excuses that are outside of the ritual loop. For example, “I’m too busy with work,” or “I don’t have free time,” are often accepted as valid excuses that don’t cause a loss of face. These can also prevent the asking for favors, since it also hints at the fact that if you are busy with work now, you won’t have time to help with X.

      However if you try, “that’s not necessary,” or some other excuses that indicates that it is too much trouble or too expensive, than you will end up in the ritual loop.

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  3. M says:

    well only thing which came to my mind after reading about this hypocritical theatre is this scene from Big Bang Theory

    good for me I can always excuse myself being foreigner, because I really don’t want to follow everything as I am not following my flatmates not switching off lights, smashing doors or people blowing their noses on walkside, these theatrical performances with giving/receiving gifts or paying the bill in restaurant are among those chinese things I don’t plan to accept, because they are just stupid and I will be rather stupid rude foreigner than nice lying Chinese

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Just curious, M, what is your position on the cultural integration of foreign migrants/immigrants in your home country?

      • M says:

        our country don’t receive many immigrants, usually mostly hardworking Vietnamese/Chinese with small restaurants and clothes shops and vegetable/fruit shops, where I support them by buying in their shops because they work with lower profit and behave better than locals, no complains at all about them, they are nice, not making any problems in society and most of natives would prefer to have them for neighbor instead of our native gypsy leeches, I don’t care what religion they practice if they can behave like civilized people in public

        I can adapt to neutral or better cultural traditions, but will not lower my behavior to level of not civilized hypocrites, same with great tradition of sharing meals and ordering much more than I can eat to waste resources as much as possible with electricity or food because of no responsibility

  4. Pelo says:

    Great post. Very informative.

  5. Rich says:

    Tom,
    Interesting article. Are the same gift-giving customs observed in Taiwan? I ask, because I am teaching English to a former Taiwan citizen, who now lives in the US. (I am a volunteer at a non-profit organization.) My student told me a week or so before Christmas that he was going to give me a “small gift.” Looks like I inadvertently followed the gift-receiving ritual you described in your article, because I told him that was very generous, but not necessary. I expect that he will present the gift at our next study session. Thanks, in advance for your thoughts about this.
    Rich

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