By Richard Grams, Consultant, Oldham, Li & Nie.
Gift-giving and hospitality are time-honored traditions within mainland Chinese culture and still play a significant role in cultivating relationships, showing respect and appreciation. However, gift-giving in a business context is usually more nuanced due to the emphasis that Chinese place on hierarchy/social status and concerns about how actions reflect on themselves. Today’s more stringent anti-bribery enforcement climate also complicates business gift-giving in China.
What follows are some guidelines on gift-giving etiquette in Chinese business culture.
- Chinese place great emphasis on symbols and symbolic associations which may not be readily apparent to non-Chinese. Care must be taken in choosing gift items which are regarded as having symbolic significance.
- Give gifts to key business executives you visit, as a way to thank them for meeting you.
- Gifts exchanged in the context of an ongoing negotiation are acceptable but wait until avoid negotiations are finalized before giving gifts to avoid giving the impression that the gift is given for the purpose of influencing the outcome of negotiations.
- Colors carry great symbolism in China. Limit color of wrappings to Red, Gold, Silver and Pink. Colors such as white, blue, black or yellow wrapping with black text printed on should be avoided. To avoid wrapping being torn or creased from travel, wait until you arrive in China before wrapping the item. Speak with hotel staff about nearby gift-wrapping services.
- If giving multiple items, avoid giving 4 of any items as Chinese associate the number with death. The number 6 (六) sounds similar to the character for 'flow' (流), which indicates fluidity and that everything will go smoothly. The number 8 is considered the most auspicious number for the Chinese, mostly because the word 'eight' (八) in Chinese somewhat resembles the word for 'prosperity' or 'wealth' (发). A gift of either 6 or 8 items will be appreciated.
What to Give as Gifts
The ideal gift need not be big or expensive. It should, however, be something that the recipient will appreciate. Keep the following tips in mind:
- A gift that represents where you are from or an item which is not accessible in China will usually be highly appreciated.
- Avoid giving any gift that may regarded as extravagant as this may place undue pressure on the recipient to reciprocate. Reciprocity is a very important facet of Chinese culture and if the recipient feels unable to reciprocate, he/she will usually refuse to accept the gift offered.
- The more practical the gift, the better, as it will serve as an oft-used reminder of you and your thoughtfulness.
Suggested Gift Items:
- A bottle of good or very good wine, cognac or scotch whiskey since apart from the material value these represent, they also symbolize a toast to the good health of the recipient so regarded as very sincere
- A fine pen
- Memorabilia of a sports team near your company’s operations (a jersey with name printed – be careful with the colors)
- A coffee table book on symbolic moments in your country’s history or on wildlife, landscapes or art culture
- Good quality foreign cigarettes or cigars if the intended recipient is a smoker
- A small basket of apples is a popular tradition in China is to give apples especially on Christmas Eve. This is because Christmas Eve is called ‘Ping An Ye’ (平安夜), which sounds similar to the word for apple, and literally translates to ‘Peaceful, Silent Night’
- A leather wallet or other practical local handicraft especially if handcrafted in the country, region or city you are from
Items to avoid giving
- The word for ‘Shoes’in Chinese (鞋) sounds a bit like the Chinese word for ‘evil’‘heretical’(邪). It also giving them the tools to ‘walk away’and could be misinterpreted as you wanting to part ways, thus ending your relationship
- Avoid giving umbrellas, scissors, handkerchiefs or pens containing red ink and avoid signing cards with red ink.
- While most Chinese people would welcome receiving most fruit, especially apples, don’t give pears because the Chinese word for 'pear' (梨) sounds the same as 'to separate' or 'to part from' (离) and might imply that you hope the recipient's family will separate (through death or divorce).
- Flowers are generally fine but if you decide to give these, avoid white ones, especially Chrysanthemums, which are only used when visiting graves or during funerals.
- The Chinese word for 'four' (四) sounds similar to the character for 'death' (死) so avoid giving any item in a set of four.
Proper Etiquette for Giving a Gift
Chinese people believe that the manner in which a gift is given is sometimes worth more than the gift. The most common gift-giving faux pas can be avoided by following the tips below:
- Hierarchy is a treasured concept in China, with people at the higher levels of social strata receiving a great amount of deference. When making a gift to a company or to a group of people within a company, present it to the most senior ranking person in the room.
- In general, to avoid possible embarrassment, give the same type of gift to recipients at the same level within their organization.
- Giving a gift to an individual as a gesture of friendship rather than as a token of appreciation to the group that the recipient represents is usually best done in private.
- Chinese people are typically reserved and your gift is likely to be received with a reserved demeanor particularly if you give it in the presence of the recipient’s staff. Do not take this is a lack of enthusiasm for the gift; the recipient simply does not want to be cast as greedy.
- To avoid appearing greedy, the recipient may decline the gift the first time it is offered. Persist and ask again. It is customary for a gift to be declined up to 3 times before it is accepted so be prepared for this. If the gift has been absolutely refused, do not press on but politely acknowledge the refusal.
- Gifts are usually not unwrapped when they are received so do not be offended if the recipient does not open the gift in front of you. Chinese people do not usually open a gift in front of the giver to avoid possible embarrassment. Instead, a recipient will open it later and then call or write to thank the giver.
- Once the gift is accepted, express your gratitude that they have accepted the gift and proceed from there.
- Wrap gifts well and ensure that the wrapping is presentable before giving a gift. Never present a gift in the store bag the gift was purchased from.
- When presenting a gift, offer it facing the correct way to the recipient and do so with both hands. It signifies that respect and care has been taken. This is similar to the process of exchanging business cards.
- Unless the occasion is symbolic, do not photograph the gift-giving.
Proper Etiquette for Receiving a Gift
The procedure for receiving a gift is similar to that for giving one. Please note:
- You may be expected to initially decline the gift, 3 times customarily, before eventually accepting it and expressing your gratitude.
- When you do accept the gift, take it with both hands. As earlier noted, it symbolizes respect and gratitude for the gift and the thoughtfulness of the person giving it.
- Chinese people who have had previous contact with Americans or other Westerners may expect you to follow the American custom of opening the gift when it is received (ie: in front of the person giving). To avoid confusion, you can always ask, "Would you like me to open this now?
- Call or send a thank-you note. And, if possible, bring a gift of roughly similar value to give the giver on a subsequent occasion.