Chinese New Year Gifting Etiquette

Gifting etiquette around Chinese New Year’s isn’t just for people in China, but is observed here in North America. If you have clients, friends or family celebrating New Year this coming week, you may find this information useful.

Chinese New Year is a time for giving; whether in the popular, traditional red envelope packets filled with money (红包 hóngbāo); or in the form of other material goods. But beware, even the most generous offering can be tainted if you show bad etiquette when giving a gift.

There are some basic rules to follow when selecting and giving a gift at any time of the year, but this is especially true at Chinese New Year. The act of giving during the Chinese New Year holidays is as much, if not more, about passing on good wishes and luck for the coming year as it is about the exchange of material goods or cash.

Colors

When giving a gift at Chinese New Year pay close attention to the color of the gift as well as the wrapping paper, bag or packaging in which it is delivered. The rules are simple; avoid white, as it is associated with funerals; and black or blue, as their are both synonymous with death. The best choices are red, yellow and gold as they all symbolize wealth and prosperity. The ideal wish for a New Year!

If you are buying money packets for Chinese New Year don’t be mistaken into buying white envelopes for as they are used to give money at funerals.

Numbers

Another thing to consider when planning gifts is Chinese superstition surrounding specific numbers. Never give a monetary amount that includes a four as the pronunciation of 四 (four) is very close to 死 (death). Besides four, most other even numbers are a safe choice. The luckiest number in China is eight so a number like 88 is an ideal amount to give.

In addition to money, these rule can also be followed when it come to giving goods. A set of four gifts should be avoided; whereas a set of eight is considered to bring luck.

The Act

Once you have settled on an appropriate goods or a sum of money to give, there are a couple of rules to follow when actually giving (or receiving) a gift.

First, when giving or receiving a gift always use two hands. This is a custom traditionally extended to the giving of things like money (when buying something) and business cards; however the practice has fallen away in many parts of China. It is, however, still an important part of gift-giving etiquette across the country as it shows respect and appreciation towards the act and the giver.

When giving money ensure it is crisp and new. People across China will spend the weeks preceding Chinese New Year withdrawing crisp notes from the bank. It is considered a sign of disrespect to give old or torn notes.

A general rule to follow if giving money to a large group or whole family is to always start by presenting a gift to the oldest (or most senior) member.

Also be aware that in China it is considered bad form to receive a gift and open it immediately in front of the giver. The person receiving the gift will likely express their thanks before putting the gift aside to open in private later; don’t take this as a sign of the receiver not showing gratitude or respect. It is expected that if you are receiving a gift you will do the same; put it to one side and open it at a later point.

Gifts for Friends

Choosing a New Year gift for your friends is based mostly on the intimacy of your friendship. Choosing alcohol, tobacco, flowers, tea, or fruits is common. If you want to be more adventurous, please take note.

Alcohol

If your Chinese hosts drink alcohol, preparing a nice bottle of alcohol could be a nice choice.

Tobacco

If your male Chinese host smokes, find out what he likes. He will appreciate a nice carton of whichever brand it is.

Tea

Most Chinese people love tea. Tea is always a nice gesture no matter whether your hosts are Chinese or not. A nicely wrapped box of tea is much better than giving bagged tea for gifts.

Fruits

Fruit baskets are a common and proper gift for your Chinese hosts, and they can be found in many large shops. However, some fruit baskets sold on the markets might hide some inferior-quality fruit at the bottom. If you want a satisfactory fruit basket, you could buy the fruit yourself and have the vendor wrap it for you, or wrap it with red ribbon yourself.

Giving a box of oranges or a box of apples is also recommended, because apples and oranges respectively symbolize safety and fortune.

Home Supplies

If your hosts have moved into a new house not long before hand, then home supplies such as a tea set, electrical equipment, or crockery are popular choices.

Gifts for Seniors

Instead of alcohol and tobacco, it is more popular to choose a New Year gift benefiting the seniors’ health. So anything you can think of that will make the seniors feel healthier and bring pleasure to their life is okay.

Hat, Gloves, Scarf or Clothes

If you are familiar with your hosts, you can prepare a hat, a pair of gloves, a scarf or some clothes as a gift for the seniors in your hosts’ family.

Comb or Foot Bath Massager

In traditional Chinese medicine, massage is a gentle and effective way to repair one’s body. A high-quality comb can be used to massage the head, and a foot bath massager will improve the blood circulation of the feet, which will bring the seniors warmth in a cold winter.

Gifts for Kids

The key point to choosing a New Year gift for your hosts’ children is to select an item which can express your good wishes to the children, either for their healthy growth or for their cleverness.

Candy

Take some candy with you during Chinese New Year; so that you can give some happiness to the kids you come across.

Red Packets for Children

If your Chinese hosts have children, do not forget to prepare some red packets (hongbao). Both the hosts and the children would appreciate it if you know the tradition.

School Supplies

Visiting your Chinese hosts with some school supplies like a writing pen, a school notebook or a nice box of painting brushes (if the kids are keen on painting) will give the kids a pleasant surprise.

Books

Books such as enlightening reading materials or one of the world’s great classics, ideally chosen according the child’s interests, are also highly recommended, and will represent your best wishes for their future.

Toys

A good-quality toy is also a nice gift for your hosts’ children, such as a Barbie doll for a little girl, and a remote control car for a little boy. A chess set or other game is a good gift for a teenager.

Things You Should Not Give as a New Year Gift

There are some things which are a big no-no to give to your Chinese friends during the Spring Festival. Don’t buy them, otherwise your friends may break up with you when receiving them.

  • Things in black or white: Red is the lucky color in China. As black and white are often used at funerals, white or black presents and wrapping paper should be avoided.
  • Necklaces: Don’t give a necklace as a gift to a platonic friend. Chinese people think things like necklaces, ties, and belts are associated with intimate relations. Sending things like these means you mean to build a close relationship. These things are often given by boyfriends/girlfriends or couples.
  • A green hat: Wearing a green hat means one’s wife is unfaithful.  So a green hat should be avoided.

While there is alot to remember and consider when gift giving in a traditional Chinese setting or special occasion, but it is well worth the effect and deeply appreciated by your clients, associates or friends.

Thanks for stopping by,

Carole Mac

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