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Present and Correct

In China it is not necessarily enough to know someone well, you also need to understand thousands of years of complex social customs to buy them a gift

By Micheal Jones Updated Apr.1

I’ve always enjoyed giving gifts. I am one of those strange people who genuinely derives pleasure from spending hours perusing shops buying presents. I like to find special items, which seem perfect for people, and once I see them, I tend to buy them regardless of the price. Strangely, I absolutely loathe shopping for myself, although that is probably best left for an article of its own, or a session with a therapist. Nevertheless, when the right occasion arrives, I love to hit the shops with a pocket full of dreams and credit cards.  

However, having lived in multiple countries, one rapidly learns that different cultures tend to have very different traditions regarding when they exchange gifts. Growing up in Europe, Christmas was always the primary time of year for buying presents. However, with family members and friends from different religions and cultures there are many opportunities throughout the year to give gifts including Ramadan, Baisakhi, Diwali and Hanukkah. Meanwhile, in China there is no greater or more important annual gift-giving event than Chinese New Year. 

Exchanging gifts with people of different cultures can, occasionally, present problems. When choosing gifts, it is important to consider the traditions and rules that govern someone’s life. Indeed, this is essential to the gift giving process. You must know your recipient, understand them, appreciate when they like and what they enjoy, what they indulge in and what they refrain from. If you understand these things, it is easy to buy anyone the perfect gift.  

Until you move to China.  

China can be confusing. This is especially true when it comes to symbolism and traditions. In China it is not necessarily enough to know someone well, you also need to understand thousands of years of complex social customs to buy them a gift. Take for example the beautiful green hat that I recently bought my mother. Thankfully she is not Chinese, because had she been she might have interpreted the gift as suggesting that she was in an unfaithful marriage. I likewise recently sent my aunt a bouquet of white and yellow chrysanthemums. As a British woman she appreciated them greatly, whereas a Chinese person might have taken extreme offense due to funeral connotations.  

Unfortunately, it seems that there are many otherwise perfectly acceptable gifts that in China are linked to funerals. These include black objects, white objects, scented candles, clocks and watches. Indeed, one wonders how the marketing geniuses in Patek Philippe and Rolex plan to confront that challenge. Meanwhile a handkerchief, pear, or any sharp object can be seen as a symbol of parting or cutting loose a relationship with someone.  

Some of the symbolism seems clear. Sharp objects could cut someone loose and sad people cry into handkerchiefs. However, other symbolism, such as the pear, arise from a peculiarity in the Chinese language where words that sound vaguely similar suddenly adopt traits from each other. When I first learned this I was rather surprised, not least because I wondered who would ever consider giving a pear as a gift. Mind you, this is the culture where giving an apple is a modern Christmas tradition.  

Perhaps then it is good that China has a tradition of giving money, rather than physical presents, at Chinese New Year. Normally, I passionately resist giving money as a present. I feel that it lacks thought. However, it is undoubtably better to give someone money than to spend three days shopping only to buy someone a gift that accidently implies their husband is cheating on them. Luckily money is simple, you just place some notes in a red envelope, and all is well. Or at least that is what I once hoped.  

It turns out that, in China, the amount of money you give someone carries a powerful message, and it is not simply a case of “the more the better.” Giving someone 444 yuan or dollars or euros might sound better than giving them 88, but due to social customs giving someone 88 of anything implies great luck, whereas 444 of anything implies death.  

Generally speaking, sixes and eights are good and fours are bad in China. However, there are many other numbers with hidden meanings. So, when giving a gift, 168 yuan might be the perfect amount, as it implies prosperity. If you are looking for a bigger gift, then 1,366 yuan would be wonderful as it expresses luck for the future. However, be careful of giving 520, 1,314, or 3,344 yuan as these can indicate your undying love for someone.  

With all these complications gift giving in China is rather like walking through a minefield. Indeed, my years of gift giving in China have probably caused more offense than joy. No wonder I recently got a bill for exactly 250 yuan, a number which implies I have only half a brain.