The holidays are quickly approaching, and the season of giving gifts is just around the corner. Time to choose the ideal gift for your loved ones and friends—should you go for the creative gifts? The elaborate gifts? Or maybe just the good ’ol simple ones?
If you are an expat living in China, you may be pondering what gift to give to your new Chinese buddy. However, you are well aware that being in a new culture with different values and traditions, finding the appropriate gift suitable for the occasion can be a headache. Alas, this article can serve as your guide for this coming season!
So, what kinds of gifts do Chinese people like anyway? As it is with any other culture, every Chinese individual is different, which means each individual his a personal preference and taste when it comes to gifts. However, there are certain gifts you should never give in China.
Pears (梨) [lí]
Generally speaking, fruits are safe gifts to give on most occasions, with one exception—the pear (梨) [lí]. Juicy, sweet, and beautiful, pears are liked by everyone. But why then would this be a bad choice for a gift?
Let’s say you decide to pick up some fruit on your way to visit a friend. You believe pears are the perfect choice, because of their aforementioned delicious taste. But wait! If you bring pears as a gift to a married couple, or a patient in a hospital, it will be a big mistake. Why is that so?
梨 [lí] (pear) and离 [lí] (leave or separate) are phonograms, and giving pairs as a gift could impart a message with a double-meaning. To a couple, this message could imply that you wish for them to get divorced! And to a patient in a hospital, the gift of pairs could convey that you wish they would “leave this world” as soon as possible!
In fact, sharing a pear with your partner is also believed to be a bad omen to Chinese—an auspicious belief that you will be separated sooner or later. So be sure to avoid giving pairs as a gift!
Clocks (钟) [zhōng]
It’s overwhelming how many of the “forbidden gifts” have arisen from the issue of phonograms. 钟 [zhōng] (clock) has the same pronunciation as 终 [zhōng], which means ending or death. If you give someone a clock—an action translated as送钟 [sòng zhōng] in Chinese—it resembles another action which sounds exactly the same—送终 [sòng zhōng]—which means to attend the death of a dying senior member in one’s family.
Strangely enough, if a child gives a parent a clock as gift, there isn’t an issue. However, if careless parents give their child a clock as a gift, the inverse is true. This would be considered a curse because it suggests that the parents will bury their kids; in other words, it implies their children will die before them. In addition to being cautious among family members, it is best to avoid giving clocks to friends as well.
Books (书) [shū]
Likewise, don’t give books to Chinese people who work as stockbrokers, lawyers, or athletes. 书 [shū] (book) has same pronunciation as 输 [shū] (lose), and the aforementioned jobs are among the most competitive in the marketplace—always desiring to “win.” How would they even accept a gift that sounds like “lose?”
Quilts (被) [bèi]
Finally, the last of the “forbidden gifts” due to phonograms is the quilt. 被 [bèi] is pronounced the same way as 背 [bèi] (unlucky), which naturally is a “no-go” in the auspicious Chinese tradition. Offering a quilt as a gift in China is practically the same as wishing your friend a disastrous future!
“Hóngbāo” or Red Envelopes (红包) [hóngbāo]
So with all this talk about phonograms, you might be wondering whether there are other “bad gifts” to give that are related to other things. The answer is yes!
Many foreigners already know what a hóngbāo is. It’s the red envelope usually containing money that Chinese people give as a gift on certain occasions. If you are an expat, you might be thinking, “Well, money is money, and receiving a gift of money is always a good thing!” But did you know there are certain amounts of money you should avoid putting in a hóngbāo? And also, there are “better” amounts that will make people especially happy?
Any number with 4 is forbidden. (Again, phonograms!) This is because the number 4 (四) [sì] sounds like 死 [sǐ] (death). 6 and 8, on the other hand, are both very welcome. The reason that the number 6 (六) [liù] is popular is the well-known Chinese idiom 六六大顺 [liù liù dà shùn], which means “meeting 6 will make everything go smoothly.” Similarly, the number 8 (八) [bā] in Cantonese has same pronunciation as 发 [fā], which means to get rich.
In case you’re too undecided among which amount variations of 6 and 8 you should give, why don’t you go ahead and put 521 RMB in it? Doesn’t 521 (五二一) [wǔ èr yī] sound like 我爱你 [wǒ ài nǐ] (I love you) to your ears? Or, if your pockets can afford it, you can put 999 RMB in the envelope, because the number 9 (九) [jiǔ] is pronounced the same as 久 [jiǔ] (a long time), suggesting that you will love this lucky recipient for a long, long time! In fact, the more 9’s you put in, the longer your love for this person will last! So go ahead and offer 99,999 RMB, and perhaps the envelope will break, and you will be partners in love forever!
But be sure to avoid putting 250 RMB in a hóngbāo. The number 250 has an implied meaning: stupid! Why is this? Well, this originated from a story with a variety of versions, so nobody really knows where it came from. But rest assured, don’t offer anyone 250 RMB as a gift.
I hope this article served its purpose! Now go shopping, withdraw money from the bank, buy a bundle of hóngbāo, and most of all, Happy Holidays!
Hero Image (wedding gift) by julian wylegly (CC BY 2.0)