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Chinese Culture: Chinese Gift-Giving Etiquette

Chinese Gift-Giving FAQ

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Lucky money
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Not only is the choice of gift important in Chinese culture, but how much you spend on it, how you wrap it, and how you present it are equally important.

When Should I Give a Gift?

In Chinese societies, gifts are given for holidays, such as birthdays, during official business meetings, and at special events like dinner at a friend’s home. While red envelopes are the more popular choice for Chinese New Year and weddings, gifts are also acceptable.

How Much Should I Spend on a Gift?

The value of the gift depends on the occasion and your relationship to the recipient. In business settings where more than one person will receive a gift, the most senior person should receive the most expensive gift. Never give the same gift to people of different ranks in the company.

While there are times when an expensive gift is necessary, over the top and lavish gifts may not be well received for several reasons. First, the person may be embarrassed because he or she can not reciprocate with a gift of similar value or, during business deals, especially with politicians, it may appear to be a bribe.

When giving a red envelope, the amount of money inside will depend on the situation. There is great debate over how much to give:

  • Chinese New Year:
  • The amount of money in red envelopes given to children for Chinese New Year depends on age and the giver’s relationship to the child. For younger children, the equivalent of about $7 dollars is fine.

    More money is given to older children and teenagers. The amount is usually enough for the child to buy himself his own gift like a T-shirt or DVD. Parents may give the child a more substantial amount since material gifts are usually not given during the holidays.

    For employees at work, the year-end bonus is typically the equivalent of one month’s wage though the amount can vary from enough money to buy a small gift to more than one month’s wage.

  • Weddings:
  • If you go to a wedding, the money in the red envelope should be equivalent to a nice gift that would be given at a Western wedding. It should be enough money to cover the guest’s expense at the wedding. For example, if the wedding dinner costs the newlyweds US$35 per person, then the money in the envelope should be at least US$35. In Taiwan, typical amounts on money are: NT$1,200, NT$1,600, NT$2,200, NT$2,600, NT$3,200 and NT$3,600.

    As with Chinese New Year, the amount of money is relative to your relationship to the recipient - the closer your relationship to the bride and groom, the more money that is expected. Immediate family like parents and siblings give more money than casual friends. It is not uncommon for business partners to be invited to weddings. Business partners often put more money in the envelope to strengthen the business relationship.

  • Birthdays:
  • Less money is given for birthdays than is given for Chinese New Year and weddings because it is viewed as the least important of the three occasions. Nowadays, people often just bring gifts for birthdays.

  • All Occassions:

For all occasions, certain amounts of money are to be avoided. Anything with a four is best avoided because 四 (, four) sounds similar to 死 (, death). Even numbers, except four, are better than odd. Eight is a particularly auspicious number.

The money inside a red envelope should always be new and crisp. Folding the money or giving dirty or wrinkled bills is in bad taste. Coins and checks are avoided, the former because change is not worth much and the latter because checks are not widely used in Asia.

How Should I Wrap the Gift?

Chinese gifts can be wrapped with wrapping paper and bows, just like gifts in the West. However, some colors should be avoided. Red is lucky. Pink and yellow symbolize happiness. Gold is for fortune and wealth. So wrapping paper, ribbon and bows in these colors are best. Avoid white, which is used in funerals and connotes death. Black and blue also symbolize death and should not be used.

If you include a greeting card or gift tag, do not write in red ink as this signifies death. Never write a Chinese person’s name in red ink as this is considered bad luck.

If you are giving a red envelope, there are a few points to remember. Unlike a Western greeting card, red envelopes given at Chinese New Year are typically left unsigned. For birthdays or weddings, a short message, typically a four character expression, and signature is optional. Some four character expressions appropriate for a wedding red envelope are 天作之合 (tiānzuò zhīhé, marriage made in heaven) or 百年好合 (bǎinián hǎo hé, happy union for one hundred years).

The money inside a red envelope should always be new and crisp. Folding the money or giving dirty or wrinkled bills is in bad taste. Coins and checks are avoided, the former because change is not worth much and the latter because checks are not widely used in Asia.

How Should I Present the Gift?

It is best to exchange gifts in private or to an entire group. At business meetings, it is bad taste to offer only person a gift in front of everyone else. If you have only prepared one gift, you should give it to the most senior person. If you are concerned about whether giving a gift is appropriate, it is okay to say the gift is from your company rather than you. Always give gifts to the most senior person first.

Don’t be surprised if your gift is immediately reciprocated with a gift of equal value as this is the way Chinese people say thank you. If you are given a gift, you should also repay the gift with something of equal value. When giving the gift, the recipient may not immediately open it because it might embarrass him or her or he or she may appear greedy. If you receive a gift, you should not immediately open it.

Most recipients will first politely decline the gift. If he or she profusely refuses the gift more than once, take the hint and don’t push the issue.

When giving a gift, hand the gift to the person with both hands. The gift is considered an extension of the person and handing it over with both hands is a sign of respect. When receiving a gift, also accept it with both hands and say thank you.

Post-gift giving, it is customary to send an e-mail or better, a thank you card, to show your gratitude for the gift. A phone call is also acceptable.

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