Gifting Taboos in Chinese Culture: Common mistakes

In Chinese culture, gifting is an art form, reflecting respect, gratitude, and social ties. However, knowing what gifts to avoid can be a delicate task.

Gifting Taboos in Chinese Culture: Common mistakes

In Chinese culture, gifting is an art form, reflecting respect, gratitude, and social ties. However, navigating the intricate web of what to give – and what not to give – can be a delicate task. Understanding these taboos is crucial for anyone looking to foster personal or business relationships in China. This blog post delves into the key gifting taboos in Chinese culture, offering insights to avoid cultural faux pas.

What gifts should be avoided in Chinese Culture?

1. Number Matters

In Chinese, the word for 'four' (四, sì) sounds similar to the word for 'death' (死, sǐ). Therefore, any gift that comes in fours, be it a set of cups or plates, is considered inauspicious. Always opt for gifts in even numbers, but skip the number four.

2. Clocks and Timepieces: A Sign of Parting

Giving a clock (送钟, sòng zhōng) sounds like the phrase 'attending a funeral' (送终, sòng zhōng) in Mandarin. This makes clocks, watches, or anything that measures time, an unwelcome gift, as it implies death or the end of a relationship.


3. Sharp Objects: Cutting Ties

Presenting someone with sharp objects like knives or scissors is seen as a gesture of severing the relationship. If you receive a knife or scissors as a gift, it's customary to give a small amount of money in return, symbolizing a 'purchase' rather than a gift.

4. Shoes: A Path to Separation

Shoes are often associated with the phrase 'to walk away' and can imply that you want the recipient to leave. It's especially taboo in romantic relationships, as it suggests a desire for the partner to walk away.

5. Mirrors: Attracting Negative Energy

Mirrors are believed to attract malevolent spirits and can bring bad luck to the recipient. They're also easily broken, which can symbolize the breaking of a relationship.

6. Umbrellas and Pears: Symbolizing Separation

In Chinese, the word for 'umbrella' (伞, sǎn) sounds like the word for 'breaking apart'. Similarly, the word for 'pear' (梨, lí) rhymes with 'separation' (离, lí). These gifts are thought to bring about the end of relationships and are best avoided.

7. Green Hats: Infidelity and Dishonor

Giving a green hat (绿帽子, lǜ màozi) is a major taboo as it's associated with infidelity. In Chinese culture, wearing a green hat implies that one's spouse or partner is unfaithful.

8. Handkerchiefs: A Symbol of Saying Goodbye

Traditionally used during farewells, handkerchiefs are linked to sadness and goodbyes. They are considered a gift that signifies the end of a relationship or friendship.

What if I already bought the gift?

Don't worry, there is a workaround  for those who may have inadvertently selected a less-than-ideal gift. Ask the recipient to give you a nominal amount of money ($1). This transforms the gift into a 'purchase', removing the idea of cutting ties / bad luck. 

Understanding these gifting taboos is essential for anyone engaging with Chinese culture. While the rules might seem complex, they are deeply rooted in language and traditional beliefs. By avoiding these taboo gifts, you show respect and sensitivity towards Chinese cultural norms, paving the way for harmonious relationships.

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