15 Chinese Gift-giving Superstitions

15 Chinese gift-giving superstitions

Every culture has its own rules and superstitions about gift-giving. Chinese culture is not an exception. Sharp objects, lucky numbers, and colors, objects that attract evil spirits or bad luck and many more, they are all part of traditional Chinese gift-giving superstitions.

These superstitions have been transmitted throughout the generations, and each of them has its own unique reasoning behind it.

Some of them may seem silly but gift-giving is all about made the recipients feel nice and to let them know you thought of them. So make sure you do not give the wrong gift.

Thus, when you want to choose a gift for a Chinese friend, be sure to pay attention to these Chinese gift-giving superstitions.

1. Knives and other Sharp Objects

Knives and other sharp objects convey a sense of danger because of their sharpness. But for Chinese people, it is more than this. A common Chinese saying  一刀两断 (yì dāo liǎng duàn) which literally means “one knife, two halves”. 

So by giving your Chinese friend a sharp object, you may inadvertently send a message that you want to cut off your relationship with him.

2. Gifts in sets of four

The number four, in Chinese, (四 sì ) has a similar pronunciation with death (sǐ 死).  Thus, anything with this number is considered unlucky.

The same goes for 14, 44, 444  and so on. So, avoid giving gifts that the quantity meets these numbers. Complying with the exact same reasoning in some buildings and hotels, there is no fourth floor.   

3. Shoes

Giving shoes as a gift is associated with another superstition. Primarily the whole idea comes from the Chinese word for shoes (鞋 xié) which sounds similar to evil (邪 xié ). So giving someone a pair of shoes is like giving them a bad spirit. Additionally, it is believed that it sends the message of ending your relationship. Therefore, it is an inappropriate gift between dating couples. However, this superstition does not apply to close family members.

15 Chinese gift-giving superstitions
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4. Handkerchiefs

Handkerchiefs are gifts that are usually given at the end of a funeral as a farewell greeting. So, giving handkerchiefs is like saying goodbye forever. Of course, it is another inappropriate gift between dating couples.

5. Clocks

The Chinese language is again responsible for this superstition. This time, the phrase ‘giving a clock’ (送钟 sòng zhōng ) sounds just like the phrase for ‘attending a funeral ritual’ (送终 sòng zhōng).  Additionally, clocks symbolize the truth of time passing by. It is a reminder that all relationships and eventually life have an end. It is one of the biggest superstitions in Chinese gift-giving culture. It is especially inappropriate if the recipient is an elderly person.

6. Pears

Giving fruit baskets is a common gift in China. Pears are the exception. This is because the word for ‘pears’ (梨 lí ) sounds just like the word for leaving (离 lí), that implies the connotation of separation. So be sure to remove the pears from the fruit basket when you plan to give them as a gift.

7. Chrysanthemums and White flowers

Flowers are a generally accepted gift. But yellow chrysanthemums and white flowers are exceptions because they represent death. They are traditionally used as a gift for funerals. White is a color for funerals and therefore unlucky. So, you can’t give these particular flowers as gifts for a happy moment. 

8. Umbrellas

It is common sense that if it rains, it is appropriate and polite to offer an umbrella to a friend. But if you give it as a gift it has a different meaning.

The language again, the Mandarin and Cantonese word for ‘umbrella’ (伞 sǎn ) sounds similar the word for ‘ separate’ (散 sàn). So, giving your friend an umbrella as a gift indicates that you want to end your relationship with him(or her). Even worse if you give an umbrella as a present to a married couple since it indicates that you wish them to get a divorce.

15 Chinese gift-giving superstitions
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9. Things in black or white

So far we have seen the sensitivity of Chinese people with everything about death. This sensitivity (again) is the origin of this superstition. Black (黑色 – hēi sè) and white (白色 – bái sè) colors are used at funerals and as consequence are associated with bad luck. In particular, white is considered the color of sadness and black as the color of mourning.

Thus, black or white gifts or wrapping paper of these colors should be avoided. On the contrary, red is the lucky color in China, so it is always a great choice for envelopes, gifts or wrapping paper. (Read our article on red envelopes which contains detailed information about them.-opens in a new tab)

10. Mirrors

In many cultures across Asia, mirrors are not a good idea for gifts. It is believed that mirrors attract evil spirits. So, giving a mirror as a gift could cause negative changes in the recipient’s life. Moreover, if the mirror breaks, it is considered a bad omen.

11. Wallet

Giving a wallet as a gift between lovers or married couples is acceptable, but you can’t give it to someone else. This superstition is due to their belief that offering a wallet as a gift could bring bad luck to their financial status.

12. Belts, Necklaces

Necklaces, ties, and belts are considered gifts to be given between couples (married or not). They are gifts for intimate relationships. So this is not the right gift for regular friends.

13. Green Hats

Green hats have a very strange and special meaning in China. There is a metaphor “to wear a green hat”  (戴绿帽 dài lǜ mào) associated only with men and means that a man’s wife or girlfriend is unfaithful. So if you intend to give a hat to a Chinese friend make sure it is not green.

15 Chinese gift-giving superstitions
Image by InspiredImages from Pixabay

14. Antiques, Old Gems and Cloth Dolls

Antiques and old gems can be valuable, but they are not good gift choices according to Chinese customs. This is because of the superstition that these kinds of objects easily attracts the evil spirits to live in them.

The same goes for the cloth dolls. Some people consider cloth dolls as “vile characters” (小人) which attract evil spirits.

15. Candles

Chinese people are mostly using candles during prayer time and rituals for the dead.  Thus, giving candles as presents is not a good idea. 

Some more Gift-giving Facts

  • In Chinese culture, red traditionally symbolizes good fortune and happiness. But, you should never write a Chinese person’s name in red ink, as some people believe it will bring that person bad luck.
  • The gift should be nicely wrapped, preferably with red or gold wrapping paper.
  • If you give presents to seniors or people who have a higher social status than you, always present it with both hands as a way to show respect
  • Chinese culture puts much more value on symbolism and the presentation of a gift than the gift itself. 
  • Opening the presents and giving comments about it is considered rude and disrespectful in Chinese culture.
  • One of the traditional gift-giving rules is that Chinese people must typically decline a gift two or three times before accepting it. 

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Featured image: “Chinese Shadow Puppets” by Ernie R is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0