Presents and the way they are wrapped are very important in China. Here are a few helpful suggestions to make sure that you save ‘face’ all round:
Give clocks. Clocks are regarded as counting the seconds to the recipient’s death. Also, the phrase ‘to give a clock’, sòng zhōng in Mandarin, sounds like a phrase for ‘terminating’ a relationship. However, giving someone a watch is fine!
Give umbrellas and pears. Sǎ, the word for ‘umbrella’, also means ‘to scatter or lose’. Fēnlí, ‘to share a pear’, also means ‘to separate’. This is also why Chinese people never slice up a pear and offer half to a friend.
Give knives, scissors and suchlike, as they are said to ‘slice into one’s fortune’.
When giving flowers, never give carnations, chrysanthemums or gladiolis, which are all flowers Chinese traditionally used to pay respect to the deceased. Also, never offer white flowers – again, they are used for funerals.
The number 4, sì, is the unlucky number in China. Sì le means ‘to have died’. As a result, giving anything in a group of 4 is a bad idea. The number 14, shì sì, can also be said as yāo sì, which means to want to die. Chinese people will avoid the number 4 in everything from product lines to mobile phone numbers. In Hong Kong, some high-rise buildings miss all floor numbers with a 4 in them. The number 8, on the other hand, is very lucky and it is said that the Chinese mobile phone number 138-8888-8888 was sold for 50,000 yuan (= more than 5000 Euros).
Give gifts in pairs or groups of even numbers. Odd numbers are considered unlucky, whereas it is an old saying that ‘blessings come in pairs’.
Wrap gifts in bright colours like red, pink and yellow. Avoid black and white, as these are associated with funerals.
The gift of a belt means you love them and want to ‘hold them’ forever (but maybe not appropriate for a business colleague…)
When someone has just settled into a new house, give them a vase, huāpíng,which sounds like ‘peace’.
On opening a shop or business, friends offer the bamboo flower. The rings on the bamboo stem represent your wish of continual growth and income.
The most popular presents are baskets of fruit (especially apples, píng guǒ,which sounds like a phrase for ‘peace’; but no pears!), boxes of sweets and cookies, pastries, good tea, high-end European chocolate, cartons of cigarettes, and bottles of good (foreign) wine or baijou, the national alcoholic drink distilled from sorghum.
Did You Know?
In Europe, flowers are often a favourite gift. But from country to country the customs vary. There are specific flowers to avoid, such as chrysanthemums (Luxembourg, Bulgaria); lilies, especially white ones (Cyprus, Germany, and many other countries); carnations (Germany) and gladiolas (Bulgaria). These are all associated with funerals. In Romania, you do not bring flowers in even numbers – a direct contrast with places like China, where pairs and even numbers are considered more fortuitous.
In Cyprus, consumable gifts such as pastries are preferred. In most of Europe, knives are never presented as gifts, as this would ‘cut up’ the friendship. You customarily offer a coin along with the knife, so that the receiver can ‘buy’ the knife off you.