In the Chartered Institute of Linguists magazine “The Linguist” (Feb-Mar 2013), James Farmer wrote an interesting little article about his experience with gift-giving taboos. He was working in the UK Service back in the 90s, promoting trade to Japan. A small giftware business owner, on a trade-promotion trip to Japan, presented to his Japanese business partner a paper knife of good quality English silver. The business partner’s face froze in horror on receiving the gift. In Japan, if someone is presented a knife, he is expected to use it on himself!
Whilst it was amusing reading this little article, I thought I better blog about the Chinese gift-giving taboo so that the best intention won’t create the most awkward moment in a business/political situation.
Things that you must avoid:
1. Clock. In Mandarin, to give a clock “song zhong” has the same sound as holding/attending a funeral. Don’t think anyone would appreciate this kind of “best wishes”.
2. Umbrella. Some people say it’s because umbrella “san” sounds like funeral “sang”, others say it is because “san” when pronounced slightly differently could mean separation. Surely you don’t want people think that you are cutting off from them.
3. Pear. Whereas Chinese do have this tradition of taking a basket of fruit to a friend’s or relative’s house during holidays, pears are to be avoided. Pear “li” also has the same pronunciation as separation, so should never be given to couples.
4. Shoes. Shoes has the same pronunciation as evil, so remember not to bring evil to others’.
5. Sharp objects, e.g. knife, sword. On one hand, it suggests wound, hurt, on the other hand, it could imply whoever presents this present is hoping to cut off the relationship with the recipient. However, if the person you are giving this gift to is a kungfu fan, or a collector, it is absolutely fine to give a knife/sword as a present.
6. Green hat. I doubt if you will ever see a Chinese wearing a green hat, simply because in Chinese, if someone’s partner cheats on him/her, that person is said to be “given a green hat”.
7. Chrysanthemum. Chrysanthemum is typically used in funerals. Should be avoided when giving flowers as a present.
There are of course other specific objects to be avoided in different regions in China. but the above listed are the major ones to remember and avoid. Good luck finding a good present. And remember, no green hat!
This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified)