Chinese culture involves a lot of festivities. And almost any event can be a cause for celebration.
It’s just part and parcel of embracing the things that make people happy and that even the simplest things is a celebration of life.
For example, other than the traditionally celebrated festivals such as Chinese New Year, Dragon Boat Festival, Mid-Autumn festival and baby 100 days, etc, celebratory parties can be called for events such as:
- Children passing exams
- Starting of a business
- Moving into a new house
For every one of these events, a huge number of guests can be invited. And if you are invited to one, surely you won’t want to arrive empty-handed.
But what gift would you bring along for the hosts?
Consider that when a family finds an event auspicious enough to celebrate, it also implies that they probably have a list of events and things that are inauspicious as well. So it’s just good gift-giving etiquette to avoid buying gifts that can potentially be insensitive and offensive.
Here are some types of gifts to avoid bring to a party in Chinese culture and superstition.
The most infamous taboo gift of all is probably the clock.
While some might think that a clock is a thoughtful gift to bring along for an occasion like a housewarming party, it is actually a very taboo item.
This is because the word clock (送钟) is pronounced as zhong. Gifting a clock would be the term song zhong. This is similar in pronunciation to mandarin word 送终 which means to pay last respects to a deceased in a funeral proceeding.
The ticking nature of clock also gives the impression that someone’s life is ticking away.
This applies to watches as well. It doesn’t matter if the watch is an Armani made with real leather or a sporty Baby-G. Recipients, especially seniors will find it disgusting to receive such a gift.
The umbrella is one of those items that many find a hassle to carry around. But will thank their lucky stars for having one around when a situation calls for it.
The mandarin word for umbrella is written as 伞 and pronounced as san. This sounds phonetically similar to the word 散 which means to scatter.
So it is considered a very unlucky gift for families and couples.
Understandably, it is also not appropriate at all to give this to a business owner celebrating the company’s dinner and dance.
Following umbrellas, fans can also carry the same meaning of scatter as the word for fan is also a very similar homonym.
So don’t be tempted to buy that pretty oriental design fan for someone who is married or attached. This would imply a wish for them to breakup.
Even if a friend is single, the connotations with this gift is that your friendship would disband and dissolve. Blown away by the wind made by the fan.
The pear carries very similar symbolism to the umbrella and fan.
Even though the word 梨 has a very different pronunciation to both of them, it sounds phonetically similar to 离 which means to leave.
While fruit baskets are considered auspicious gifts to bring for an event like a housewarming, take note not to include pears in it. Otherwise it is like wishing for your friend’s wife to leave him.
The book is also another very thoughtful-looking gift to give a friend. But if your friend is a superstitious Chinese, a book is like calling for failure.
This is because the word for book is 书 and pronounced as shu. This is a homophonic pun on the word 输 which translate to lose.
Giving someone a book or notebook is like wishing him or her failure in all competition and career. Not the best wishes for someone you hold dear.
The good news is that now you know what gift to send someone you loathe at work.
Eggs should not be sent to students as gifts during exam season as it is a reference to them scoring zero for their tests.
The mandarin word for zero is actually ling (零). But in casual conversation it is often expressed as ling dan (零蛋). The word 蛋 translates as egg.
Very fitting that the number 0 is shaped like an egg.
7) Elongated shaped boxes
Large rectangular and elongated boxes with no distinctive features that allow an observer to tell what it contains immediately should also be avoided as gifts.
This is because they can resemble coffins. This also applies to larger containers such as empty fish tanks.
Because of the innovative premium candle products that have come onto the market in the last decade, candles have become more and more common in gift giving.
Some popular items include scented candles, aromatherapy tealight candles, electronic flickering candles, etc.
While they can be a pleasure to look at and does wonders to the ambience of living spaces, be mindful that candles in Chinese culture are closely tied to offerings made to the departed. Especially red candles.
Don’t make this mistake of using them as gifts.
The same with candles, incense sticks have become more popular in recent years.
No matter if the aroma is that of lavender, eucalyptus, bergamot, or choisya, incense are traditionally meant for prayers and offerings made to deities and the departed such as ancestors.
They should be avoided as the elderly especially, can find it a very insensitive gift.
10) Small bottles
Small bottles where the contents also cannot be observed immediately can often be frowned upon by seniors.
This is because they resemble medicine bottles.
Giving someone this as a gift is like wishing for him or her to be on medication due to health problems.
11) Green hat
There is a wide assortment of hats available these days. Whether it’s a beanie, a cap, a hat or even a helmet, a green head gear is considered a very bad accessory associated with infertility.
The expression is often said that a wife that is having an affair is putting on a green hat on the husband. So for a man to wear a green hat is like calling on the cosmos for his wife to stray.
It can sometimes also refer to a man raising a child thinking it’s his, but is actually another man’s child the wife secretly conceived behind his back. Sort of liek a cuckoo bird. Utter humiliation in Chinese tradition.
Shoes don’t always fit right even when you get them in the right size. So it’s a puzzle why some people find them as good ideas as gifts.
But other than that the Chinese word for shoes is 鞋, pronounced as xie. This can be a word play that sounds the same as the word for evil 邪.
So sending this as a gift is like sending evil forces to wreak havoc in the receiver’s life.
13) Color combination of black and white
The color combination of black and white is associated with Chinese funerals.
It can also be a reference to the Black and White Impermanence (黑白无常) which is a term used to describe two deities whose job is to escort spirits of the recently deceased to the underworld.
Needless to say, gifts with such references are best avoided for anyone who means something to you.
14) Money with the number 4
Giving someone red packets is a common practice in all sorts of joyous events including weddings, baby showers and CNY, etc.
When doing so, it is important to note that the amount of money contained in these red envelopes should not bear the number 4.
This is because the word for 4 (四) sounds very homogeneous to the word 死 which means death.
Especially to the elderly, the number 4 is a taboo symbol that many wants to avoid as much as possible. It would be very insensitive to send someone a death note.
This also means that gifts that are bundled such as a utensils set should not have 4 items.
For those who are extra sensitive and superstitious, the number 2 can be seen as a play on the word 饿 which means hungry. So putting the numbers 24 together would mean that someone would die of starvation.