Ask Mei

Gift giving

What are the basic rules for gift-giving in China?

Gift-giving or Song Li 送礼 is a ritual that’s as essential as eating and breathing in China. However, we Chinese normally don’t give gifts just for the sake of doing so. We often have other motives, which can probably be categorised as the following.

The first I’d term “obligatory gift-giving”. Most gift-giving in China falls into this category and the “gift” is typically cash in red envelopes (called Lai See in Cantonese-speaking regions). It applies to everybody and involves basic social relationships, including family, relatives, classmates, colleagues and business partners. With uniformity at the heart of Chinese culture, it’s understandable that we Chinese are terrified to be perceived by our social circles as aloof, anti-social or cheap. And that’s why people tend to give generously for occasions such as weddings, children’s birthdays, graduations, funerals and the Lunar New Year 农历年. I often hear young white-collar workers bemoan that such gift-giving eats heavily into their monthly income, but there is the consolation that they also have the opportunity to be on the receiving end at other points in their lives. Singletons may lose out, though, as wedding gifts tend to be the most lavish.

The second popular category is “expected payback gift-giving”, which can sometimes be classed closer to bribery. Up till President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption started two years ago, people were expected to give gifts to anybody who was providing them with a service – i.e. not only government officials and certain contractors, but also doctors and even teachers. The typical thinking: if I don’t hand over cash to the doctor as others do, he or she may not try as hard to cure me or my family. Or if I don’t buy my child’s teacher a Prada bag, she may pick on my child in school and make his/her life miserable.

The good news is that Xi’s crackdown has started to put a dent in such practices. We just need to see how long it may last.

In cases where you already have a personal relationship, this kind of gift-giving is often more of a calculated trade. The horizon tends to be much longer term, but done in the knowledge a future favour will be needed. For instance, if your Chinese colleagues need your help to sponsor their child’s college applications in the US, they probably won’t ask you upfront. Instead they will treat you to dinners and give you gifts to accumulate favours first (how many depends on what they are expecting from you in return). Then, when they ask for the favour, you will feel obliged to say “yes”.

I would also cite a third category of gift-giving as those relating to avoiding waste or seeking to recycle items gifted to you. This typically applies to older Chinese who have gone through hardship in earlier life and hate wasting anything. They don’t want to throw stuff away, so they’ll try to give things to relatives, friends and neighbours instead (who may or may not need them). The key is they still treat it as a favour to others, rather than as an environmentally-friendly alternative to throwing it away.

Of course, there is plenty of pure and innocent gift-giving in China too, especially among family members and good friends. The message behind this practice is pure appreciation, no different from the West. Among genuine friends the extent of the generosity is huge.

A native Chinese who grew up in northeastern China, Mei attended an elite university in Beijing in the late 1980s and graduate school in the US in the early 1990s. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China, both in the media and with two global investment banks, where she has honed her bicultural perspective. If you’d like to ask her a question, send her an email at [email protected]


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