Giving gifts is a great way to show appreciation, gratitude, or love, but there are a few things that shouldn’t be given as gifts in chinese culture. Some are due to double meanings, others due to symbolism, but just to make sure you don’t slip up and accidentally give your friend a taboo gift, pay attention to these key gift taboos!
1. Fans (扇) and Umbrellas (傘)
Fans, or shàn, and umbrellas, or sǎn, should not be given as gifts—they seem like very practical gifts, but their pronunciation is very similar to the word sǎn/sàn (散) (can be pronounced both ways depending on place in the sentence), meaning to scatter or separate. Giving a fan or umbrella to someone can be representative of wanting to break up a good relationship or drive someone away from you, so giving these as gifts to your new friend might not be the best idea. (A similar sentiment follows for sharp objects like knives and scissors—not because of wordplay, but because of the idea that a sharp object will ‘cut’ a relationship short.)
2. Clocks (鐘)
There’s a phrase in chinese, sòng zhōng (送终), which means the paying of one’s last respects to a deceased family member or loved one after burial or cremation. Unfortunately, the chinese for gifting a clock, or 送 (give) 鐘 (clock), is pronounced exactly the same way. Clocks, especially when given to older people, are thus seen as bad luck heralding death, also symbolizing somebody ‘running out of time,’ and should not be given, unless the clock or watch is of a particularly expensive brand or a luxury product very clearly meant to be a gift—most of the time it’s best to avoid giving these kinds of gifts altogether.
3. Pears (梨)
Another instance of wordplay is with the gift of pears. Fruits are often great gifts, but one in particular that shouldn’t be used as a gift is the pear, as the word for pear, lí (梨), is pronounced the same way as the word 離, which means to leave or part—not the best message to send in a relationship. On the other hand, other fruits like apples and tangerines are great choices for gifts—many fruits fit into good chinese blessings and can be very good luck, just remember not to use this one!
4. Shoes (鞋)
If you haven’t caught on by now, a lot of gift taboos are a result of wordplay leading to bad luck. The same is true of shoes, pronounced xíe (鞋)—the same as the word 邪, or evil, in chinese. This isn’t the strictest taboo, but it can be a sign of bad luck, so you may be better off gifting a different article of clothing or an accessory—try a purse or a nice coat, instead.
5. Flowers (花)
Obviously not all flowers are forbidden gifts! Cut flowers are often used for funerals, though, and it’s best not to give certain flowers as gifts. Chrysanthemums, for example, are usually associated with death, so giving them to old or sick people is usually not a great idea. White flowers are often used in funerals as well, since white is a color typically associated with death and mourning (kind of like black in western culture), so a whiteout bouquet can be a little strange to give to your friend who’s still alive and well. Plum blossoms, gladiolus flowers, and jasmine are other examples of flowers that might not work out due to word rhymes, but not as bad as chrysanthemums or a bunch of white flowers. Roses, peonies, and camellias are far more popular as gifts.
6. Four (四)
Lastly, try not to give things in groups of four! Four, or sì (四), rhymes with the word for death, sǐ (死), and is usually seen as a number of bad luck. Instead, try giving things in groups of six or eight, both of which are seen as the luckiest numbers, indicating wealth and good fortune (very popular motifs in chinese culture, if you haven’t noticed by now).
Hopefully these tips are helpful for your next gift-giving occasion! Some of these taboos aren’t too serious, and if you’re from a background where you wouldn’t have known these taboos growing up, most people will be pretty forgiving, so don’t beat yourself up about giving something that might have been bad luck to a chinese friend in the past. In the end, gifts are just a show of good will, and it’s the thought that counts!