The ancient Chinese proverb “礼尚往来” (lǐ shàng wǎng lái, “courtesy requires reciprocation”) highlights one of the most curious and talked about aspects of Chinese business etiquette. The first character “礼” (lĭ, “courtesy”) expresses a sense of ceremonial observance for the Chinese, while the word “礼物” (lǐwù, “things of courtesy”) is translated as “gift”.
The exchange of gifts has a very important role in business relationships in China. Various online sources, books and manuals recount the value of tradition, explain how to behave and underscore that official politics prohibit the practice (which is considered corruption). In effect, the penal code of the People’s Republic of China (in the art. 164) clearly states: “Whoever gives money or something else to an agent of an organization, firm or other entity to obtain undue advantage, is punished…”. It is here however that doubts are raised.
How can you give a gift? What distinguishes it from simple corruption? And above all why is it so important in Chinese business relationships? To respond to these questions, we have to take a few steps back.
Why it’s important to give a gift?
The ancient roots of Chinese culture go back to Confuscianism: a philosophical, moral and political doctrine that places particular emphasis on a series of obligations and good standards meant to build and maintain harmonious relationships among men. In this context, the exchange of gifts in Chinese business practices has a fundamental role: it allows for the showing of respect, effort and enthusiasm in maintaining the “关系” (guānxì, “relationship”).
The subject of giving gifts in Chinese business practices is a rather delicate matter. Good etiquette requires that you remember to offer the gift with both hands. Don’t worry if your Chinese business partner will gently refuse it (two or three times), it is simply a sign of modestly and humility. Remember too to pay attention to the package: the color red is particularly appreciated because it symbolizes good luck.
What you shouldn’t give as a gift to the Chinese ?
If you have doubt about the gift itself, it might be useful to follow certain guidelines. Among gifts that are particularly not suited for Chinese business practices are objects that symbolize the breaking of a relationship, death, or displeasure. For example, “伞” (sǎn) which in Chinese means “umbrella” is pronounced the same as the verb “散” (sǎn), which means “to divide” or “separate oneself”. Therefore, unless it’s a rainy day, don’t give someone an umbrella.
Another would be, “送钟” (sòng zhōng) which in Chinese means “to give a watch” is a homonym of “送终” (sòng zhōng) which means ” to go to a funeral”. Avoid too medicines, handkerchiefs, shoes and chrysanthemums; not to mention sharp objects.
So… what do you give a Chinese person?
Some gift ideas would be: a book about your firm’s history (a dedication by your firm’s staff and management would be appreciated), handicrafts or products typical of your city or region.
Nevertheless, the best gift is probably an invitation to lunch or dinner: the gesture will surely be returned and will trigger a continuing cycle of reciprocating generosity. The Chinese don’t consider the equal value of gifts as we westerners do, but they will return the favor with a more valuable gift. And if you really want to be sure that you’ve made the right choice in gifts, ask for suggestions from friends and Chinese colleagues.
If however you feel the difference between a gift and a “bribe” is still a bit confusing, make sure the value of the gift, the time and reason for the exchange are appropriate. The objective is to show respect, not “seal the deal”. Offer the gift in the presence of other colleagues and make clear the reason for your gesture (for a celebration or as a thank you).
Is it really necessary to give a gift?
No, it isn’t necessary to give a gift, but knowing that possibility should make you think. At the end of a negotiation, a well received gift can nurture a relationship that in general terms will bring mutual advantages.
Developing business relationships in China also means building relationships that are more or less lasting. It involves numerous factors and identifying all of them isn’t easy. We can however confirm that reciprocity, trust and empathy are among the most relevant. This is why if you should receive a gift from your Chinese business partner, you shouldn’t forget another interesting Chinese proverb: “投桃报李” (tóutáobàolǐ, “if you receive a fish, repay with a plum”).
And you, have you had any particular experiences doing business in China? In what occasions have you given or received a gift? If yes, what did you choose as a gift?
My passion for China has brought me to undertake a study of the language and culture. A graduate in Intercultural Communication and a master of Communication Theory and Technology I have studied and worked in Italy, California, India and China.
At the moment I work for Daxue Consulting a strategic consulting firm specializing in market research in China, with offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. On Instagram, you can find me at LivingShanghai.cn.