Don’t Give These 10 Things to Your Chinese Family
Gifting is an art, if not a minefield, in Chinese culture, what with its myriad of superstitions and customs. But not anymore: As long as you stay away from our list of don’t-evers, you’ll be safe from embarrassment the next time you swing by a Chinese household.
This one tops our chart because of its notoriety in the Chinese speaking world. The action of giving a clock happens to be the homophone, in both Cantonese and Putonghua, of song zung (literally “gift the end”), which means taking care of or ultimately burying a dying relative. This taboo resulted in a small diplomatic crisis in Britain last year, when Baroness Kramer, Minister of State for Transport, gave the mayor of Taipei a pocket watch as a token of friendship. The mayor then responded that he might re-gift it to someone else, or worse, sell it to a scrap metal dealer. Guess he didn’t like the gift.
If you think you can never go wrong with a good old fruit basket, think again. The Cantonese pronunciation of pears sounds the same as lei, which means leaving. Sharing a pear—fan lei—with your loved one is also a no-no as it sounds the same as the phrase “to separate” in Chinese.
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A sassy pair of leather loafers sounds like the best Father’s Day present? Bad idea if daddy’s a traditional Chinese. This is because “shoe”, pronounced xié in Putonghua, is a homophone of “evil”, so giving people shoes would mean passing on bad luck; while in Cantonese, the pronunciation of "shoes"—haai—resembles a frustrated sigh. In addition to that, giving people shoes also bears the connotation of making them walk away from you.
Umbrella—saan—is the homophone of “separation” in Cantonese. The receiver might take a cue from that and stop keeping in touch afterwards. Definitely not the best gift for an anniversary or Valentine’s.
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Besides the fact that it’s pretty hard to buy a perfectly fitted hat for another person, hats don’t make it to our “most wanted gift list” for several other reasons. First off, it is a Chinese funeral ritual to wear white, cone-shaped hats when senior relatives die, thus it’s considered bad luck to give hats to others. Green hats are also a big no, as the Chinese expression “wearing a green hat” refers to a cuckold: This saying dates back to the Yuan dynasty, when prostitutes had to wear green clothing and headwear to indicate their trade.
If you’re trying to get creative with bouquets, think carefully what you’re putting in them. Chrysanthemums, one of the “Four Gentlemen among Flowers” in Chinese art, are a symbol of nobility according to the famous poet Tao Yuanming. However, white chrysanthemums also carry the meaning of grief in Chinese culture, which is why people often bring a bunch of these when they go tomb sweeping. It might be safer to stick to roses after all.
7. Human-shaped objects
Thanks to all those horror movies featuring creepy, smiling dolls, you’d think people would be more cautious about giving out dolls. Not only in western culture are puppets and dolls possessed by demons: They are also considered to be siu jan (villains, literally “small man”) according to Chinese belief, and offering one as a gift means inviting bad spirits into the recipient’s home.
8. Sharp objects like knives and scissors
Though we can’t really think of a good reason to visit any home with a knife wrapped in ribbon, here’s a reminder just in case: There is a Chinese saying jat dou loeng dyun (making a clear break from someone, literally “one knife two breaks”), which would give the receiver the impression that you wish to end your relationship.
A pocket handkerchief might be a great way to perk up your suit, but it’s not such a great idea to present one as a gift. These hemmed square fabrics are often given out at the end of funerals in China, and also mean a final farewell.
10. Four of anything
You might’ve noticed that some buildings in Hong Kong are missing the fourth floor, or any other floors including four. This is because the number four—sei—sounds similar to “death”—also sei—in Cantonese, so it might be wise to avoid the number when you’re choosing your present.
If you’re really really keen to give a Chinese friend something from our list, there is a way to break the curse: you can ask for a dollar—or any small amount of money—in return, so it’s technically not a “gift” anymore.