How to Give Great Gifts to Your Chinese Friends

How to Give Great Gifts to Your Chinese Friends

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Gift giving among friends stems from the value Chinese culture places on relationships and reciprocity. Exchanging gifts is part of the social glue of obligations and favors that builds friendships and gets things done in China.

Buying gifts for Chinese friends can be a real challenge outside of China where it may not be clear how faithfully people adhere to traditional customs. While there’s much written about gift etiquette in China, this guide will help you pick the perfect gift when your friend’s baby shower, housewarming party or birthday dinner occurs right here in the United States.

Think about your relationship before you shop. How traditional is your friend? How formal is your relationship? and, How serious is the occasion?

Now, lock in this rule of thumb. Formal relationships with traditional people at serious occasions call for more traditional gifts, while casual relationships with contemporary people at informal occasions call for less traditional gifts.

Check out our favorite gift ideas below for inspiration, then use the etiquette tips at the end of this article to help you navigate the most common gift giving situations and pick the perfect item.


For the Tea Lover

Glass Tea Pot with Bamboo Lid

Glass Tea Pot with Bamboo Lid

A thin, lightweight and durable glass tea pot that will delight even your most design-conscious of friends. This modern take on a classic shape features a bamboo lid with a coil attachment that filters out tea from inside the pitcher.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Authentic Hong Kong Style Milk Tea

Authentic Hong Kong Style Milk Tea

This milk tea blend will bring a smile to any Hong Konger in your life. Sourced from Hong Kong master blenders with decades of experience, this hand-crafted blend of tea leaves produces an authentic, silky smooth naih cha.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Variable Temperature Gooseneck Kettle

Variable Temperature Gooseneck Kettle

This 1 liter variable temperature kettle brings water to the precise temperatures needed for optimum flavor from teas. This kettle from Bonavita has a unique spout that allows for a very controlled water pour that is needed for tea steeping.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Double Walled Glass Tea Infuser

Double Walled Glass Tea Infuser

A simple, yet elegant way to brew a cup of tea for one person. This 10 ounce double walled glass tea infuser cup is made from hand-blown glass that keeps your tea warm while protecting your hand from the heat.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com


For the Design Maven

Spin Ceramics Flat Bottom Vases

Spin Ceramics Flat Bottom Vases

Designed by An Na and handmade in Jingdezhen, China, these white porcelain vases are wonderful examples of modern Chinese design. An oblong shape and inclined lip create an optical illusion that adds an element of humor to these gently contoured asymmetric pieces.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Things Chinese

Things Chinese

Through 60 emblematically Chinese antiques and items, Things Chinese opens up the world of Chinese interior design. This collection of China’s renowned art objects, furnishings, and handicrafts provides the inspiration to incorporate Chinese design ideas into any home.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Piling Palang Lacquer Box

Piling Palang Lacquer Box

Winner of the best modern Chinese design prize at MAISON&OBJET Paris, this lacquer box by Piling Palang in Shanghai is great for jewelry or other keepsakes. A pink floral pattern and soft velvet interior evoke the perfect balance between East and West, present and future.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Fragrant Harbor Scented Candles

Fragrant Harbor Scented Candles

Transport yourself to China and elevate your senses with the fresh, heavenly aromas of white tea, ginger flowers and plum blossoms in these natural soy candles. Inspired by travels in China and handmade in Oakland, California, these are simply the most wonderfully fragrant, cleanest burning candles you can find.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com


For the Home Entertainer

Natural Rosewood Chopsticks

Natural Rosewood Chopsticks

Add a touch of class to any dinner party with 10 pairs of these natural rosewood chopsticks. They’re expertly balanced to fit well in the hand and are burnished with a beautiful deep mahogany color.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Tea Fishermen

Tea Fishermen

This set of 4 tea holders evoking the old Chinese story of Jiang Taigong won the China Design Challenge. Each of the fishermen comes with a fishhook and will sit patiently on the side of your mug while securely holding your tea bag.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Piling Palang Acrobat Plates

Piling Palang Acrobat Plates

These beautiful plates are part of a line of modern ceramics conceived by the Chinese industrial designer, Bing Ding, in Shanghai. The whimsical acrobat design brings innovation to traditional Chinese art by forgoing the usual ancient motifs in favor of contemporary patterns and shapes.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Sauce Serving Set

Sauce Serving Set

A 7 piece stoneware sauce serving set that includes 3 spoons, 3 sauce bowls and a tray. Each bowl has a 3-ounce capacity — perfect for soy, peanut and teriyaki sauce or any of your favorite sauces and dips.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com


For the Urban Apartment Dweller

Shanghai Glass Metal Lantern

Shanghai Glass Metal Lantern

A 9 inch tall lantern that’s a contemporary update to a classic Chinese glass and metal design. The lantern’s rope handle makes it easy to bring a candle with you to the dining room, living room or bedroom.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

The Blue Moment

The Blue Moment

This gorgeously-curated photo book contains 64 pages of high-resolution images from Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze’s The Blue Moment series. This ultimate coffee table book is a stunning collection of moments captured before dusk, when Hong Kong is enveloped in a surreal, bluish haze.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Chinese Food Magnets

Chinese Food Magnets

Liven up the refrigerator in any downtown apartment with these adorable magnets featuring a feast of classic Chinese foods like Lion’s Head Meatballs, noodle soup, red bean soup, black sesame dumplings and steamed rice.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Traditional Wooden Rice Bucket

Traditional Wooden Rice Bucket

Originally used to carry water and measure rice, this traditional Chinese wooden bucket can be used in modern living rooms to store magazines, flowers or children’s toys. Individually handcrafted, this rice bucket features square edges and a single handle across the middle.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com


For the Home Chef

Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees

Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees

Winner of the 2016 IACP Julia Child First Book Award, chef Kian Lam Kho offers a unique introduction to Chinese cooking, demystifying it by focusing on its basic cooking methods. Accompanied by more than 200 photographs, this cook book is perhaps the best manual for aspiring Chinese home chefs.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Outdoor Wok Stove

Outdoor Wok Stove

Producing up to 65,000 BTUs (a typical home range gives about 10,000), this propane burner is the closest you’ll come to what chefs use at a Chinese restaurant. This package from Eastman comes with a 22-inch carbon steel wok that easily accommodates all of your stir frying needs.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Digital Rice Cooker

Digital Rice Cooker

A rice cooker becomes an essential cooking tool, if you make rice multiple times per week. This model from Hamilton Beach quickly produces delicious rice and outperforms other models that cost many times more.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook

The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook

This exuberant cookbook from Danny Bowien, chef and cofounder of the Mission Chinese Food restaurants, tells the story of wildly inventive recipes that spread cross-country from San Francisco and changed what it means to cook Chinese food in America.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com


For the Active Grandparent

Chinese Herbal Medicine Cooker

Chinese Herbal Medicine Cooker

This Chinese herbal medicine cooker takes the hassle out of a time-consuming process. Simply place the ingredients prepared by the herbalist into the cooker, add the specified amount of water, plug in the unit and the medicine will automatically be reduced to one bowl, as prescribed.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Microplush Heated Blanket

Microplush Heated Blanket

Help a grandparent preheat cold sheets, before resting easy in silky softness and cozy warmth. This heated microplush blanket features a warming system that senses and adjusts to deliver consistent warmth and comfort all night.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Thermos Food Jar

Thermos Food Jar

An insulated food container that will keep any Chinese soup warm throughout the day. This Stainless King series is a modern line that blends the newest technology with a dash of the past.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Sandalwood Fans

Sandalwood Fans

A sandalwood fan has been a favorite for ladies of all ages since the Qing Dynasty because it emits a fragrance that boosts a woman’s elegance and femininity. The aroma of a quality sandalwood fan can stay for as long as eight years.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com


For the Office Worker

Chinese Lunch Box

Chinese Lunch Box

Traditionally, Chinese workers used these metal food carriers to keep multiple dishes of rice, soup, vegetables, meat or fish separate and hot. The durable stainless steel design features a tight clasp that holds the various layers in place, along with a sturdy handle that makes the lunch box easy to carry.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Chinese Boy and Girl Figurines Set

Chinese Boy and Girl Figurines Set

Set these playful 8 inch figurines on an office bookshelf to create an immediate conversation starter for passersby. These are fun, timeless Chinese figurines, a boy and a girl in traditional blue and white colors and patterns.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

White Rabbit Candy

White Rabbit Candy

This Shanghai “time-honored brand” holds a special place in the hearts of many of the city’s adult residents, as the candy of choice for most Chinese youngsters growing up in previous decades. A bowl of these creamy, milky candies with edible rice paper wrappers will be a hit at any team meeting.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Beijing Skyline Art

Beijing Skyline Art

No window? No problem! This poster of the Beijing skyline will attract your gaze when it’s time to daydream away from the computer screen. A high quality giclee print framed in a contemporary white frame that’s ready to hang.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com


For the Artist

Chinese Calligraphy Set

Chinese Calligraphy Set

A high quality calligraphy set that includes 4 brushes, an ink stone, a wooden stamp, an ink slab, an ink stick, a brush rest and a water well, all presented in a nice gift box. This is a perfect set for beginners just starting to learn about the Chinese art of calligraphy.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Brush Holder with Day Dreaming Man

Brush Holder with Day Dreaming Man

Store calligraphy supplies in this round brush holder by Piling Palang. Just make sure not to doze off like the day dreaming man depicted on the side of the container!

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Feng Shui Poster

Feng Shui Poster

Take inspiration from this decorative feng shui poster with the Chinese words for truth, beauty, freedom and love written in beautiful black ink. This 16 x 20 inch print comes ready to hang.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com


For the Curious Child

4D Hong Kong Cityscape Puzzle

4D Hong Kong Cityscape Puzzle

Rebuild Hong Kong’s world famous skyline in 3D using scale-model buildings, while adding a fourth dimension…time. This puzzle uses 81 scale-model buildings spanning 98 years of history from 1912 through the completion of the International Commerce Center in 2010.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

China World Village Playset

China World Village Playset

A rich play world that teaches Chinese culture through creative play. Children “walk” characters around the playmat replica of a traditional Chinese village telling stories that incorporate the cultural details that they see there.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Plane City Airplane

Plane City Airplane

This LEGO-compatible playset from Chinese toy manufacturer Sluban creates a model airplane that’s more than a foot long. The kit includes other extras like toy silverware, food and flight personnel that create endless options for play.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Traditional Chinese Tea House Kit

Traditional Chinese Tea House Kit

This fun-packed kits creates a replica of a traditional Chinese tea house, providing a great introduction to Chinese architecture and tea culture. Additional kits are available to build a traditional tavern, steamed bun shop and snack shop.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com


For the Playful Toddler

Bilingual Domino Set

Bilingual Domino Set

This 100 piece domino play set provides a wonderful way for children to learn a basic Chinese vocabulary. Each domino contains a picture of a familiar object like a fruit, animal or household item with its English name, Chinese character and phonetic pronunciation.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

The Original Buddha Board

The Original Buddha Board

The perfect paint set for toddlers. Young artists use a calligraphy brush to paint on the Buddha Board with water and then the images fades as the water evaporates, setting the stage for a new creative effort.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Bamboo Training Bowl

Bamboo Training Bowl

The craziness of toddler meal time meets the calming effect of an eco-friendly bamboo training bowl, while contributing to an overall Chinese design aesthetic in the home.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Chinese Zodiac Wall Canvas

Chinese Zodiac Wall Canvas

This vibrant and colorful children’s canvas wall art by artist Donna Ingemanson features the animal symbols of the Chinese zodiac. Measuring 24 x 24 inches, it’s sure to brighten any child’s nursery.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com


For the College Freshman

Shanghai Wall Decal

Shanghai Wall Decal

Wall decals are a fantastic alternative to pictures, wallpaper or murals when giving a dorm room a new look. This 31 x 20 inch image of the Shanghai skyline is available in a range of colors and requires no special tools or adhesives to hang.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Beijing Opera Mask Bottle Opener

Beijing Opera Mask Bottle Opener

A bottle opener adorned with a classic symbol of the Chinese opera. Note that in the Beijing opera, the color of the mask implies the personality of the character — in this case, red means loyalty.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Shanghai Ceramic Lanterns

Shanghai Ceramic Lanterns

Glazed in dorm room-friendly white, black and turquoise colors, these contemporary Shanghai ceramic lanterns will brighten any college study space. Each latticed lantern measures 14 inches tall and has a sleek, curved black handle.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com


For the History Buff

The Chinese in America

The Chinese in America

The best narrative history of the Chinese American experience from the California Gold Rush through present day. The book covers contributions to American life, efforts to overcome discrimination and everyday immigrant stories about working to succeed in a new country.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

China Men

China Men

Maxine Hong Kingston chronicles the lives of three generations of men in her family, the earliest archetypal forefathers of today’s Chinese American population. It’s a must-read “narrative genealogy” of Chinese settlement in the United States traced back across the Pacific Ocean.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Tong Wars

Tong Wars

Scott Seligman’s even-handed account profiles an important chapter in New York’s history at the turn of the 19th century. Avoiding the sensationalism that can accompany tales about Chinatown, Seligman focuses on the discrimination, exclusion and vice that produced three decades of turmoil in lower Manhattan.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

A Chinaman’s Chance

A Chinaman’s Chance

A collection of contemporary essays arguing for the value of the two cultures from which Chinese Americans come and an appreciation of the unique blend that results. It’s a familiar search among American-born Chinese for their place between immigrant parents and their own children.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com


For the Nostalgic Traveler

Hong Kong Travel Poster

Hong Kong Travel Poster

A 1960s-era Pan American Airlines travel poster by artist A. Amspoker that shows a Chinese junk sailing through Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong. Measures 13 x 19 inches and printed on premium silk finish coated paper.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

San Francisco Travel Poster

San Francisco Travel Poster

A 1950s-era United Airlines travel poster by artist Joseph Feher that depicts a cable car rolling through San Francisco Chinatown with the Bay Bridge in the distance. Measures 13 x 19 inches and printed on premium silk finish coated paper.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Beijing Travel Poster

Beijing Travel Poster

A retro travel poster by Anderson Design Group that depicts the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Available in multiple sizes and printed with archival-quality UV-resistant inks.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com


For the Screen Addict

Last Train Home

Last Train Home

Every spring, China’s cities are plunged into chaos as an astonishing 130 million migrant workers journey to their home villages for the New Year’s holiday. This mass exodus is the largest human migration on the planet — travel here with one couple who have embarked on this annual trek for almost two decades.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Up the Yangtze

Up the Yangtze

A touching, cinematic tale which highlights the impending fate of those who are caught between China’s traditional way of life and its growing ambitions. Up The Yangtze is set on a riverboat cruise, following 16-year-old Cindy, from a poor family living on the banks of the Yangtze, and Jerry, who is from a more prosperous family.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Please Vote For Me

Please Vote For Me

Three candidates vie for office, indulging in low blows and spin, character assassination and gestures of goodwill, all the while guaging their standing with voters. The setting is not the United States presidential campaign, but a third-grade class at an elementary school in the city of Wuhan in central China.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com


For the Backyard Gardener

The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm

The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm

A leading light in the field of medicinal herb cultivation, The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm is the first cultivation guide of its kind, and presents invaluable information for growers interested in producing high-quality efficacious herbs in all climates of the United States, with the historical connectedness of ancient practitioners.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Rattan Garden Basket

Rattan Garden Basket

This Nantucket-style basket incorporates Indonesian palms and the classic Chinese technique for weaving rattan housewares. Use this basket out in the garden to carry shovels, trowels and other essential tools.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com

Beijing Filigree Garden Stool

Beijing Filigree Garden Stool

Based on classic Chinese fretwork, this glazed ceramic garden stool fits beautifully in both contemporary or traditional Chinese settings. Crafted with glazed ceramic and finished in antique white, this stool looks great indoors and outdoors.

» Read Reviews and Buy at Amazon.com


Gift Giving Etiquette Tips

red-lanternQualities of a Great Gift

The key notion that’s important to keep in mind is that your gift is a symbol of the strength of your relationship. It’s the thoughtfulness of the gift that counts, and not necessarily the value of the item itself.

I’ve always found these themes useful when picking gifts:

1. Focus on quality. Headlines touting Apple electronics and gaudy gift baskets make it seem like expensive luxury goods are the only way to go. To the contrary, great gifts are simply comprised of quality design, materials and craftsmanship.

2. Pick local specialties. Perhaps it stems from a time when China was more of a closed society, but hard-to-find regional items are always prized. Give something that your local community is particularly known for.

3. Fall back on sweetness. Wishing the recipient a “sweet life” underlies many common Chinese gifts. Specialty chocolates, cakes and round fruits (except pears) all have a long tradition of conveying good fortune.

4. Don’t forget presentation. Wrap the gift well using a sturdy gift box, colored paper and ribbons. Red paper and gold ribbon is the most classic color combination.

You’ll find more traditional gifts explicitly feature these qualities, while a less traditional gift might feature these elements more subtly. Either way, they provide a thematic consistency that’s distinctly Chinese.

As an example, here are three of my favorite go-to gift ideas for Chinese friends.

Specialty Chocolates1. Specialty Chocolates
These make for a nice casual gift. I shop from Jade Chocolates, a gourmet San Francisco chocolatier incorporating Chinese ingredients like souchang tea and tamari almonds.
Good Red Wine2. Good Red Wine
Wine gifts are received as a toast to the recipient’s health. Red stands for good luck, of course, and nearby Napa Valley provides countless high quality, local options to choose from.
Fine Tea3. Fine Tea
Tea is to the Chinese what coffee is to Americans. I shop for high quality tea at San Francisco’s Red Blossom Tea Company, a family business that works with small farmers in China.

red-lanternCommon Taboos

Once you have a great gift idea, you’ll want to screen it against these basic superstitions to avoid any last potential for awkwardness.

1. Avoid unlucky numbers. Avoid the number 4 because it sounds like death. Even numbers are better than odd and sets of 6 or 8 are particularly auspicious.

2. Avoid unlucky colors. Avoid white and black boxes and wrapping paper. These colors are used in funerals and generally connote death. Don’t write your card or gift tag in red ink for the same reason.

3. Avoid these specific gifts. Don’t ever give clocks, shoes, cut flowers, handkerchiefs, umbrellas, towels or sharp objects like knives and scissors. They all symbolize various flavors of bad luck, death and separation.

4. No green hats. An article about Chinese gift giving wouldn’t be complete without mentioning green hats. Simply put, they imply that a man’s wife is unfaithful. I can’t think of a reason to give someone a green hat, but regardless, just don’t do it.

Gift giving is challenging under any circumstance, made more so when there’s a cultural element potentially at play. Apply these guidelines, explicitly in traditional settings and more subtly in casual settings, and you’ll end up with a winning gift every time.

Your turn! Do you have a favorite gift idea? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!

HT: Photo by Tranquil Tuesdays with gift paper by Paper Tiger Shanghai.

6 Responses

  1. Deana Patterson

    A wonderful Asian lady introduced me to dragon fruit…and as a special thank you..I was thinking I would like to get her a set if windchines …would that be OK

    • Hi Deana, taken through a Chinese lens, this is a great gift idea and wonderful show of reciprocity (especially if the chimes make a sweet sound), though I can’t speak to other Asian cultures. ~Wes

  2. I’m confused some of these gifts are colors I’ve been told to avoid. White, black and blue. I’m trying to find out if a gift the color of copper is good or bad. Thank you.

    • Hi Dani, thanks for your question. It’s really a question of context, in terms of the occasion, relationship and recipient. The more traditional the setting, the more you’ll want to adhere to etiquette like generally avoiding white and black in the dominant colors, boxes and wrapping paper, which can connote death. You should be fine with a copper color, which closely resembles gold, for good luck. ~Wes

  3. My Kung Fu Shifu is a dear man and everyone loves him as a teacher, friend and mentor. He has more tea, wine, candy, rice cookers, etc. than anyone could ever believe. I am a tudi and his administrative assistant. Always at a loss for gift ideas.

    • I understand that challenge, Nancy. I hope you were able to find some inspiration in this list of ideas! ~Wes

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