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
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.
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.
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.
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.
For the Design Maven
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.
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.
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.
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.
For the Home Entertainer
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.
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.
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.
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.
For the Urban Apartment Dweller
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.
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.
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.
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.
For the Home Chef
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.
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.
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.
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.
For the Active Grandparent
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.
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.
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.
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.
For the Office Worker
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.
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.
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.
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.
For the Artist
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.
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!
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.
For the Curious Child
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.
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.
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.
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.
For the Playful Toddler
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.
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.
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.
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.
For the College Freshman
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.
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.
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.
For the History Buff
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.
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.
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.
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.
For the Nostalgic Traveler
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.
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.
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.
For the Screen Addict
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.
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.
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.
For the Backyard Gardener
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.
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.
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.
Gift Giving Etiquette Tips
Qualities 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Do you have a favorite gift idea? Please let me know in the comments section below!