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.
Complete Bubble Tea Kit
Now you can create your own bubble tea shop in the comfort of your own kitchen, dorm room or office break area. This complete kit includes everything you need to get your boba fix — three tea flavors, tapioca pearls, cups, straws and a shaker.
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
2018 Year of the Dog Tote Bag
Celebrate the 2018 Year of the Dog with this stylish and sturdy tote bag that’s perfect for running errands around town. Decorated on both sides with a festive red zodiac dog and the Chinese American Family letter logo on a natural background.
China: Through The Looking Glass
The companion book to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2015 exhibition explores the impact of Chinese aesthetics on Western fashion. Lush imagery shows how Chinese jade, silks, porcelains and cinema have fueled Western fantasies of an exotic East and served as enduring sources of inspiration.
Gold Fortune Cookie Box
Use this playful display piece from Bey Berk to store tiny treasures or present a special gift. This gold-toned fortune cookie is hinged and closes with a snap. Also available in silver.
Kobo D’Anjou Lychee Soy Candle
Transport yourself to China and elevate your senses with the fresh, heavenly aromas of lychee, jasmine and quince in this natural soy candle. Individually hand-poured using domestic soy wax and lead-free cotton wicks, Kobo makes the cleanest burning, most planet friendly candles on the market.
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.
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.
Chinese Egg Tart Tins
Combine a set of these baking tins with a note card filled out with our classic Chinese egg tart recipe to create a terrific DIY gift. There’s absolutely nothing better than a fresh egg tart served warm from your oven.
For the Urban Apartment Dweller
Double Happiness Pulls
Add a little joy to your living space with these brass cabinet door pulls in the shape of the Chinese characters for “double happiness.” The Chinese Brass Hardware collection also includes many other clasps, locks and hinges in both traditional and contemporary Chinese designs.
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.
Red Lacquer Ballpoint Pen
A perfect gift for the rising young executive, this elegant Parker Sonnet ballpoint pen combines the Chinese red and gold colors for luck and prosperity. Hand assembled and packaged in a premium gift box.
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.
Hong Kong Egg Waffle Maker
Fill your home with the aroma of a classic Hong Kong street snack. Serve egg waffles for an excellent after school snack or even roll them into a cone for a decadent ice cream treat.
The Chinese Takeout Cookbook
This exuberant cookbook from Diana Kuan teaches you how to prepare the classic dishes that have made Chinese takeout as popular in the United States as hamburgers and spaghetti. Learn to make General Tso’s Chicken, Sweet and Sour Pork, Egg Rolls and more.
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.
Sitting Foo Dog Bookends
Commonly referred to as “foo dogs,” these figures actually represent lions and are traditionally placed at building entrances to act as guardians. Place this mirrored pair, one male and one female, on an office bookshelf to create an immediate conversation starter for passersby.
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.
Porcelain Tea Mug with Infuser and Lid
This sleek, stylish porcelain tea mug from Sweese makes a perfect addition to an office’s decor. Easily brew tea with the mug’s extra-fine hole infuser while leaning back to daydream away from the computer screen.
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.
Chinese Watercolor Paints
Chinese watercolor paints are highly pigmented and concentrated, allowing for a wide variation of tone in washes. This deluxe 12-color set from Marie’s is just what an artist needs for Chinese style painting and calligraphy on rice paper or silk.
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
Asian Family Play Figures
Children develop language and social skills through imaginative play. Help kids bring their stories to life in their image with this play family, which includes a baby, a toddler, a girl, a boy, a mother, a father, an elderly woman and an elderly man.
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.
Whole Fish Pencil Case
This is a whimsical way to sneak a little Chinese cultural symbolism into a child’s backpack. This handy pencil case comes in the shape of a whole fish, a traditional symbol of abundance and plenty.
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.
For the Playful Baby
Celebrating Chinese Festivals
This is the best children’s book I’ve found about Chinese festivals. Bright illustrations, playful characters, recipes and folklore tidbits bring Chinese New Year, the Dragon Boat Festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival and more to life.
Luck & Prosperity Fleece Baby Blanket
This ultra-soft fleece blanket features traditional Chinese gold ingots on a vibrant red background, wrapping the baby in warm wishes for luck and prosperity.
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.
Little Lion Dancer Onesie
This adorable onesie features a cute child-sized lion dancer, a traditional symbol of good luck and prosperity during Chinese celebrations.
For the College Freshman
Shanghai Subway Map Poster
This is the official Shanghai subway map with station names in Chinese and English, a provocative and colorful addition to a dorm room wall. Sized 36 x 24 inches and ready to install with a back gallery mount.
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 Bookworm
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.
The Fortune Cookie Chronicles
From all-you-can-eat buffets in Kansas to the small southern Chinese village of Jietoupu, where she tracks down descendants of General Tso, Jennifer 8. Lee takes readers on a wild ride while searching for the roots of Chinese cuisine in America.
In her New York Times bestseller, author Lisa See shares the stories of three young Chinese-American women’s they shed their drab former lives in pre-WWII San Francisco to become glamorous entertainers at the city’s rising hot spot, the Forbidden City nightclub.
The Porcelain Thief
Melding memoir, travelogue, and social and political history, Chinese American author Huan Hsu travels throughout mainland China and Taiwan in search of his family’s hidden treasure and comes to understand his ancestry as he never has before.
For the Nostalgic Traveler
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.
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 Map Coasters
Handmade from natural Sapele wood, these beautiful coasters contain a finely detailed map of Beijing. A wonderful and bold addition to any coffee table, you can also choose from Shanghai, Xi’an and Hong Kong city maps.
For the Screen Addict
The Wedding Banquet
In this underappreciated Ang Lee classic, a gay Taiwanese immigrant man marries a mainland Chinese woman to placate his parents. His plan backfires when his parents arrive in the United States to plan his wedding banquet and he has to hide the truth of his partner.
My Life in China
Upon their visit to rural China for the first time in 18 years, director Kenneth Eng and his father retrace the perilous steps his father chanced in search of a better life. A movie sure to resonate with Chinese Americans born in the United States with parents who emigrated from China.
Maya Lin – A Strong Clear Vision
Though the Vietnam Veterans Memorial became one of the most beloved memorials in the world, Maya Lin’s design was initially greeted with skepticism and outrage. Freida Lee Mock’s documentary explores the creation of the monument and Lin herself, an unknown architect prior to the monument’s creation.
The Joy Luck Club
For adults who came of age during the 1980s, The Joy Luck Club is probably the most widely-recognized movie about Chinese American life and family relationships. The film reveals how lives are shaped as four mothers and daughters strive to understand their family bonds and one another.
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.
Your turn! Do you have a favorite gift idea? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!