Definitely no flowers
Interpersonal relationships are called “ren qing” in China – and the meaning of the individual words makes it absolutely clear what it is all about: “ren“ means “person” and “qing” means “love”, “relationship”, or also “goodwill”. Giving and taking has a high significance within the social structure of China, both in terms of tangible and intangible tokens of goodwill. Gestures of goodwill and gifts are the basis for one’s personal network, which is in turn essential for one’s personal progression.
The art of giving has a long tradition in China and is a complex indicator of one’s social ranking, interpersonal competence, skillfulness in business life and for the quality of relationships right through to today’s modern society. Gift-giving occurs according to set rules – which can all too quickly become a stumbling block for travellers or business people, who are not familiar with these rules.
Taking a look at everyday life helps people understand the giving and taking game. Because there are so many people in China, all Chinese people learn as young children to manage their direct social network – “ren qing wan” (wan: “the network“) – one of the most important social skills in China. Gifts are a visible tool here, both in order to keep the social order upright as well as to underline the interpersonal relations.
Gifts are at the same an obligation: There are unwritten laws governing which gifts are expected to be endowed on which people on which occasions. Anyone who receives a gift has to return a gift at the next possible appropriate opportunity. The contents of the gift and the frequency of the exchanging of gifts reflect the quality of the relationship between the bestower and the recipient. Strictly speaking, the value of the gifts only plays a minor role – it is much more important that the gift-giving process is adhered to correctly.
In this way, a social network evolves – from the private sector through to the workplace – which comprises of many links that can be extended in all directions. This network is also called “guanxi“, hardly any decision made in China is not affected by it. The downside: The mesh of courtesy and obligation also forms the basis for nepotism.
Cultural peculiarities make choosing a gift a tricky issue in China: On the one hand, the Chinese are masters in not actually saying things outright, preferring instead to convey the message between the lines. On the other hand, the sound of the words and symbolism are extremely significant in China. Therefore, caution is required when bestowing gifts – many customs that are deemed to be totally socially acceptable in Western cultures, would result in horrified looks in China. To present a business partner with a clock for instance would not be considered a sign of special esteem as it would here on the Continent, but instead more as a hint that the recipient’s time is up. The Chinese word for clock “zhong“ is also used in the phrase “song zhong“, which more or less means “to bury“. However, this does not apply for wristwatches, which are called “shou biao” so they don’t cause offense.
Presenting flowers to the wife of a host isn’t a good idea either: In China flowers are almost exclusively used for decorating graves. Knives are also considered an affront, because they symbolise that something has been lacerated or the end of a friendship in China. Caution should also be exercised when bestowing gifts comprising of multiple pieces: Gifts should never consist of four parts. For instance in the case of porcelain plates a set of three or five are fine, but not four because the Mandarin word for “four” is pronounced exactly like the word for “dead“.
Dinner invitations are welcome gestures. Unlike here at home, the guests are not expected to eat everything on their plates – on the contrary that would be a disgrace for the host: There is still great poverty in the Middle Kingdom today. Even many of the relatives of today’s wealthy middle class have often experienced poverty themselves. So, for many people in China it is an expression of one’s own affluence to be able to be overgenerous with food. It is therefore quite common for extra portions of dishes to be ordered, even though nobody is actually still hungry – simply to make sure that something is left over.
Generally speaking, edible or drinkable gifts are always a good choice, particularly specialities from one’s home country. Regardless of what the gift may be, it should always be giftwrapped – ideally in red, the colour of wealth. The bestower shouldn’t be offended if the gift is not unwrapped straight away either: It is not customary in China to unwrap gifts in front of the guests, one waits until the next day or at least until after the celebratory occasion is over. It can even happen that the gift is not accepted in spite of trying to persuade the recipient to accept it several times – it is considered courteous to refuse a gift. In this case one simply has to be persistent – and the “ren qing” are guaranteed to run smoothly.
photos: iStockphoto (1); Thinkstock (2)