What NOT to give to your Chinese partner ?

What NOT to give to your Chinese partner ?

It’s spring and a good time to go on a business trip, to receive business partners or to give new friends and family a gift. If these new partners come from China, Taiwan, Singapore or Hong Kong then there are some gifts that you’d better not give.

There are few things that would be considered inappropriate in the Netherlands. In Asia, there is an unspoken blacklist of gifts that you better not give. Especially if you want to make a good first impression.

Many of these taboos come about because the pronunciations of certain words in Chinese are very close together, or because there is a cultural story behind them. This article lists some of the most famous taboos.

Of course, not everyone will equally be offended by a faux-pas. But at a formal first meeting is probably better to avoid these gifts.

1.White or black gifts

White and black colors are important at funerals. A friend wanted to give a business partner a beautiful handmade white cloth. I strongly discouraged this. This color rules also apply to packaging materials. Preferably do not wrap gifts in white or black paper. Red is a positive color that is often used for parties and objects that bring luck. Therefore, it is (almost) always a better choice.

2.Sharp objects

Do not start a good relationship by immediately cutting it in half. A knife or another sharp object gives the impression that you want to end the relationship. Sharp objects are therefore not a good idea. This applies more to romantic relationships, but you cannot be too careful.


The Chinese pronunciation for giving a clock is very close to “attend a funeral.” A clock also counts the time that has its receiver has left to live. Not something you want to be reminded of.

This applies more to clocks than watches. The pronunciation for watches is completely different. Expensive watches have always been a popular gift, also in China. Foreign watch brands have made record profits in China for many years. So for watches, the rules are different, or not?

In January 2015, the mayor of Taipei was given by the British minister of transport a specially designed and custom made watch. His remarks to a local newspaper after receiving the watch were “maybe we can sell it as junk, it is useless to me.” This was followed by a long discussion in Taiwan itself on whether his statement had been appropriate. So even with watches be careful!


Mirrors are not a good gift because they could attract ghosts. In addition, mirrors break easily and that can also not be positive.

5.The number 4

In China, you will often find no 4th floor in hotels and hospitals. The pronunciation of the number four in Chinese is very similar to the pronunciation of the word for death. And who wants to receive anything deadly?

6.Cut flowers

Say it with flowers! Best not. Freshly cut flowers are generally only used for funerals. Be especially careful with white flowers (chrysanthemum).


It rains often in the Netherlands and in many parts of Asia as well. But an umbrella is not a good gift. The pronunciation of the word for umbrella is close to word for breaking up.


Always a popular gift at Christmas: a new supply of handkerchiefs. The Chinese word for “handkerchief” unfortunately has a pronunciation that is close to a final farewell.

9.Green Hats

A bright green Heineken cap can’t possibly insult anyone, right ? Too bad, but there is also a taboo on green hats. Relatives of prostitutes from the 14th century in China had to, you guessed it, wear a green hat. In modern China “wearing a green hat” is an expression for being married to an adulterous wife.

10.Pens with red ink

Red is the positive, lucky color, usually. In ancient China however obituaries and death penalty sentences were written in red ink. A red pen is, therefore, an exception. Never sign your name (or someone else’s) in red.

With this in mind, you should be all set to find something really nice that you can give without causing undue embarrassment.

Foto credit: Fietsen worden verwijderd / Marjolein Katsma