3 gifts not to give Chinese colleagues

Many people working with China have come to me quite anxious about giving gifts to Chinese colleagues and friends.

The real question is, does it really matter what you give?

Well the short answer is yeah, it matters.

Of course, as in many cultures, most gifts will be gratefully received. However, there are some gifts that you definitely don’t want to be giving. Avoid the following 3 gifts at all costs, unless you want that business relationship to be over before the first board meeting…

Four of anything

I know it’s hard enough to decide on one present, never mind four. But whatever you decide to give, you’d better make sure it doesn’t come in fours.

In Chinese “four” (sì) sounds almost exactly the same as “death” (sǐ). There are many superstitions about death in China, and some think just mentioning the word brings bad luck.

There is some good news though, giving gifts in twos is positively encouraged. Congratulations, your four bottles of wine just became two whole presents.


If you do make this mistake, you won’t be the first person to do it. In early 2017, a Texas governor gave Taiwan’s president Tsai Ying-wen a clock during her visit to the States.

Why was it such an error? Well, as with many cultural norms in China, it all comes down to language.

In Chinese, to “give a clock” (sòng zhōng) sounds exactly the same as “paying last respects” (sòng zhōng), a part of the Chinese funeral ritual. If only the Texas governor employed someone with Chinese language and cultural knowledge, right!

Green hats

Good job this one will probably never affect you, who would give someone a green hat as a present anyway?

It’s not actually that giving someone a green hat that’s bad, but whoever you give it to is never going to wear it. In Chinese “wearing a green hat” (dài lǜ mào zi) is a euphemism for being cheated on by your partner.

Apparently this saying goes back to the 13th century Yuan dynasty in China, when there was a law that the husbands of brothel madams had to wear green hats. So you definitely want to avoid this one, or who knows what people might think you’re implying!

These are just some of the conventions around gift-giving that you should know about when doing business with and in China, it can be a bit of a minefield to be honest. Don’t worry though, Dragons are always here to help you out as you negotiate negotiations with the world’s oldest culture.