Chinese New Year Gifts and Their Secret Messages

Posted by Amanda Mailer on February 04, 2013

It's that time of year to show your Chinese friends and family, colleagues and business associates your appreciation of their friendship. Good gifts at Chinese New Year carry tradition and meaning--a secret message of well wishes for the recipient.

Don't get caught out by embarrassing faux pas such as giving a beautiful timekeeping device, only to later learn that it gives the impression you're counting down the hours to the recipient's passing. Common, simple gifts can be bearers of good messages--from Chinese tea, fresh fruit and food hampers to bottles of alcohol, items of clothing and of course the famed red packets (红包, hóngbāo). All are great presents for Chinese New Year, though it's the details in the kind of fruit, the color of the items chosen, their motifs and the numbers associated with them that hold special meaning.

Symbolism is ubiquitous in Chinese culture, so here are a few pointers to make sure you're on the safe side when giving Chinese New Year gifts:

Colors

Whether it is the gift itself or just the packaging, the colors of Chinese New Year are red and gold. Red symbolizes good fortune and happiness, with the word in Chinese (紅, hóng) sounding like the word "prosperity". Gold, or often yellow, was traditionally the color of Chinese imperial families, and is thus associated with wealth and nobility.

Often used together, it comes as no surprise then that gold printed, red packets of money are the traditional gifts for children. Amongst friends and family, these are given only to unmarried younger members, filled with notes, or golden coins (chocolate ones too!) in auspicious number combinations. For the married adults, scarves, gloves or an accessory for the home in either of these colors are just as welcome.

Traditionally white is associated with funerals, so a gift in this color is best avoided at festivities such as Chinese New Year. The opposite is also true; it is bad taste to flaunt the color red around those in mourning.

Numbers

At Chinese New Year, gifts related to the numbers 6, 8 and 9 are safe bets--and as couplets even better.

The number 6 (六, liù) sounds like the Chinese word for fluidity or smooth sailing. Putting 6 dollars in a red packet for a child is akin to wishing them a smooth year, while the number 6 appearing in a present to a business partner is much like wishing them a flow of good business.

The number 8 in Chinese (八, bā) sounds like the word for fortune or wealth, and considered the luckiest of all numbers. A gift made of eight items, or with the number 8 in its name, demonstrates your wish of good fortune to your Chinese friend or colleague.

The number 9 (九, jiŭ) on the other hand is a number with connotations of longevity. Sounding like the word "long lasting" in Chinese, as well as being traditionally associated with the Emperor, the number 9 is great in gifts to older friends and family. Where the number 9 is present in a gift, it symbolizes your wishes of health and a long life to that person.

Conversely, the number 4 (四, sì) should be avoided, as it sounds like the Chinese word for "death"--the last thing you would like to wish someone when giving a gift in the New Year.

If you play your numbers well, you can combine them to form phrases such as 168--"always on the road of prosperity" or "be prosperous together", the epitome of good Chinese New Year wishes. Though it may be easier to simply double up on any good gift, as the Chinese saying goes- "all good things come in pairs" (好事成双, hăoshì chéng shuāng).

Fruit & Flowers

Baskets overflowing with fruit are always great Chinese New Year gifts, and what you fill them with can carry good wishes with them. Mandarins represent gold, thanks to its name "golden tangerines" (金橘子, jīnjúzi) and in southern dialects it even sounds like the word for luck and fortune. Similarly, kumquat has the word gold in its name and is associated with fortune while the Chinese word for apple sounds like the word "peace".

Melon and pomelo signify family unity as lychees do for close family ties. For couples, pomegranates with its many seeds offer wishes of fertility, and longans for many sons. Grapes on the other hand signify fertility, abundance and family harmony in one. Giving bananas represents a wish for excellence in education or work, and peaches a long healthy life or fortune for many generations.

Much like in Western culture, flowers too carry messages from the gift giver. Blooming in early spring while snow still abounds, plum blossoms signify hope and faith as well as the season of winter in its defiance of the cold. Orchids stand in for spring, and symbolize modesty, beauty and purity.

Though not a flower, bamboo holds much meaning, in its flexibility and hardiness. It represents vitality, nobility and gentle strength as well as the season of summer. Finally, blooming in the windy autumn despite early snow, chrysanthemum signifies courage and triumph in the face of adversity.

As plants or as motifs, fruit and flowers are attractive gifts that can carry tailored messages for the New Year.

These principles of color, number and motif can be applied to a broad range of presents. Armed with these, you cannot go wrong--and as the saying goes, when it comes to giving it's the thought that counts. This could not be truer for gifts at Chinese New Year!

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