Planning to go with “the bomb” and “the hand grenade”? You might want to consider a more appropriate item to put a smile on the face of your modern host.

Home visit etiquette has changed a lot. Only 15-20 years ago, the idea of letting people know you were coming to see them was completely new! On the one hand, advance notification was impractical (shared line phones, no cell phones, no email, no chats) and on the other hand, nobody wanted to come across as trying to make a big deal of their visit. So everyone just showed up without notice.

The idea of drop-in gifts didn’t really exist either, except for the big holidays – National Day holiday, Labor Day holiday, Chinese New Year – or special occasions such as a boyfriend’s first official visit to his girlfriend’s parents. And here ‘official’ meant a 99% chance the two would get married.

Believe it or not, the most popular gift used to be a huge round cake and a bottle of liquor, affectionately called “the bomb” and “the hand grenade”. Or a cake with packs of cigarettes. It wasn’t customary in earlier days to open gifts in front of guests. Many packaged foods ended up passing their shelf life unopened.

So what about modern China? You might want to try one of the following:

Our Top Five Gift Recommendations

1. Fruits
A good fail-safe option when visiting people of all ages. Any fruits will do. These definitely beat showing up empty-handed.

2. Holiday Theme Food
Consider Zongzi (rice wraps) for Dragon Boat Festival and Moon Cakes for Mid Autumn Festival.

3. Health related foods
A very popular gift option, especially when visiting a household with senior citizens. During peak gifting seasons, e.g. National Day Holiday and Spring Festival Holiday, audiences endure endless TV commercials promoting the virtues of all kinds of supplements, ginseng and special herbs.

4. Tea leaves
The go-to gift for new visits. A pack of freshly-picked tea leaves from peak season is a worth a thousand words. Like vintage wines, select teas vary widely in price depending on age and origin.

5. Wines
Western tastes now influence gifting in China, so feel free to bring foreign wine, flowers, home made baked goods, or children’s toys. Almost anything you’d feel comfortable gifting in your own country is okay among the younger generation. Friends also open and compliment gifts in front of guests more than ever before.

So far so good. Now for the dangerous items…

Our Top Five Gifts To Avoid

1. Clocks
You might imagine giving a beautiful clock to liven up the bare wall of your friend’s new home, and end up with a declaration of war. Gifting a clock, sòng zhōng 送钟 sounds like sòng zhōng 送终 meaning “send to death” also implying to watch someone die. Expect the evil eye for the rest of the evening.

2. Candles
These are best left alone due to their association with worshipping the dead.

Implies a clean break due to the saying yī dāo liǎng duàn 一刀两断 (lit. one knife two break) and therefore not good for relationships.

4. Umbrellas
Terrible for significant others because sǎn 伞 (umbrealla) sounds like sàn 散 meaning “to break apart”. If you buy one on a rainy evening date, be sure to bring it home yourself.

5. Fruits in certain situations
In Shanghainese, the word jú zi 橘子 (tangerine) sounds like jué zi 绝子 (no descendants) which makes tangerines a terrible gift for newlyweds. Also in Shanghainese, píng guǒ 苹果 (apple) sounds like bìng gù 病故 (to sicken and die) so avoid apples when visiting sick friends or relatives in the hospital.

If you’re new to China, most won’t blame you for committing a gifting no-no. However, good intentions and a little forethought go a long way in creating a lasting impression.

Have any entertaining gift experiences of your own, either in China or your home country?
Feel free to share them in the comments section below.
Happy gifting!