Everyone knows that Mid-Autumn Festival is the time for moon cake gifts, and Dragon Boat Festival calls for bellyfuls of zongzi, but the springy Chinese New Year is a trickier beast. There’s no set rule for gift giving. If you leave town without dropping a few gifts off, are you risking offending your boss? Or finding a few more typos in those notes you needed your secretary to ype up? And how about your mother-in-law? Or the kid’s teacher?
Before Little Jimmy starts coming home with B’s or even C’s, you should take a minute and prepare for Spring Festival the right way, with The World of Chinese’s New Year Gift Guide.
THE SURE THING: The Hongbao
The most traditional of all New Year gifts, the hongbao is also the simplest: an elaborately decorated red envelope, filled with sweet, sweet scrilla. You’ll find them in any supermarket, stationary store, or flower shop in China or Chinatown. And as New Year approaches, there are sure to be more around. However—don’t make any rookie mistakes! Use only one or two large bills, to keep the value of the envelope hidden. If you’re stuffing it with hundreds, go for even numbers for good luck: 200, 600, or 800. Don’t hand out bad luck with a gift of 400, or anything with the number four, the unluckiest of all numbers. Instead, stick to ones, fives, and, best of all, eights. Those are “beloved numbers.” Also, be careful when passing your hongbao to a teacher, or anyone in an official position. The traditional red envelopes have often been used as a vehicle for, ahem, bribes. But for children, ayi, or anyone else? They’re perfect!
THE LOCAL FAVORITES: Maotai or Wu Liang Ye
Baijiu, the ferocious grain liquor, ranges from 38 percent all the way up to 56 percent alcohol. It may be difficult for foreigners to stomach, but for the Chinese it’s really the gift that keeps on giving. An eight kuai bottle of erguotou from the corner store, though, won’t cut it—you’ve got to go classy, or don’t go at all. To really impress a Chinese colleague, show up with a genuine bottle of the legendarily hard-to-find Maotai, which retails from a minimum of 80 RMB a bottle, to a maximum of the sky. It’s so highly sought, one rumor claims, that 80 percent of all bottles sold in China are knock-offs, and another maintains that you can’t buy a genuine bottle outside of Guizhou, so only buy this from credible liquor stores. If you’re unable to track Maotai down, go for a bottle of Wu Liang Ye. It’s tasty, respected, and ranges in price from 270 RMB to nearly 4000 RMB. Needless to say, it’s a gift you know will be appreciated.
A TIN OF TEA
This may sound like an odd gift, but in a country where a pot of cha (tea) can cost a thousand kuai or more, this is a tin that won’t be turned down. Obviously, a box of Lipton from Wu- Mart isn’t going to make the grade. Instead, splurge on a fancy box of green tea. Some of our favorites include Xihu Longjing, Dongting Biluochun, and Huangshan Maofeng, but there are hundreds of specialties worth exploring. Find a respected tea shop, and consult the salespeople. Three national chains that we visit regularly include Tian Fu Ming Cha, Wu Yu Tai, and Zhang Yi Yuan.
A BOX OF SMOKES
Gifting a carton of cigarettes in the States may conjure up memories of Bender and The Breakfast Club (“Smoke up, Johnny!”), but here in China, it’ll win hearts and handshakes quicker than you can offer a light. Chunghwa, “the national cigarette,” is also the most expensive on the market, so you know it’s good. The slightly more affordable cartons of Panda, Yuxi, or Yunyan also get the job done. But remember, Spring Festival is a great time for resolutions, so be sure not to tempt a recent quitter! That’s a surefire way to ruin a promising relationship.
Liquor, tea, and smokes are great gifts, but a more unique way to impress is with a truly local specialty: a xiangli pear from Xinjiang, a Yantai apple, Pingyao beef jerky. “How did you ever find such a rare treat?” your son’s teacher might exclaim. If you’re in Beijing, it’s simple. And in Shanghai, it’s possible. Each province has its own Representative Office (办事处) in big cities, usually named after the province and followed by 大厦 (dàshà, building). Along with a collection of provincial offices, there’s usually a specialty store, selling incredible local goods and gifts. In Shanghai, not all the offices have these stores, but they’ll definitely tell you where to find one nearby.
If you do go this route for the gifts, be sure to go at lunchtime, so you can sample the local foods yourself: most Representative Offices house a fantastic restaurant as well.
COUPLETS, PAPER-CUT TIGERS, AND AN UPSIDE-DOWN 福, OH MY!
You’ll see them everywhere, but nobody can ever get enough— especially your foreign friends. Paper-cut tigers are exactly what they sound like: tigers carefully and intricately cut out of a single sheet of paper. They’re not especially lucky, but they’re definitely good looking. Tape them to windows, facing out, so passerby know you’re in the loop.
If you have a way with words, you might want to try your hand at writing two lines of verse, expressing hope for happiness, prosperity, and safety during the coming year. Note, however, that for it to be a truly appreciated gift, the couplet should be penned in fine calligraphy on two strips of red paper. It might be safer to buy one
from a practiced scribe. Place one line of your masterpiece on each side of the lucky giftee’s door, and be sure to add a 福 (fú, Good Fortune) upside down in the middle. Is there a better gift out there? We think not.
THE SILK ROAD
A silk roll calendar is always a safe bet. Traditionally, these are placed above the chaji (tea table) in the sitting room. Even your friends don’t have antique chaji in their homes, the silk roll calendar remains an elegant gift that will no doubt be appreciated.
THE PRESCIENT GIFT
A Feng Shui calendar with tear-out pages is the perfect resource for tracking the ups and downs of the upcoming year. For each day, astrological guidance is given, with warning of very specific actions that’ll bring you bad luck, and what’s going to be auspicious. (Feb. 13th, ours suggests, you should go out on the town, sign a few contracts, move your bed, open a business, get married, and buy a pet. Sounds like a busy day for us—fortunately we’re warned not to hold a funeral or spend any money!) This unique gift will surely convince your Western friends that you’re a true Sinophile, and it’ll deliver your Chinese friends an overwhelming sense of nostalgia.
No time to select a personal gift for each member of your staff? Afraid of the consequences that you will suffer if your secretary is peeved by your gift choice? Have no fear! Employees always appreciate choosing their own gifts, so if you’re in Beijing, run out and buy a Shang Tong Ka. An uber-voucher of sorts, it can be used in almost all the big shopping centers and supermarkets. And then there are foot massage coupons. They have those, everywhere!
GRANDMA LIKES GIFTS TOO
Don’t know what to get for your older friends? Consider investing in some expensive herbs and nutritional supplements from Tong Ren Tang, the biggest and most-trusted
TCM pharmacy in China. To make a good impression, try picking up some ginseng, bird’s nest, and aweto—they cost a fortune, but are a lot more locally trusted than Western medicine.
Do keep in mind, though, that there are special instructions for cooking these herbs, so be sure to review them carefully. You probably don’t want to give your elderly friends the gift of accidental poisoning.
SPECIAL GIFTS FOR THE ZODIAC YEAR
Every 12th year after a person’s birth is their known as their benmingnian, or zodiac year. Unfortunately, it’s not all good. The superstitious believe that your benmingnian is a year of difficulties and bad luck, so, to counteract it, you should wear lots of red. Do your friends born this animal year a favor and buy a year’s supply of red belts or red socks, for men, and red lingerie for women. It sounds weird, but it’ll be appreciated. Benmingnian celebrants in the office may wear xian, a red thread that wraps around the waist, to urge the best luck for the year. Also, keep an eye out for the custom jewelry that is already appearing, made specifically for this animal year.
WON’T SOMEBODY THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!
Of course, the kids are expecting video games and hongbao. Of course they are. (Frankly, we are, too!) Expect those pitter-patters and knocks at your door, early New Year morning, with a welcoming “Xin nian hao!” But, really, since when are children good judges of what’s best for them? Give them clothing with this year’s zodiac animal patterns, instead, insisting that they’ll thank you when they’re older. Only then should you slip them a hongbao.
FOR THE ONE YOU LOVE
The Spring Festival season and Valentine’s Day usually overlap. Of course you should buy a bundle of flowers for the one you love. If you’re too wrapped up in studying Chinese, there’s no need to leave your house—you can order a bouquet online at www. taobao.com.
- Can you recommend a type of tea?
- It’s a gift for someone.