Cash or Sentiment? Corporate Gift Giving at Chinese New Year

by Will Solomon
January 27, 2014

To celebrate Chinese New Year, Chinaful will feature posts the next two weeks on all facets of the holiday. Will kicks us off today with corporate gift giving in China, a very important part of celebrating Chinese New Year. 

Write us with questions you have about Chinese New Year, or tweet @cgouldmiller with how you’ll party with family and friends. We’d love to hear from you! – Courtney Gould Miller

I was walking home from work when a horde of people appeared carrying large red packages, practically running me over. Before I knew it, I was a pinball in field of packages, being catapulted all over the sidewalk by literally hundreds of Chinese people. It wasn’t until I got knocked around a few more times that I realized the contents of the soft red packages were, luckily for me, plush down comforters. While I managed to fight my way to the street, there was no escaping the onslaught of duvets. So, like I am forced to do often in China, I just stood back, laughed at the situation, and took pictures.

My curiosity had me follow the trail of duvets, which led to a big theater with a stream of people walking in and out of the doors carrying one or more of these comforters. My first instinct was that there must have been a New Years promotion on these blankets. However, after asking a woman in line, it turns out that her company was giving each employee a duvet to wish them a warm and happy new year.

This pile of duvets above were dwindling so everyone made a mad dash to the stash on the other side of the building that are pictured below

This Friday, January 31, marks the Lunar New Year and the arrival of the Year of the Horse. The official government holiday technically does not start until Friday, but Beijing already feels like a ghost town. Most mom-and-pop shops have closed for the holiday and Chinese people are beginning to migrate out of the city in mass numbers to visit their ancestral homes and celebrate with their entire families.

As with many American holidays, celebrating Chinese New Year involves gift giving.  Grown children are expected to return to their ancestral homes and provide money in red envelopes (“hong bao” in Chinese) to their parents as well as to the younger children in their families. According to my colleagues, a Chinese New Year trip home can easily set you back half a year’s salary in travel and gift costs. To offset some of these expenses, companies often provide their employees with a yearly bonus directly before the New Year. Other companies, such as the one giving blankets, prefer to give their employees non-cash gifts that involve symbolism.

While I imagine I would prefer cash over a duvet, I would certainly appreciate a practical present over others I have heard about. Much to the chagrin of its employees, one money-strapped company gave every employee steamed bread (“man tou” in Chinese) for their Chinese New Year present. The verb to steam in Chinese, “zheng”, is the first two words in the Chinese proverb, “zheng zheng ri shang.” Literally, the proverb translates to may the steam rise higher with each new day. Proverbially, it means wishing each new day to be more prosperous than the last. Frankly, I think it symbolizes time to look for a better job.

What gifts would you want from your employer at Chinese New Year? Cash or sentiment?


We have four Chinese nurses that work for us what would you recommend and or do you have a list of New Year gift ideas?

January 28, 2014 | Ken

Thanks for your comment, Ken. Crisp, new money in a red envelope is always appropriate for Chinese New Year - for employees, a month's salary is common. Avoid denominations of four, since four is very unlucky. Other good gift ideas include tea, fine wine, gift sets of six or eight (such as apples or peaches), or bamboo in a nice vase.

I hope this helps. Happy Chinese New Year!

January 29, 2014 | Courtney Gould Miller

Ken, I completely agree with Courtney. I think another nice gift idea would be to buy your employees a gift they probably would not buy for themselves. For example, purchasing them some nice olive oil or maybe a specialty cooking product from a local vendor. Give them something they they will enjoy showing off to their friends and that also comes from a brand that has a good story.

Happy Chinese New Year and thanks so much for your comment!

January 29, 2014 | Will Solomon

Ken, your comment inspired me to create a new post with Chinese New Year recommendations. Thanks for the suggestion, and I hope this answers your question.

January 29, 2014 | Courtney Gould Miller
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