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The Meaning of Gifts

Cross-cultural living inevitably involves cultural clash points. For westerners in China, or for those interacting with Chinese people abroad, one of these cultural clash points is gift-giving. It certainly is/has been for me, since I don’t particularly like to receive gifts, and I’m not particularly good at buying gifts for other people. If you’ll allow for some pop psycho-babble, “gifts are not my love language.”

Even for people who enjoy giving and receiving gifts, however, it can be a source of stress when it takes place within the context of a Chinese-western personal relationship. The stress and confusion lie not simply in what gifts should or should not be given and what occasions require gift-giving, but in the deeper meaning of the act of gift-giving. What is being communicated by giving a gift, or by not giving a gift?

Years ago I learned a Chinese idiom that helped me begin to understand the concept of obligation and reciprocity—li shang wang lai (礼尚往来). Roughly translated, it means “a gift (or favor) given must be returned.” But how are outsiders to understand such an idiom, when our cultural understandings of the meaning of gift, obligation, and reciprocity might be completely different?  

Author and theologian Jackson Wu recently presented a paper at the Patronage Symposium in Beirut, Lebanon titled “Reciprocity, Collectivism, and the Chinese Church,” in which he offers a detailed and helpful analysis of the topic.

The presentation can be viewed online here, and the full paper can be read here.

Jackson opens his paper this way:

A gift has meaning within a specific context. Focusing on the context of gift-exchange can shed more light on patronage and reciprocity than merely speaking of the word “gift.” Therefore, we will reflect on the significance of reciprocity within 2 particular settings: (a) cultures and (b) relationships. This talk will present reciprocity within a Chinese context. Using Chinese culture as a case study enables us to see the significance of social exchange within different types of relationships.

He then goes on to unpack the topic, asking the following questions:

  1. How does reciprocity work in Chinese relationships, especially among friends and acquaintances?
  2. Why does reciprocity differ across cultures?
  3. What is the relationship between reciprocity and trust?
  4. What is the relationship between reciprocity and collectivism?
  5. What are the implications for the church?

Writing about foreigners working with Chinese, he notes that they are “often confused by the norms of social exchange,” and that “this lack of understanding limits their ability to develop enduring relationships with Chinese nationals.” He cautions that this confusion may lead to inappropriate behaviors that may cause irreparable damage to relationships.

Further, he writes,

These problems are rooted in one’s almost imperceptible assumptions about social identity. Specifically, when most Westerners crossing cultures, these categorical collectivists are biased against (Chinese-style) unbalanced reciprocity. Therefore, they likely will struggle to form close, long-term relationships with Chinese.

Westerners tend to misunderstand why Chinese exchange gifts or favors. Many foreigners are surprised to receive gifts from a stranger. They are suspicious of a Chinese person’s motive, thinking the giver intends to bribe them. Unfamiliar with local customs, foreigners might reject the gifts and limit their friendships with Chinese people.

When Westerners do accept gifts, they potentially commit another mistake. They are uncomfortable having a relational debt, feeling as if they are obligated to comply with others’ demands of them. In order to avoid “debt,” they too quickly repay the favor or gift. Consequently, they convey to Chinese neighbors the subtle message they are not interested in deepening their friendship.

For those working in China or those seeking to build meaningful relationships with Chinese students overseas, this video and accompanying paper are extremely helpful.

Note: recordings of all sessions at the symposium can be found here.

Image credit: Leone Venter on Unsplash.
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University of Northwestern-St. Paul …View Full Bio

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