The Chinese people are finding it increasingly difficult to prepare gifts for friends and relatives on special occasions including festivals. If a gift is very expensive, it could become a burden on the recipient, as he or she would have to find a gift of the same value to gift in return. But it should not be overtly inexpensive either, for you could be considered a miser.
A gift worth a few hundred yuan is widely accepted as appropriate nowadays, and prudent businesspeople have designed gift packages accordingly. It could be two bottles of wine in a wooden box, a package of assorted nuts, a basket of fruits or a bouquet of flowers.
Such gifts are popular among the youth, though the older ones might shrug them off as trivial or unnecessary. To them, wine is just not strong enough, nuts are hard to crack, fruits can be sour, and flowers neither edible nor durable.
The result: many people now have “gift selecting phobia”.
Those who have deep pockets and are willing to gift more valuable gifts may choose expensive Chinese liquor brands, cigarettes or imported cosmetics even if they know the recipients are neither heavy drinkers nor smokers. The price of a carton of best quality cigarettes can be as high as 1,000 yuan ($157.12) while a bottle of Moutai, Chinese liquor, can cost more than 3,000 yuan.
Moutai used to be a popular gift until a few years ago when a bottle cost less than 1,000 yuan. No longer.
Besides, many local governments have banned civil servants from drinking Moutai at official receptions. And accepting Moutai as a gift can be considered as taking a bribe.
Giving gifts is part of Chinese tradition. More than two and half millenniums ago, when Confucius took in new students, he would ask them to bring a few kilograms of dried meat as tuition fees. But the sage that he was, Confucius preferred calling them gifts, not tuition fees.
Even the poorest of Chinese families maintained the tradition. Visiting each other during Spring Festival, people prepared steamed buns as gifts. Rural residents visiting relatives in a town carried a bag of sweet potatoes or other farm produce as gifts.
Unlike today, gift selecting was a relatively easy job in the 1960s and 1970s. As an important festival approached, we would queue up to buy moon cakes. But despite the lure of the delicacies, we were barred from touching them. They were to be divided into three or four portions and wrapped, and then sent to relatives as festival gifts.
But on receiving such gifts, few would open the packet to savor the desserts. Instead, they would immediately send them to their relatives or friends. This sending-receiving-sending process lasted a few days－sometimes the gift we had sent would return to us－until the festival was over. If we were lucky enough to still have a gift or two, we would open the packets and enjoy the goodies.
People gift presents to each other to show love and gratitude. As a Chinese saying goes, “the gift is trifling but the feeling is profound”. But there are people who have ruined the gift-giving tradition by turning it into a means of bribery.
According to a corruption case that came to light in January, Sun Lijun, former vice-minister of public security, was found to have taken bribes worth more than $90 million from a subordinate over a few years. The subordinate would visit Sun four or five times every year, each time carrying a small box of “seafood” as gift. But instead of seafood, the box used to contain $300,000.
While harsh punishments await bribe takers and givers, it is high time we standardized gift giving both in official and business circles, in order to eradicate corruption. While gift giving in official and business circles shouldn’t be used as bribery, gift exchanges between friends and relatives should become simpler.