Huangshan, China

Chinese History & Culture

Influence of Confucian Values on the Practice of Gift Exchange in Contemporary China


An elaborate and complex system of gift-giving has long been observed to be a key feature in Chinese society. Confucian values have also been observed to have shaped the lives of countless Chinese people down through the centuries. There is much current scholarship that seeks to demonstrate how these ancient values affect the lives of Chinese people today. The main purpose of this paper is to explore the influence of Confucian values on gift exchange in contemporary Chinese culture. A secondary purpose is to explore the implications that this research may have for Christians engaged in relationships and ministry with Chinese people.

The body of the paper is divided into four main sections. The first section is a literature review that sketches an outline of the scholarship concerning how traditional Chinese values relate to gift exchange in contemporary China. The second section relays information gained through ethnographic interviews with Chinese people about gift-giving behavior. The third section is an analysis of the interviews in light of the information gained from the literature review. The concluding section discusses some possible implications of this research.

Literature Review

Gift Exchange in Confucian China

In examining the literature on gift-giving in China (or anywhere for that matter), it is difficult to overestimate the influence that Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) has had on nearly all subsequent scholarship. In his landmark book, The Gift: the Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies (1950), Mauss argues that gift exchange serves as a means of establishing and maintaining social relationships among people. It does this by creating social obligations that bind people together. He contends that there are no free gifts, but instead all come with strings attached. Though they may appear voluntary, gifts are in fact always given with the expectation of return.

Through his empirical research among traditional societies, Mauss identified three obligations in the gift exchange: the obligation to give, to receive, and to reciprocate. By giving, one shows oneself as generous and thus worthy of respect. By receiving, one shows respect to the giver and at the same time proves one’s own generosity. Mauss argues that it is nearly impossible to refuse a gift, because to do so would be to admit that you cannot be in a equitable relationship with the giver. If the gift is accepted, one is obliged to reciprocate for the sake of one’s honor. Otherwise, it would place the recipient in a position of indebtedness and inferiority to the giver. Mauss argued that what he observed in these “archaic” societies is a universal phenomenon. Rather than lamenting the self-interest inherent in all gift exchanges, Mauss sees the gift as instrumental in establishing and strengthening social bonds.

Many scholars have used Mauss’ thesis as a paradigm to conduct research on gift-giving in other cultures around the world. Among others, Eric Mullis applied this to Chinese culture. In his article entitled Toward a Confucian Ethic of the Gift (2008), he demonstrates the considerable amount of overlap between Mauss’ theory and the Confucian values underpinning the practice of gift exchange in ancient China. Gift exchanges in Confucian China were seen as “aiding in the formation and maintenance of social relationships and ultimately as contributing to realizing social harmony,” (Mullis, 2008, p. 183). It does this by creating obligations between members of the group. Mullis observes:

In the Analects 6.5[1] we find Confucius advising his household servant to share the grain that he has earned with all of those who make up his social network: his family, friends, and neighbors. The obligation to give is informed by the obligations that have been created through interpersonal relationships: familial, fraternal, and communal. Here, the servant is indebted to his network for economically and socially supporting him at all stages of his development (2008, p. 183)

Because the entire social group contributes to the livelihood of an individual the individual feels a sense of obligation and loyalty to the group. This is demonstrated and expressed through gift exchange, which in turn furthers the cycle of giving, receiving, and reciprocity. Thus, the Confucian ethic of gift exchange is primarily a relational ethic: “the gift must be socially significant and/or must contribute to the process of forming and maintaining social relationships and communities,” (Mullis, 2008, p. 186).

Furthermore, these social relationships in Confucian China were rather rigidly defined according to the Confucian social hierarchy. This hierarchy is expressed in Confucius’ famous “five relationships” (wulun): ruler to subject, father to son, husband to wife, elder brother to younger brother, friend to friend. Each position in the social pecking order entailed prescribed duties and obligations with respect to others. Fulfillment of these duties ensured social harmony. The social order provided the context and rules for gift exchange (Mullis, 2008, p. 185). Where the giver and recipient stood in relation to one another in the social hierarchy determined the timing, kind, and value of the gift, as well as, the manner in which it is given, received and reciprocated. Harmony and hierarchy went hand-in-hand in Confucian China. Thus, gift-giving played an important stabilizing role by maintaining the system of proper obligations between people of all social rank. In other words, “The gift economy that is characteristic of ancient China,” Mullis argues, “should be interpreted in terms of the instantiation of a social hierarchy and the creation of obligations,” (Mullis, 2008, p. 176).

One can observe in Mullis’ insightful essay five interrelated core values that comprise the Confucian ethic of gift exchange: social relationships (guanxi), social harmony (he), social hierarchy (as seen in wulun), social obligations (renqing), and social reciprocity (shu). Though not found in Mullis’ research, the Chinese value of face (mianzi) can also be considered to be an essential aspect of Confucian culture that influenced gift exchanges (Wang, Wang, Ruona, & Rojewski, 2005, p. 318). The discussion thus far raises a pertinent question: Do these Confucian values that influenced the relational ethic of gift exchange in ancient China have any influence on gift exchange in contemporary China? This question has been taken up by several other insightful scholars. To them we now turn.

Gift Exchange in Contemporary China

Qian, Razzque, and Keng conducted a study in 2007 on the influence of traditional cultural values on gift-giving behavior in contemporary China. The results of the study indicate that four of the six cultural values mentioned above exert a definite influence on gift exchange in China today. These include social obligations (renqing), reciprocity, relationships (guanxi), and face. The values of harmony and hierarchy were not considered in their research. Other scholars have found that these last two values also influence contemporary gift exchanges in China. What follows next is a survey of the scholarship linking these traditional cultural values to gift-giving behaviors today in China.

Renqing and Reciprocity

These two values will be considered together because of their close association. Renqing is an important concept in Chinese culture and carries with it several connotations. Literally it means “human (ren) feelings (qing).” This refers to the feelings and sensibilities that are inherent in human relationships. For example, one might say, “He really values renqing and is always willing to help his friends.” This usage of the word points toward the second connotation which has to do with mutual obligations that relationships entail. To be sensible about relationships means that one is aware of mutual dependency and obligations. According to Qian et. al., “renqing denotes complicated social relationships that involve the exchange of social favors in [forms such as] money, goods, services and information,” (2007, p. 227). Renqing can also be used as a synonym for gift or favor. In his book, The Flow of Gifts: Reciprocity and Social Networks in a Chinese Village, Yunxiang Yan (1994) argues that this notion of renqing provides a moral basis for the actual practice of gift relations (as cited by Liu, 1998, p. 1131). In other words, this moral sense of obligation towards others within the social network is what motivates gift exchange. This is, of course, in line with what Mullis, based on Mauss’ seminal thesis, argues was the case in traditional China.

Nearly inextricable from the notion of renqing is the value of reciprocity – the obligation to return the gift or favor in the future. Reciprocity is grounded in the Confucian logic that a respectable person interacts with others in a reciprocal way. “One manifestation of this,” says Qian et. al. (2007), “is an expectancy that individuals who accept a gift give one in return,” (p. 227). Not to reciprocate would be morally culpable.

In their book designed to help Americans successfully navigate Chinese culture, Hu and Grove (1999) observe that “any act of helpfulness or generosity, no matter whether given or received, begins to draw one into the network of reciprocal exchanges,” (p. 64). In China, the return gift is expected but it need not exactly match the original gift. A gift of wine, for example, may be reciprocated by the other’s use of influence with an official to approve a business proposal. Hu and Grove (1999) also warn foreigners about accepting unusually valuable gifts from a Chinese counterpart, because in all likelihood, it signals that a major favor will be expected in the future (p. 66). All of the literature surveyed thus far indicates that the Confucian values of renqing and reciprocity are clearly at play in gift exchanges in China today.


Guanxi is unarguably one of the most important aspects of Chinese culture. In English, it is roughly translated as “relationships” or “relationship networks.” It refers to one’s social connections. Luo Yadong says it this way:

The Chinese word guanxi refers to the concept of drawing on connections in order to secure favors in personal relations. It is an intricate and pervasive relational network which Chinese cultivate energetically and subtly. It contains implicit mutual obligation, assurance and understanding, and governs Chinese attitudes toward long-term social and business relationships. (Luo, 1997, p. 34)

Hu and Grove (1999) make the helpful distinction between three general types of relationships in Chinese culture today: affective ties, instrumental ties, and mixed ties. Affective ties refer to one’s relationships with family members and intimate friends with whom there is a long-term bond of affection. Instrumental ties are temporary and anonymous. These are superficial relationships that develop between strangers, such as taxi drivers or store clerks. Mixed ties refer to those relational bonds that develop over time to include both affective and instrumental ties. It is these mixed ties that Hu and Grove consider guanxi (1999, pp. 60-61). “Guanxi relationships are important to the Chinese because of their affective component, their durability, and their functional value,” (Hu & Grove, 1999, p. 61). As such, most Chinese people are continually establishing and maintaining guanxi with all sorts of people: shop owners, colleagues, subordinates and supervisors, relatives, foreigners, acquaintances and anyone with whom a relationship might prove mutually beneficial (Hu & Grove, 1999, p. 64).

Today Chinese people commonly joke about how the study of guanxi (guanxi xue) is more important than the study of science, because it is only through guanxi that things get done. This idea is similar to that of the common American idiom, “it’s not what you know, but who you know that matters.” Hu and Grove (1999) cite the following as an example of how guanxi works in Chinese culture:

If you want to start a joint-venture factory in a coastal city in China and you need to put up some buildings, normally you need to go through about a dozen offices of different government departments for permission to build. This will take up to several months in addition to all the frustrations and setbacks you are likely to suffer in the process. But if you happen to be friendly with someone who has good connections (or good guanxi) with government officials, your experience is likely to be quite different. You will have the green light all the way…” (p. 63).

Qian et. al. (2007) say that guanxi may be seen as a “double-entry system, involving a continued and reciprocal exchange of favors between the two parties involved. When one party receives a favor from another, it is expected that the former will reciprocate at some time in the future, otherwise the guanxi cannot be sustained,” (p. 215). “Gift relations,” says Liu (1998), “are essential to the production of everyday social relations known as guanxi or guanxi networks,” (p. 1129). Hu and Grove (1999) describe the gift giving within the guanxi system as a kind of “social investment upon which one may draw later,” (p. 63).

As Mullis argued about the Confucian social ethic, Hu and Grove contend that the investment of gifts and favors into the guanxi system is not merely motivated by utilitarian self-interest. Instead, “the development of guanxi converts a person who was merely an acquaintance into a type of in-group member, then uses the ongoing exchanges of favors as the means of maintaining the relationship. In other words, what is given and received are tokens that the personal side of the relationship is alive and well,” (Hu & Grove, 1999, p. 64). Yan (1996) would agree with this assessment, for he stressed that gift-guanxi relations are both instrumental and expressive, material and symbolic, practical and ideological (as cited by Liu, 1998, p. 1131).

It is worth recalling here Hu and Grove’s distinction between affective, instrumental, and mixed ties. Guanxi refers to social ties that usually begin as instrumental but gradually move towards becoming personal friendships bonded by a degree of mutual affection. Annamma Joy (2001) affirms the reality of this range of relationships and observes that gift-giving motivations and behavior depend on where people are on this relational continuum. Her model of the “gift-continuum” is very helpful for understanding how the dynamics of gift-giving change across the relational spectrum. Thus the literature is unanimous in affirming the close relationship between the cultural value of guanxi and gift exchange in contemporary China.


Everyone recognizes that face, or mianzi, is of paramount importance in Asian cultures. However, it often proves to be a difficult concept to grasp for non-Asians. What is face? This question has occupied thousands of pages of scholarly articles and books. One recognized authority on face and its influence on interpersonal communication is Stella Ting-Toomey. Ting-Toomey says that “face represents an individual’s claimed sense of positive image in the context of social interaction,” (Oetzel & Ting-Toomey, 2003, p. 600). Qian et. al. (2007) refers to face as the respect and/or deference one feels he or she deserves from others. Loss of face occurs when one is not treated with the respect he or she deems is proper, especially when this occurs in front of others because this tarnishes one’s public image (Hu & Grove, 1999, p. 121). As most scholars recognize, everyone in every culture is concerned about their public image, but for many this concern is largely subconscious. “In the People’s Republic,” observe Hu and Grove (1999), “everyone is conscious of face all the time. An oft repeated Chinese proverb puts it thus: ‘A person needs face as a tree needs bark,’” (p. 121). Face depends on one’s relative position in the social order and can be gained or lost depending on how one fulfills that role (Qian, Razzaque, & Keng, 2007, pp. 215-216).

The close relationship between face and gift exchange can be seen in the Chinese word for gift, “li wu.” Going back to Confucian ethics, “li” refers to the rules of etiquette that a moral person is expected to follow in social interactions that promote proper respect (face) and social harmony. “Wu” simply refers to a consumer good or object of exchange. “Li wu,” then, refers to an object given according to the rules of etiquette that promotes mutual respect and social harmony (Joy, 2001, p. 240). When someone adheres to rules governing social behavior, they maintain respect. Since exchanging gifts in the proper manner is part of the code of conduct, how one performs this duty has a direct bearing on one’s social image. To neglect gift exchange or to fail to properly exchange gifts would cause the loss of face.

As mentioned above, one of the rules of conduct involves reciprocity. Thus, not to reciprocate on a gift occasion, for example, would result in the loss of face for both parties (Joy, 2001, p. 245). The one who should have reciprocated did not perform his or her duty, and the one who should have received the return gift was not treated with proper respect. Especially in guanxi relationships, to give a gift that is too cheap would similarly cause face loss for both parties. This causes a considerable amount of anxiety for the gift-giver when trying to choose an appropriate gift (Joy, 2001, p. 250). Gift exchanges between peers must be relatively equivalent in value because they recognize that the two are equal partners in the exchange. Otherwise, it would introduce a face imbalance. Though a general rule is that the more expensive the gift, the more respect it shows, Hu and Grove (1999) caution against extravagance lest it cause embarrassment to the recipient, who may not be able to easily return the gift.

Even in affective relationships, face is important to gift exchange. Parents often discuss with their friends the gifts they received from their children on special occasions. Joy (2001) notes that in this case, “It is as if they were to tell another, “my daughter/son bought this for me because he/she cares about me,” and then pause to allow the friend to draw the correct inference,” (p. 247). The gift in this situation serves to improve the parents’ image in the eyes of their peers. To give another example, if a boyfriend were to give a substandard gift to his girlfriend, he would be “socially sanctioned by friends and relatives for not acting appropriately,” (Joy, 2001, p. 248). Joy concludes that within the context of affective ties, “the drive to save social face has imbued the gift with extraordinary social implications for the family,” (Joy, 2001, p. 247).

It is necessary to also mention that refusing a gift causes significant loss of face. First of all, it violates the rule of reciprocity, which causes the one refusing the gift to lose face. Secondly, it may imply that the intended recipient is unable to reciprocate which would cause significant embarrassment. This would, in turn, cause the giver to lose face because he or she should have known better than to create such an embarrassing situation for someone else. Thirdly, it may signal that the intended recipient is able to reciprocate but does not wish to. In this case, the refusal communicates that the giver is not worthy to be in such a reciprocal relationship. This causes the giver to lose face. Thus, gift refusal is clearly a lose-lose situation for everyone involved and is avoided as much as possible (Joy, 2001, p. 241). Chinese will expend significant energy calculating the proper gift in order to avoid its refusal.

Lastly, aside from the direct relationship between gift exchange and face, the gift also relates to face indirectly through the establishment of guanxi. The larger one’s guanxi network is, the more powerful that person becomes and the more respect that person is afforded by others (Qian, Razzaque, & Keng, 2007, p. 215). As has been demonstrated above, gift exchange is crucial to the development of guanxi. Thus, one can gain face through gift exchange by utilizing it to expand one’s guanxi network.

The foregoing discussion of face indicates that a significant role of the gift “lies in its power as a vehicle to face somebody,” (Joy, 2001, p. 245). Qian et. al. support this conclusion. Their research demonstrates that “the face component was found to have effect on the importance attached to gift-giving, the amount given and brand orientation,” (2007, p. 224).

Harmony and Hierarchy

Similar to renqing and reciprocity, the values of social harmony and hierarchy are nearly inseparable and will be considered here together. Hu and Grove (1999) identify these two traditional values to be still operative today, though the ways they play out have been modified (p. 7). Though socialist and western egalitarianism have eroded the absolute power of superiors (such as the family patriarch), deference to seniority is still the rule in China today (Hu & Grove, 1999, p. 7). Young employees, for example, are almost always completely deferential to their supervisors, as are students to teachers. Hierarchy is also maintained by the extensive use of titles. Hu and Grove observe that Chinese use many more occupation-linked titles than do Americans (1999, p. 14). “Even within Chinese families,” they note, “older members are virtually always referred to and addressed by younger members according to their formal roles within the family – older brother, sister-in-law, and so forth – rather than by their given names. But older members typically use given names when addressing their juniors,” (Hu & Grove, 1999, p. 14).

Social harmony can still be recognized as an important value in Chinese society today. It can be seen at the national level in former President Hu Jintao’s vision of China becoming a “harmonious society,” (Fan, 2006). Hu and Grove (1999) see the concern for harmony expressed in the avoidance of overt conflict in interpersonal relationships (p. 8). “Maintaining harmonious relationships with family members, close friends and colleagues, and other primary group members is a matter of supreme concern,” (Hu & Grove, 1999, p. 8). Harmony is maintained by people showing the proper respect and fulfilling the responsibilities associated with roles in the hierarchy.

At the risk of redundancy, gift exchange is an expression of proper respect for others and the fulfillment of the obligations inherent in social relationships. Gift exchange binds people together in mutually dependency. Government officials, for example, describe gift-taking as something which lets people “feel they have forged a good link with their superiors,” (Yan M. M.-H., 1994, p. 107). The gift comes with the expectation that the official will in some way return the favor. To fail to adhere to the norms and expectations of gift exchange would be to undermine social harmony. It presents a challenge to the social order and may result in the end of the relationship. “Gifts or favors of different values are appropriate for people at different levels in the hierarchy and for people at different stages in a relationship,” (Hu & Grove, 1999, p. 64).

By now it is clear that gift exchange is an incredibly complex phenomenon in China. There are a lot of dynamics going on when a gift is given. For a non-Chinese person (or even a Chinese person!), it is easy to get lost in the discussion of values that shape gift exchanges. The following section relays information gathered from interviews with Chinese people that shed light on actual gift-giving behavior.

Ethnographic Interviews

Research approach

I have had the opportunity to teach a small conversational English class for Chinese graduate students at an American university. Over the course of many months we have developed good friendships with each other and the class environment is one in which students feel free to share their thoughts and opinions. During three class sessions I asked them open-ended questions about gift-giving and facilitated the discussion in order to draw out the information pertinent to the research topic. In addition to the group interviews, I also engaged in dialogue with other Chinese people about gift exchange in Chinese culture.

Group Interview (Bing, Hong, Jian, Li, & Zhang, 2012)

The first question I asked the class was, “On what occasions do people exchange gifts?” The most common occasions they mentioned could basically be grouped into two groups: life cycle events (births, important birthdays, weddings, and funerals) and Chinese festivals (Spring Festival and Mid-Autumn festival being the two most important). On these occasions, gifts are exchanged primarily between relatives and close friends. Gifts can be symbolic, though most of the time they are in the form of cash placed in a red envelope. Gift cards are growing in popularity among young people as substitute for cash gifts.

Xiao Jian commented that it is a tradition to offer gifts of paper money, food, and other items to one’s ancestors on Qing Ming Jie (Tomb Sweeping Festival). She said that this is to show respect and gratitude towards the ancestors. Going along with the gift is the hope that the ancestors will return the favor by blessing them with health and prosperity. She and the other students said that most people do not actually believe these things, but the tradition is nevertheless still practiced by many today.

The students also mentioned that upon being invited to a meal or visiting someone’s home, it would be appropriate to bring a small gift. Fruit, flowers, or wine are common gifts in these situations. However, it is not necessary to bring a gift if the host is a close friend or close relative.

Another gift-giving occasion is when one is returning from a long trip. Hong Zhuan said that he plans to take lots of gifts from America with him when he returns to China next year. He will take gifts for family members, friends, and his professional colleagues. He mentioned this proverb “千里送鹅毛,礼轻情意重 (qian li song e mao, li qing qing yi zhong)” to express his sentiment in these gifts. The explanation he gave was that though a gift sent from a friend who is far away might be small and inexpensive, it still can express strong friendly affection.

Li Jie mentioned that all of the gift exchanges mentioned thus far are due to Chinese tradition. Interestingly, he said that it is simply the polite, or proper (li) thing to do. However, Li Jie also talked at length about how Chinese people will give gifts when they need the help of someone important. “People often seek to build guanxi,” he said, “with those who are perceived to have power or access to resources.” Examples he gave included government officials, school officials, and successful businessmen. Gifts, in the form of material goods, dinners, or favors, are often given to establish and maintain guanxi with such people.

Li Jie identified two ways that this can happen. The first is when the giver has a clear short-term goal in view and gives a gift to a leader who is believed to be able to help. The example given was when the parents of a high-school student who does not have good enough grades to get into college give a gift to some high-ranking college official in hopes that their child will gain admission anyway. In this case, the gift would be several thousand dollars in cash. The second way that gifts can facilitate guanxi is when the giver has no specific need in mind but perceives that the recipient is a good person to know and may be able to provide help sometime in the future. In this case, the gift functions as an investment in a relationship that may pay dividends down the road. It makes the giver known to the recipient and will cause the recipient to remember the giver when his or her help is called upon.

Li Jie mentioned the Chinese proverb “官不打送礼人 (gong bu da song li ren)” which means “when you give a gift to a powerful person he will not be angry with you.” Li Jie explained that this proverb encourages people not to be anxious about this kind of gift exchange. It is the way the system works. He noted that in these cases gift-giving is not much different than a bribe. He said, “Before I did not think anything of this. It’s just normal. But now [that I’ve been in America] I think that bribery is wrong.”

Bing Xia said that it is common in Chinese universities, especially among undergraduates, for a student who is in jeopardy of failing a class to give the teacher a gift, such as cigarettes or wine. Though this is frowned upon as a bribe, she said that it is common. Hong Zhuan, who is himself a university professor, said that he often receives gifts of cigarettes and wine from his students. Comically, however, he does not smoke or drink alcohol. So he simply puts these items on the shelf and after stock piling them for some time he will then share them with his friends. He believes that the students are merely showing their gratitude. He said that it is not appropriate for him to give them a material gift in return, nor is it appropriate to give something back to each student individually. Instead, he usually will treat all his students to a nice dinner at the end of the semester.

Xiao Jian agreed that not all gifts are calculated to gain some benefit in return. She told of how just before her college graduation she gave a small gift to all of her classmates. She said that she simply wanted to express the warm feelings and gratitude she had for them. She did not expect anything in return for these gifts, but only hoped that they will remember her with fondness. Zhang Xia added that when he exchanges gifts with friends and family it is not to gain some personal advantage. Instead, he wishes to express his feelings of gratitude and affection.

Several students in the class expressed the anxiety that is often experienced when trying to choose an appropriate gift. Some of the concerns mentioned include anxiety about whether or not the recipient will like the gift and whether or not the gift is valuable enough. Li Jie said that the worst thing that can happen is for the intended recipient to completely refuse the gift. This causes a severe loss of face for the giver because it communicates, “You are so far beneath me that I do not even recognize you at all.” Refusal of the gift eliminates the possibility of any semblance of a social relationship between the two parties.

When asked about receiving gifts from others, the feelings of obligation and gratitude emerged as strong motivations to reciprocate. Everyone agreed that receiving a gift, even from a close friend or relative, creates a strong sense of obligation to return the gift in some way. Rather than being a burden, however, this is seen as a normal part of being in a relationship with someone. Returning the gift is an expression of gratitude for the gift and also for the giver. Reciprocating the gift or favor is seen as a normal and proper way to show gratitude. To not return the gift would simply be rude.

Zhang Xia explained how this is even true of his relationship with me as his English teacher. He recognizes that I voluntarily offer my time and energy to help them improve their English. He said he feels very appreciative of this and would be more than willing to help me in return. If I asked him for help with something, he would definitely want to return the favor. He said to the other classmates, “I’m sure all of us would want to do something in return for Hoffman.” They all agreed.

Discussion with Wu Huan (Wu, 2011)

Wu Huan[2] is a professor at a three-self[3] seminary in China. She recounted the time when a new official was appointed as the head of the Religious Affairs Bureau for the province. At that time the seminary was in need of renovations. One of the first things that this new leader did was to donate to the seminary a tract of land on which to build an entirely new school. Wu Huan said that he gave this land because he was a new leader and he wanted to secure loyalty from the seminary. “If you refuse to give,” Wu Huan said, “you lose face.” On the other hand, by giving a large gift this leader “gained face and loyalty.”

Wu Huan also told the story of an English teacher she knew that was treated by an acquaintance to a grand Chinese dinner at a fancy restaurant. Towards the end of evening the Chinese host mentioned, as if in passing, “my nephew needs an English teacher.” The English teacher felt obligated and did, in fact, tutor the man’s nephew.

Conversation with Wen Zhong[4] (Wen, 2009)

Wen Zhong, a recent college graduate, was contemplating joining a Christian organization. This organization required its staff to raise their own financial support from their church and other Christian friends, family members, and acquaintances. His parents were not at all supportive of this choice saying that it would be “throwing away his education!” Instead, the parents expected their son to get a job. Especially since his parents had sacrificed so much to put him through college, Wen Zhong felt that he owes it to his parents to provide for them financially when they get older. By choosing to go into ministry he felt that he would not only be jeopardizing their financial security. It would also cause a loss of face for his parents in the eyes of his peers, because he would not have a “real job.” In the end, he decided not to join the ministry.


Though in the interviews there was no discussion specifically about the influence of traditional Chinese values, the field research does indicate that their influence on contemporary gift exchange behaviors remains quite strong. The twin values of renqing and reciprocity can be seen in several places. The gifts exchanged between close friends and relatives during life cycle events, holidays, and upon returning from a long journey were identified as the sensible and proper ways to express feelings of affection. Hong Zhuan did not imply that taking gifts from America back to his family and friends in China would be burdensome. For him it is just the natural way to show his affection for them. The same was true for Xiao Jian when she gave gifts to her classmates; for Hong Zhuan when he treated his students to a nice dinner; for Zhang Xia being willing to help his English teacher; and for the foreign dinner guest tutoring the Chinese host’s nephew. This is renqing and reciprocity. This is how relationships work in Chinese culture. As Li Jie pointed out, these reciprocal exchanges are simply the right thing to do. To neglect this would be just be wrong.

One reason that it would be wrong to neglect or refuse gift exchanges is that it would disrupt relational harmony. It would send the signal that there is something wrong in the relationship. If Hong Zhuan did not take gifts back to China or treat his students to dinner, if Zhang Xia would be unwilling to help his teacher in need, if the seminary had not accepted the land grant, or if Wen Zhong felt no obligation to reciprocate the generosity of his parents, it would communicate a powerfully negative message. Either it would indicate that there is a problem in the relationship or it would create one. This would undermine social harmony. Thus the interviews tend to confirm that social harmony is still highly valued in China today and one way this value is expressed is through reciprocal gift exchange.

The interviews also indicate that social hierarchy still plays a factor in gift exchange today. As Li Jie observed, people give gifts to those higher up the social ladder in order to secure their help and support with practical goals such as getting a child into college. In Hong Zhuan’s case, the hierarchy determined the acceptable types of gifts and the manner in which these gifts were given. The students gave him cigarettes and wine. But due to his position as a teacher, the proper way for him to reciprocate was to treat all of the students to a dinner together. In Wu Huan’s example, the government official could grant land to the seminary in exchange for loyalty and respect. This was a normal and acceptable method of gift exchange made possible by the hierarchal nature of the relationship. Lastly, the value attached to social hierarchy can be seen in Wen Zhong’s deference to his parent’s wishes.

The interviews also indicate that the concern for face remains an integral part of gift exchange in China today. Li Jie said plainly that when someone in a superior position refuses a gift from someone of lesser rank, it results in a severe loss of face for the giver. Wu Huan demonstrated that refusing to give can cause a leader to lose face, while giving can result in a leader gaining face. Wen Zhong’s example indicates that reciprocity from a child has much to do with giving the parents’ face. Taken as a whole, the interviews indicate that since face is linked with doing what a moral and respectable person does, and since moral and respectable people exchange gifts, then face is linked with gift exchange. It would be a shameful and embarrassing thing not to engage in gift exchange in the proper way.

Lastly, Li Jie’s comments indicate that there is a definite relationship between gift exchange and the establishment and maintenance of guanxi. People often seek to build guanxi with those who are perceived to have power or access to resources. Gifts, in the form of material goods or favors, are often given to establish and maintain guanxi with such people. Li Jie’s examples indicate that this often begins with self-interest and instrumentality. But this does not necessarily contradict Hu and Grove’s (1999) point that these guanxi relationships often move towards becoming personal relationships of mutual affection and dependence. In fact, Hu and Grove’s distinction between affective, instrumental, and affective combined with Annamma Joy’s (2001) gift/relational continuum shed much light on what was observed in the interviews. This continuum ranges from the affective gifts motivated by renqing obligations (as with Hong Zhuan’s gifts from America, Xiao Jian’s gifts to her classmates, and Wen Zhong’s response to his parents) to instrumental gifts motivated by self-interest (as in Li Jie’s examples).

In the final analysis, the literature review and the ethnographic interviews make a strong case that Confucian values still heavily influence gift exchange behaviors in contemporary China. When Chinese exchange gifts with each other, there is more going on than meets the eye. There may well be other values that are at play, but this study indicates that the values of renqing, reciprocity, guanxi, face, harmony, and hierarchy provide a coherent rationale and set of norms for gift exchange in China. They motivate and direct its exchange between people at every point on the relational continuum. What follows next is a brief look at the implications this may have for Christians involved in relationships and ministry with Chinese people.

Conclusion and Practical Implications

The first implication of this study is that it is important for non-Chinese to understand the underlying assumptions and behavioral norms surrounding gift exchange. At the very least, non-Chinese should ask a Chinese friend or colleague what gifts are appropriate in various situations or seek guidance about how to respond to a gift given from a Chinese person. This will give them more fluency in the language of Chinese gift exchange and help them more successfully navigate Chinese culture. Hu and Grove (1999) give helpful guidelines for gift giving (p. 150-154).

A second implication of this research is that non-Chinese can and should make use of gift exchange as a way to establish and maintain friendships with Chinese people. Some Westerners, who tend to emphasize giving gifts with no strings attached, may object that this is manipulative, calculating, burdensome, or motivated by self-interest. This would be true if the relationship is seen as a means to achieving some other goal. For most Chinese, however, in most cases the relationship is the goal. The gift is a means to strengthening the relationship. Reciprocal gift exchange is seen as a normal and good way to express affection, appreciation, mutual dependency, and commitment to the relationship. Gift exchange provides one opportunity for Christians who desire to contextualize these expressions in a way that is comprehensible and meaningful to Chinese. Both the heart motivation and the contextualized practice are important.

While Chinese gift exchange has thus far been cast in a mostly positive light, a third implication is that just as with every other aspect of human life, gift exchange has been corrupted by human sinfulness. Christians can approach this aspect of Chinese culture from a generally positive perspective, but at the same time must be discerning about whether or not selfishness, manipulation, and abuse is involved in the exchange. This includes both examining one’s own heart and being discerning about the motivations of others.

A fourth implication has to do with how the practice and underlying values of gift exchange in China might influence a Chinese person’s understanding of the Gospel. Contrary to Mauss’ central thesis, the Bible claims that there is at least one gift that is freely offered. This is the gift of God’s grace. In Romans 6:23 is found perhaps the most clear and concise expression of this gift: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord,” (ESV). Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast,” (ESV). There are many other places in Scripture that point to the fact that all that is offered to mankind in the Gospel are free gifts of God’s grace[5] that have been paid for in full by Jesus’ death on the cross. Gifts of grace, by definition, do not create debts and cannot be repaid. To attempt to repay God for His grace is to miss the point.

It goes beyond the scope of this paper, but it would be worth considering how good news of the free gift of God’s grace is interpreted in a culture that so strongly values renqing and reciprocity. Would it create a tendency for Chinese to feel obligated to pay God back for his gifts? Would there be a tendency for them to conceive of their relationship to God as being analogous to their relationship with ancestors? If so, would service to God been seen as a means of securing His blessings in return? Would this feeling of obligation to pay God back or secure His favors by our gifts of service undermine the meaning and power of the Gospel of grace? These are merely questions to consider. John Piper (1995) contends that this is indeed a dangerous tendency for all people of all cultures.

In conclusion, gift exchange is a universal phenomenon. It occurs in every culture in the world. Among other things, it is a form of communication. In a sense, it is a language unto itself. When we give gifts, we have an idea of what we want to communicate to the recipient. When we receive gifts, we instinctively engage in interpretation of what the giver is communicating. Like any form of communication, communication via a gift is not always clear, even between members of the same culture. This problem is exacerbated when the giver and receiver are from different cultural backgrounds with different assumptions and norms associated with gift exchange. Foreigners living in China or anyone in a relationship with Chinese people would do well to have at least a basic understanding of the Chinese language of gift-giving. Two key questions to keep in mind are: “What is being communicated by this gift exchange?” and “What expectations and norms should I be aware of?” The implications discussed above are just a few of perhaps many others that could give guidance to Christians in a Chinese context. One idea for further research would be to discover if and how Christianity has influenced the underlying values, assumptions, and behaviors of gift exchange among Chinese Christians.


1. Ames, R. T., & Rosemont Jr., H. (1998). The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation. New York: Ballantine.
2. Bing, X., Hong, Z., Jian, X., Li, J., & Zhang, X. (2012, March 3,21,28). Group Interview of Chinese Students in English Class. (C. H. Rhyne, Interviewer)
3. Confucius. (1996). The Analects of Confucius. Hertfordshire, UK: Wordsworth Editions Ltd.
4. Fan, M. (2006, October 12). China's Party Leadership Declares New Priority: 'Harmonious Society'. Washington Post Foreign Service.
5. Hu, W., & Grove, C. L. (1999). Encountering the Chinese: A Guide for Americans (2 ed.). Yarmouth, MA: Intercultural Press.
6. Joy, A. (2001). Gift Giving in Hong Kong and the Continuum of Social Ties. Journal of Consumer Research , 28 (2), 239-256.
7. Liu, X. (1998, November). Book Reviews: China. Journal of Asian Studies , 1129-1132.
8. Luo, Y. (1997). Guanxi: Principles, philosophies, and implications. Human Systems Management , 16 (1), 43-51.
9. Mauss, M. (1990). The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
10. Mullis, E. (2008). Toward a Confucian Ethic of the Gift. Dao , 7 (2), 175-194.
11. Oetzel, J. G., & Ting-Toomey, S. (2003). Face Concerns in Interpersonal Conflict: A Gross-Cultural Empirical Test of the Face Negotiation Theory. Communication Research , 30 (6), 599-624.
12. Piper, J. (1995). The Purifying Power of Living by Faith in Future Grace. Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Books.
13. Qian, W., Razzaque, M. A., & Keng, K. A. (2007). Chinese cultural values and gift-giving behavior. Journal of Consumer Marketing , 24 (4), 214-228.
14. Schulte, B. (2003). Social Hierarchy and Group Solidary: the meanings of work and vocation/profess in the Chinese context and their implications for vocational education. International Review of Education , 49 (1), 213-239.
15. Wang, J., Wang, G., Ruona, W., & Rojewski, J. W. (2005). Confucian Values and the Implications for International HRD. Human Resource Development International , 8 (3), 311-326.
16. Wen, Z. (2009, May 10). Conversation with Wen Zhong. (C. H. Rhyne, Interviewer)
17. Wu, H. (2011, January 8). Conversation with Wu Huan. (C. H. Rhyne, Interviewer)
18. Yan, M. M.-H. (1994). Gift, Favors, and Banquets: the Art of Social Relationships in China. Cornell University Press.
19. Yan, Y. (1996). The Flow of Gifts: Reciprocity and Social Networks in a Chinese Village. Stanford: Stanford U


  1. This account is actually in the Analects 6.3, not 6.5.
  2. All of the names in this section are fictional, but the accounts are not.
  3. “Three-self” refers to the “Three-Self Patriotic Movement,” which is the branch of Protestant Christianity in China that is officially sanctioned by the government.
  4. Wen Zhong is a fictional character, but one that represents many Chinese Christians I have known who contemplated joining this Christian organization. This fictional conversation is representative of several real conversations I have had with Chinese graduates in this situation. This example is indicative of the strong family obligations and face concerns still operative today in China.
  5. Matthew 7:11;Luke 11:13;John 4:10;Acts 2:38; Acts 8:20; Romans 3:24; 4:4; 5:15-17; 6:23; 11:29-35; 2 Corinthians 9:15; Ephesians 2:8-10 to mention a few.