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Birthday etiquette in China

Everybody loves a good birthday party, right? Well, perhaps not in China, depending on their age… if you know a Chinese friend’s birthday party is coming up, but don’t quite know what to do about it, this article should shed a little light on the situation.


Who has birthday parties in China?

Normally birthday parties are reserved for the young – mostly those under 25; over that and you are officially ‘old’ and not really inclined to brag about your age – and the elderly. Those in-between do tend to celebrate their birthdays, but more quietly, perhaps with a spa treatment or a gift to themselves. 

In Chinese society, longevity is considered to be a blessing, so from the age of 60 onwards, older folks will have a celebration every 10 years. At 80, older people will stop mentioning how old they are at their parties, so if you find yourself attending an older Chinese person’s party, you might want to decline to ask their age.


What should I buy a Chinese person for a birthday present?

The age and familial position of the person celebrating their birthday has a strong bearing on what kind of gift they should be given. For a baby or a small child, money is usually preferred, usually in the form of a hongbao, as it’s a convenient and flexible option for the child’s parents. Of course, if you know the parents very well, and know that there is something in particular that they want, then you can still splash out on that instead. 

Money also makes a useful birthday gift for an elderly person, for the same reasons.

For friends, a carefully picked present shows that you are thoughtful and considerate; things they like or things that they will find practical are good choices, just like in other countries. However, do remember to remove the price tag after you buy it from shop. Leaving it on the gift is considered rude, and some people may even think you are giving them hints that you want them to buy you a gift of equal value next time.

For colleagues and bosses, follow your other colleagues’ lead. Usually people are not expected to give birthday presents to the people at their work - unless, of course, they are close friends. Despite this, there are some offices that do take part in this practise as a matter of course, in which case just do as everyone else does. 

This is particularly true when it comes to giving gifts to your boss – if it’s not something that everyone does, then you might want to avoid doing it yourself, in case people think that you are sucking up to the boss. 

Of course, if you make friends with a colleague, or receive help from them, a small birthday present will be happily received.

If people are buying things for your birthday, you can buy them dinner in return. It is not a must, but it is a way of thanking them for your present, or even just remembering your birthday. 

There is no need to give birthday presents to everyone you know. A text message or a “Happy birthday” face-to-face may be enough for some acquaintances. Give a present if you want the person to be happy, rather than be burdened with the need to return the favor.


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