Faring One Thousand Miles to Give Goose Feathers: Gift Giving in the People=S Republic of China

Jianfeng Wang, Nanyang Technological University
Francis Piron, Nanyang Technological University
Mai Van Xuan, Nanyang Technological University
[ to cite ]:
Jianfeng Wang, Francis Piron, and Mai Van Xuan (2001) ,"Faring One Thousand Miles to Give Goose Feathers: Gift Giving in the People=S Republic of China", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, eds. Mary C. Gilly and Joan Meyers-Levy, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 58-63.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, 2001     Pages 58-63


Jianfeng Wang, Nanyang Technological University

Francis Piron, Nanyang Technological University

Mai Van Xuan, Nanyang Technological University


Gift giving is important to consumer behavior and has generated a significant flow of research. The phenomenon is rich as it investigates consumers, their motives, the social interactions that accompany the giving of a gift, and the reformulation of consumers’ relationships once the gift has been given and received (Hoyer and MacInnis 1997; Ruth, Otnes and Brunel 1999). In the Western world, where most of the research effort has focused, gift giving and its complexities are becoming increasingly understood. However, this not so in most parts of Asia, the most populated continent, where gift-giving is often used as a complex medium for social interaction and personal expression. This paper is a stepping stone as it offers a seminal, descriptive research on the giving of gifts in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). To ensure a proper grounding in the study of the behavior in the PRC, we largely duplicated Beatty et al’s (1991) study, allowing for necessary adaptations to the particularities of the PRC environment.

Gift giving is a pervasive and universal phenomenon that has stirred research interests from disciplines such as anthropology, sociology and psychology (Levi-Strauss 1965; Mauss 1954; Schwartz 1967). In consumer behavior research, Sherry’s (1983) comprehensive model of gift-giving serves as the foundation for knowledge development: gift search and acquisition have been extensively researched over the past fifteen years (Beatty, Kahle, Homer and Misra 1986; Fischer and Arnold 1990; McGrath 1989; Otnes, Lowrey and Kim 1993; Sherry and McGrath 1989).

From an Asian perspective, and most particularly with a focus on China, little is known. With its long history and complexity, Chinese culture stands alone and it is fair to assume that what is known of Western gift giving is not necessarily transferable to Chinese consumers. Yau, Chan and Lau (1999) offer a model of gift-giving in Hong Kong: while now a part of the PRC, Hong Kong, with its blend of Western and Chinese cultures and often affluent lifestyles, does not represent consumers from the PRC. These distinctions are important since gift giving is strongly bound by culture (Hill and Rom 1996; Park 1998), and by the social fabric of societies. So, for example, what may be observed in a culture that fosters individualism (e.g., Western countries, Hong Kong) may be different from cultures that support collectivism, such as the PRC (Belk 1984). In summary, this research brings a distinct contribution as it starts up the process of understanding gift giving in the PRC from a consumer behavior perspective.


Hill and Romm (1996) observe that, in the PRC, gift giving helps reinforce one’s self-concept in a society that is fundamentally group-based (e.g., contemporary factory workers are housed and fed in factory-sponsored dormitories and canteens). In addition, traditional values, based on Confucianism, stress the importance of family security and affiliation, and compliance to social norms over individual recognition and achievement. Yet, when one’s achievements are recognized, benefits and other positive outcomes are expected to contribute to the group’s welfare. The group may be one’s family, work unit, village, or any other appropriate form of socio-professional affiliation.

As a rapidly developing nation, the PRC is experiencing significant movements of rural masses to the industrialized centers. Landry’s (1998) suggestion that urban consumers are more sophisticated and influenced by Western cultures than their rural counterparts, supported by casual observations of the PRC environment, is assessed in this research. We compare two samples of PRC consumers in their gift-giving behavior: migrant rural workers in newly developed industrial centers and white-collar consumers in Beijing.

The study also focuses on potential, gender-based differences. Cheal (1988) and Romm and Hill (1996) suggest that women are more generous gift givers than men are. In spite of publicized statements and education of gender equality, along with the late Chairman Mao’s statement that half of the sky is held up by women, the reality is that, within the PRC society, women still hold a position second to men. In turn, and as briefly mentioned earlier under the group-based self-concept, such differences may be actualized in distinct gift giving behaviors between male and females subjects.


This study adapts Beatty et al.’s (1991) research on "personal values and gift-giving behaviors" to a PRC environment. Again, since little is known about personal values and the behavior itself within the country, it follows that basing this research on a format adopted in published research would increase the value of this effort.

Kahle, Beatty and Homer (1986) developed the "List of Values" (LOV) used in the survey. It consists of 9 items, and taps attitudes toward gift giving, as well as gift purchasing behavior. We are not aware that the LOV has been used in non-Western cultures. Such cultures may share fundamental values with traditional European-North American cultures, such as personal (e.g., birthday celebrations), social (e.g., mothers’ day) or religious events (e.g., Christmas). Yet, they also retain certain peculiarities that may not be captured by the LOV itself. Later, Beatty et al. (1991) report that two of the LOV items were collapsed into one and another item was altogether eliminated from their survey. Our version of the LOV contains eigh items: we reincorporated the discarded item, as, in our best judgment, "being well respected" is an important characteristic of the Chinese culture, and adapted two items as follows. A panel of seven PRC consumers were given the eight LOV items, translated into Mandarin and asked to reflect on the meaning of each item within the context of gift giving. Three items required adaptation to better fit within the PRC’s cultural environment: the items related to "Sense of Belonging," " Self Fulfillment," and "Security."

"Sense of Belonging" was worded in Kahle (1986) as "to be accepted by your family, friends, and community." The panel was of the opinion that no PRC respondent would answer such question truthfully: a negative answer would be an acknowledgment of loss of face, particularly the part of the question dealing with being accepted. Panel members were asked to word a statement that would measure a construct as similar as possible to the one tapping the "Sense of Belonging." Eventually, a unanimous decision was reached with "You believe that your loved ones need your gifts." While it is not possible to capture the exact essence of the statement in English, the Mandarin version was a considerately worded statement hinting at the relationship between the giver and the gift.



Secondly, the "Self Fulfillment" item , "to find peace of mind and to make the best use of your talent" was also found to be unclear in its Mandarin translation. Specifically, the panel could not understand the relationship between "peace of mind" and "to make the best use of [one’s] talent." Also, the second part of the statement seemed too similar to the item tapping the "Sense of Accomplishment" ("By giving gifts to your loved ones, you can show them that you are successful.") A decision was then made to limit the wording to solely capture the "peace of mind" construct.

Thirdly, the item tapping the "Security" dimension of the LOV scale asked whether gift giving was done "to be safe and protected from misfortune and attack." The panel thought that good luck and good fortune were already intrinsically attached to giving gifts. However, the item would tap a similar construct if it were worded to convey some form of obligation to give gift. In other words, when asking whether one felt obliged to give gifts to loved ones, the answer would have to be positive as it would be a socially acceptable expression of affection, and thereby producing or maintaining security within the relationship.

In sum, we adapted the wording of three of the eight LOV items to more accurately capture the intended dimension of those items. While, from a non-Chinese perspective, the words may convey different meanings, from the respondents’ perspective, the indirect link was the proper medium to use when asking about private matters, such as expressions of love and affection. To exemplify, Chinese lovers would admire the full moon and describe it such a way that are understood to be descriptive of the relationship, rather than the moon itself.

To better account for the "Chineseness" of gift giving, we incorporated in the questionnaire three dimensions that are more specific to "Chinese cultural values [] that relate more directly to gift giving" (Yau et al. 1999, p. 101). Yau (1988, 1994) identifies three concepts that, while present in most cultures under different forms, have uniquely Chinese "twists": the concepts of Face, GuanXi, and Reciprocity. The concept of Face is two-pronged, and implies that a consumer will lose peers’ confidence when offering a gift that is a poor match to the recipient’s and/or the presenter’s standing in life (du lien) or prestige (mien tsu). The concept of GuanXi refers to the incremental building of relationships, an intrinsically two-way process that cements individuals throughout their professional and public lives. Finally, the concept of Reciprocity refers to the mechanism permitting GuanXi to evolve: a person will purposefully time the giving (the returned favor is not expected until a later, appropriae time) of an item of a value at least equal to what is expected in return. [For a more complete discussion on these fascinating topics, readers may wan to refer to Gouldner (1960), Kipnis (1997), Lebra (1976), and Malinowski (1959)].

A focus group discussion with manual laborers helped us identify additional dimensions or expressions of gift giving that were deemed appropriate to migrant rural workers. These items reflect the importance to the giver of maintaining a sense of connection with loved ones who s/he may see but once a year or less, due to the expatriation to urban industrial magnets.

In sum, the instrument developed for this study is hybrid, incorporating eight items from the LOV scale, three items from Yau’s (1988, 1994) discussion, and six items to more precisely capture the essence of rural migrants’ need to express and assure the maintenance of connections with far-away loved ones.

In addition to the scale-related items discussed above, five questions were asked to assess whether the respondent enjoyed giving gifts, how often, when and to whom gifts were given. Another question tapped gift attributes, such as price, uniqueness, style, etc. that were important to the presenter

The questionnaire went through several stages of translation to increase its validity. The LOV items were translated into Mandarin and back. The items identified in the focus group discussion with migrant workers were circulated among Mandarin speakers to reach a consensus on exact wording. [Chinese is a very precise, but concise, language. While most Western languages may allow for lengthy explanations of concepts and ideas, Chinese speakers are more accustomed to simple, direct and precise (combination of) characters. Only two characters describe for instance the concept of GuanXi discussed above, while the same effort may require several paragraphs in English.] Finally, the concepts used by Yau (1988, 1994) were incorporated in Mandarin sentences. Finally, respondents were asked personal questions to record demographic characteristics, such as gender, age, income, education, and marital status.




Data collection was done two weeks prior to the Chinese New Year (February 5, 2000) in two locations in the PRC. Migrant rural workers to urban centers were surveyed in the cities of Gaoming (90 respondents) and Dongguan (36 respondents), and 133 middle-class consumers were interviewed in Beijing. Migrant workers were asked to participate in the survey while on a break from work, at their work site, and Beijing residents were interviewed using a traditional mall-intercept technique. All questionnaires were self-administered. Due to the conciseness of the Chinese language, the questionnaire was printed on both sides of a single sheet.


A total of 259 questionnaires were collected for this study, almost evenly split between rural migrant and urban consumers (126 vs. 133). Seven of the questionnaires administered to the rural migrant workers and 12 of those administered to the urban consumers were unusable. Fifty-four (43% of the rural sample) of the migrant workers and 57 (43% of the urban sample) of the urban respondents were female.

Migrant and urban consumers answered evenly the first question about whether they enjoyed giving gifts (40% vs. 42%) or not (15% vs. 17%). The second question asked how often and to who gifts were given. Using a Chi-square procedure, we compared answers across genders and residencies and identified significant differences (a=. 05) in the frequency of spousal gift giving: more urban husbands (16 vs. 5) treat their wives on a monthly basis than rural consumers (some of the rural workers migrated to the cities with their families) . Rural females (a=.05) and young (21-30 y.o.) rural adults (a=.10) are less generous with their supervisors than urban residents. Younger married, as well as single (21-30 y.o.) urban consumers offer gifts more frequently (a=.01) to their spouses or girl/boyfriends than their rural counterparts. A similar effect is noted with middle-aged urban parents who reward their sons more frequently (a=.01).

Respondents were then asked to identify the first, second and third persons to whom they would choose to give a gift. No statistically significant differences (a=.05) were noted for the first gift recipients of choice. However, significant differences (a=.05) were noted between urban female respondents who selected their spouses/boyfriends as second choice over rural women who had chosen their parents.

The next question attempted to identify differences in behavior according to the time of gift giving. Respondents were asked to identify the first, second, and third holiday (Chinese New Year, Mid-Autumn festival) or social events (birthdays, weddings) when they would give gifts. No meaningful differences were found between either sample for the first and third choices. However, young (21-30 y.o.) urban residents celebrated anniversaries and the Western New Year while none of their rural counterparts did. Throughout, Chinese New Year and birthdays were ranked first and second, respectively.

The last question of the initial section of the questionnaire asked respondents to choose from a list (price, durability, quality, brand, uniqueness, style, and practicality) the three most important factors to them in selecting a gift. The practical aspect of the gift, its price and quality were ranked in similar order and proportions in both samples.

The next section of the instrument assessed respondents’ answers on the eight LOV items. Only one of the income levels showed to be a potential discriminant for statistically significant differences (a=.05), but the differences were not meaningful. In other words, neither residential origins (urban vs. rural), nor genders, nor achieved educational levels, nor marital status, nor income (except for the highest level) caused respondents’ perceptions of gift-giving to differ.

However, we observe that three out of four (76.7%) respondents agreed that they thought they were obliged to give gifts to loved ones and a slightly larger number (84%) found gift giving to be exciting. Also, responses are almost evenly distributed across the three levels of agreement (Strongly Agree-Agree-Moderately Agree). The magnitude of agreement was almost identical when asked whether giving gifts to loved ones is a way to get peace of mind (78% agreed) or build closeness with them (85% agreed). Respondents also agreed, overall, that they believed that loved ones needed their gifts (63%), and that they earned recognition from loved ones by giving gifts (66%). Finally, respondents agreed (57%) that they felt proud with themselves for the gifts, but a smaller part of the respondents (28%) agreed that they would be able to show their loved ones how successful they were by giving gifts. Actually, almost the majority (46%) moderately disagred with that statement.

Three questions tapped respondents (dis)agreement to the three Chinese values referred to by Yau (1988, 1994). As with the LOV items, there were no significant differences (a=.05) between respondents in their perceptions of the three items referring to the Chinese values using any of the demographic variables available in this survey. While one third of the respondents agreed that one could gain face by giving gifts to loved ones, a larger proportion (43%) moderately disagreed. More importantly, only 19% agreed with the Concept of reciprocity, while 73% also agreed with the Concept of GuanXi.

Finally, six items were developed from focus group interviews. From these, we learned that over 75% of the respondents perceived themselves as generous gift givers (evenly spread over the 3 options on the agree dimension). Also, 55 % agreed or strongly agreed that gift giving is important to them. Almost 90% agreed in some form that they thought it over before giving gifts, and 71% agreed that they always made an effort to find the right gift. The behavior was perceived as an important means of expressing affection in spite of physical/geographical separation by 93% of the respondents who also overwhelmingly agreed (72%) that it was important to them that the recipient liked the gift.

Initially, these results appear somewhat puzzling as they tend not to support what has been conventionally accepted as Chinese cultural values. The implications derived from the analysis of the data are discussed in the following section.


This research had several objectives. First we wanted to know whether and which were the differences in gift giving between urban, somewhat Westernized, consumers and newly-migrated consumers from the rural areas who are expected to have had less contact with values brought in by the Western culture and its media. Second, we were interested in discovering elements of PRC consumers’ gift giving behavior. As noted earlier, little is known about this phenomenon from a consumer behavior perspective.

Altogether, the behavior of rural migrants was not strikingly different from that of the urban sample. This apparent homogeneity is breached in some instances as rural husbands, as well as singles, seem less apt to buy frequent gifts for their wives or closed ones than urbanites. This is understandable as the rural migrants we interviewed may be living far away for months at a time. While some may have migrated with their families, their income is usually significant lower than hat of the settled urbanites. An interesting difference is noted as the rural migrants’ gifts to supervisors are not as frequent as those from urban residents. This finding is somewhat counterintuitive as we would have expected that someone who is displaced, albeit temporarily, may find it beneficial to ingratiate him/herself with a supervisor, an expression of the Concept of GuanXi .

The PRC has had a one-child policy for decades. As a result, and in line with the cultural importance of lineage, sons are known to be more cherished than daughters are. This widely accepted observation is supported by our findings that show parents as giving gifts more often to sons than to daughters. Urban residents who have higher financial means than the migrants can afford to dote on their sons even more.

With respect to the time when gifts are given, we observe an interesting development as young PRC urbanites celebrate Westen holidays, such as New Year’s Eve. While this may be partially explained by the publicity the new millennium received, it is still an encroachment of Western values that has no place in traditional Chinese culture which has its own calendar. The Western calendar is widely used in the business and government circles which do not recognize the Judeo-Christian and do not support its holidays. Clearly, the more traditional rural population has not yet taken in that element of Western enculturation.

Similarly, the celebration of anniversaries is a new Western value with no history in the traditional Chinese culture. For instance, older generations are not known to celebrate wedding anniversaries or other yearly memorable events, outside of birthdays which are very important reasons for immediate family gatherings. The celebration of meeting or other anniversaries is another form of urbanites’ western enculturation through gift giving.

Analysis of respondents’ answers to the LOV items clearly indicates the normative aspect of the behavior, as eight out of ten consumers feel obliged to give gifts. However, the perceived obligation of gift giving is not solely normative, as the behavior brings good luck to the giver. More importantly, open displays and statements of affection are not customary within the Chinese cultural environment, as opposed to Western societies. There, such statements are now openly encouraged as means of self-esteem development (e.g., parents regularly tell their children how much they are loved to enhance the children’s self-esteem). However, in the PRC, gift giving, instead of words and gestures, is used as a tangible statement of love and affection, which may explain that most Chinese feel obliged to give gifts since there are few other outlets for expression of love. In other words, giving gift provides some form of security. The perceived obligation to give gifts is matched in number and distribution across the 3 options on the "agree" side by those respondents who see themselves as being generous, and those consumers who perceive their gift giving as building closeness.

Most of the surveyed PRC consumers (90%) are involved in their gift giving, putting thought into the process of selecting a gift for a loved one. This is supported by the 71% of respondents who make effort to find the right gift. Earlier, we discussed the meaningfulness of gift giving to loved ones in the PRC as an expression of love and affection. Apparently, PRC consumers, in a large majority, take time and effort into expressing their feelings to someone for whom they care through their gift giving. Still, as gift giving is not as frequent as it may be in the West, probably due to lesser economic wealth, PRC consumers take pride (57% agreed) in their decision, considering its importance as a message that cannot be frequently expressed.

Consumers’ responses to the Chinese culture-related items appear somewhat in contradiction with findings from previous research or treaties (Yau et al. 1999). Again, Yau and co-authors (1999) describe the three Concepts of Face, GuanXi and reciprocity. Our findings find no discrimination between rural migrant and urban consumers, thus supporting the homogeneity perception of Chinese people. What is interesting, though, is that a small proportion (1/3) of respondents agree, and a larger number (43%) disagree that one can gain face by offering presents to loved ones. Also, only one in five consumer agreed with the concept of Reciprocity, while three out of four agreed with the Concept of GuanXi. This is stark contradiction with what has been mentioned in the literature. A careful inspection of research findings on these issues indicate that no distinction is made between gift giving to loved ones and to relatives, friends, and acquaintances. While giving presents surely cements relationships (GuanXi), it does not necessarily improve prestige or calls for later gifts in return when dealing with loved ones. A distinction may then be necessary between the types of gifts’ recipients, be they proximate or remote. This finding blends well with perceptions of a traditional Chinese family as a veryclose hierarchical unit in its immediacy, associated by blood relations with relatives and by GuanXi with non immediate relatives and acquaintances. In other words, the immediate, closely-knit, family does not rest on Concepts of Reciprocity and Face for its up building. Surveyed consumers clearly differentiated in their responses between questions relating to their "loved ones" and questions related to others, such as friends, supervisors, etc.

Of equal importance is the overall finding that consumers did not respond as strongly as expected in directions supporting the uniqueness of Chinese culture. This may be attributed to two factors that merit further investigation: the enculturation through acquisition of Western values of PRC citizens and the recently proposed concept that Asian values may not be so uniquely Asian after all (Wolf 1999). As the PRC has opened its doors to foreign investments and marketing of foreign brands and products, its citizens take in, at different paces, certain Western values (e.g., holidays), social behaviors (e.g., disco dancing), consumer behaviors (e.g., fried chicken, hamburgers) that alter the previously, outwardly monolithic Chinese culture. This research has identified such changes as when young urbanites purchase presents for anniversaries or for the calendar New Year.

Wolf (1999) [Charles Wolf Jr. is a senior economic advisor at Rand and a research fellow at the Hoover institution, Stanford University. The academic/scientific version of his findings was not available at the time of writing of this research. Comments about Wolf's (1999) findings and quotes are from a newspaper article recently published in Singapore's Strait Times (11.11.99).] discusses Asian values and reports on his own findings, comparing Asian and Western values. He offers that "values cherished by Asia’s various peoples, nations and cultures are very diverse and much of what is valued highly in Asia is markedly similar to what is highly valued in the West." He further reports on a survey conducted in six Asian capitals, including Beijing, four Western European countries and in the United States on nine attributes, including two attributes of relevance to this study: family relationships and having good relationships with others. Only two significant differences were identified: Asians "place somewhat greater importance on family relationships, while Westerners accord somewhat greater importance to leisure activity." Also, he noted that Asians " varied more widely among themselves in the importance assigned to good relations with "others," as distinct from relatives [] than did Westerners. Wolf (1999) then concludes that "Asian values are decidedly more similar to Western values than is presumably assumed."

In summary, this research is important as it is, to our knowledge, the first investigation of gift giving behavior in the PRC. It identifies the importance of specific aspects and motivations for offering presents. Contrary to what was expected from introspection and casual observation, rural migrants did not differ significantly, in general, from the more sophisticated urbanites. This study also contributes to a better understanding of the age-long debate on Asian values. Yau et al.’s (1999) indication of the fundamental importance of the Concepts of Face, GuanXi and Reciprocity was not observed to such extent in our research. Particularly, it may be worthwhile to note how the three Concepts vary in their application between relatives and non relatives, a phenomenon that seems corroborated by Wolf’s (1999) findings. Finally, along with Wolf (1999), we observe that PRC consumers’ (gift giving) behavior may not be all that different from that of Western consumers, adding weight to the concept that consumers, throughout the world have similar needs, and that it is how those needs are satisfied that may differ across cultures.

Still, the area of gift giving in the PRC is important as it is a medium to express love and affection, two feelings for which publicly display is not culturally acceptable. Our findings are limited by the PRC consumers’ attitude toward surveying. Consumer enquiries are novel phenomena in the PRC’s urban centers and may be even more alien to rural migrants. Aso, for historical and cultural reasons, PRC citizens have a known reluctance to answer any form of inquiries, and prefer not to participate in such public statements of opinion, albeit related to consumer issues.


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