The manner of giving is worth more than the gift.
- Pierre Corneille, Le Menteur -
In a previous article we’ve discussed about the importance of guanxi in Chinese business: as explained by the author (Calipe Chong), guanxi - that literally translates as “relationships” - is to be intended as the “mechanism that provides the connection” in the hierarchical, complex Chinese society.
Among several others, one way to establish guanxi was (and still is) through gift giving: “Offerings of cash, expensive gifts, land, property, and beautiful girls. This was the most common form as greed was man biggest weakness. Gifts or cash were given during festive seasons, birthday, anniversaries, or any happy occasions celebrated by the elders or leaders. It was such a strong custom that it was deemed imprudent for someone not to bring gifts on such occasions.”
What does “proper” gift-giving etiquette dictate nowadays in the Confucian-Asia cluster?
In this post, we are going to talk about a particular aspect of the gift-giving tradition in (some) Asian countries: the luxury fruit culture.
Unlike in the West, fruit in Japan tends to be considered a luxury item: it’s flawless, elegantly packaged, often branded by stencil (note: the popularity of perishable gifts can partly be explained by the relatively small size of Japanese houses and the limited storage space, discussed in a previous post).
Muskmelon – Up to $237 each
As explained by Takasago (Takasago Times, 2008), “Food culture and environment have played a significant part in the differences found in fruits between Japan and the West. In Europe, where Western culture originated, much of the water is hard water, which is difficult to drink, and few crops could provide a source of vitamins throughout the year, so fruits, which were rich in water content and vitamins, were considered essential food in people's lives. Fruits were also the main type of preserved foods, being used for jams, juices, wines, and more. In contrast, Japan has a lot of rain, good quality water, and the availability of an abundance of vegetables and edible wild plants year round, from which water content and vitamins can easily be obtained. For this reason fruits were always considered luxury items and gift items.
Such differences significantly affect fruit production today. Western countries have expansive monoculture plantations all over the world and concentrate on the mass production of limited varieties at low prices. Crop yields are high and the focus is on selecting and cultivating varieties that have a high resistance to disease and pests. Moreover, much of the crop is used for processing into juices, jams, wines, and so on, so there tends to be little concern for appearance. In contrast, Japan is a long, narrow country with much steep, rugged terrain. The amount of arable land per farming household is small and the high-mix, low-volume production comes with high costs. So, in order to raise the unit price and improve the economics of growing fruit, there is a focus on selecting and cultivating varieties that both look and taste good, which is important for table fruits. Also, because of the custom of giving fruits as gifts, they are presented and sold as regional specialty items at luxury fruit stores located in the most prestigious urban areas, and even handled as luxury goods overseas.”
Inside the Sembikiya fruit parlor in Tokyo, Japan
The two main seasons for gift giving in Japan, mainly aimed at maintaining courteous social relationships, are around year-end (o-seibo, December 1st to December 20th) and mid-year (o-chūgen, July):
- year end gifts, are intended as tokens of appreciation and gratitude for those who have shown kindness during the year;
- mid-year gifts, are usually sent to those to whom people are indebted (“formal” gifts, not exchanged between family members but reserved to one’s social “superiors”. Note: since hierarchy is important in the Japanese society, it is advisable to not give the same present to “unequal” individuals, especially in a business related scenario).
Year-end gifts tend to be more important (and on average more expensive) than mid-year gifts.
“Oranges and apples are the traditional fruit gift of choice in China. Imported cherries are a relatively new arrival. It’s only in the past few years that they’ve become so available here.
Few of the buyers actually taste the cherries. They’re more focused on how they look and feel.
I ask a few of the people there how the cherries are today? One buyer says that they are too red. Shanghai shoppers prefer sweeter, dark red varieties, he says. In the north, people like lighter red ones that are more sour.I ask another buyer if these cherries are too pricy for normal people to afford?
‘Don’t you know? Chinese people have money now’, he says. ‘And giving expensive gifts gives you face.’ Cherries have become a premium gift. But some sellers say even though cherry imports are at their height this year, they’re no longer the hot luxury fruit they were just last year.”
While we’ve already discussed the concepts of “face” - one’s public image and social status - and “face giving” in some previous posts (available here and here), we have yet to explore the implications of the gift-giving etiquette in China with regard to this particular matter:
as reported by different sources, “Increased fruit imports also reflects the cosmopolitan tastes of China's middle class, who are ready to pay extra to sample new flavors, particularly those with health benefits" (source: ECNS), and “China is going through a consumption revolution: whereas in the past function and price were important factors in the buying decision buying behaviour has become more complex and Chinese consumers are taking increasing criteria into account when making a purchase. Chinese consumers believe that price is an indicator of the quality of a product, with price and sales services second. Certain aspects such as reimbursement guarantees of a product are less important. In general, the Chinese are curious about what is on offer, especially with respect to foreign products.” (Source: Santander Trade)
When exchanging gifts in China - especially in a business related scenario - it is important to remember that - same as in Japan - gifts of different values must be offered to people of different ranks, and consider the possibility that highly expensive gifts might either be considered as bribery (recommended reading: “Chinese Gift-Giving, Anti-Corruption Law, and the Rule of Law and Virtue”), or embarrass the receiver due to his inability to reciprocate with a gift of the same value, which would cause a “loss of face”.
With regard to bribery, this is what an article published by the South China Morning Post in 2013 claimed: “If you hand a client or civil servant a HK$500 lai see packet, there might be an awkward moment. The recipient may turn it down, or ask for permission from their boss. But what if you offer the same person a HK$458 artisanal Japanese melon, or perhaps a HK$1,288 fruit hamper?
Most likely there would be no problem. Fruit giving is such an ingrained part of the Lunar New Year holiday that few see it as an inducement of any kind, no matter the cost. Expensive Japanese fruit serves as a form of lai see. The gifts are appreciated by recipients and fly under the ethics radar. Offices fill up with hampers stuffed with fruit sent by clients with a money relationship to recipients.”
Further info on bribery in the Chinese business environment can be found at the following link, http://www.vipoasia.com.cn/blogs/html/?37.html.
According to Santander Trade, “South Korea is a consumer society. Purchases not only serve the primary needs but also for image and status reasons. Consumption is used to make a statement.”.
With regard to luxury fruit, an article from PRI.ORG claims that “Like the Japanese, South Koreans are avid about purchasing well-packaged, sweet fruits — although the prices in Seoul tend not to be as astronomical. Culturally, a gift of pears, melons, or jumbo apples is a sign of good will. Koreans tend to splurge on fruit on two holidays: Chuseok, a sort of Korean Thanksgiving held this year in September, and Seollal, the Lunar New Year, usually in February.
The French have their appelation d’origine controlee to identify the provenance of fine wines, cheeses and other products. Likewise, South Koreans can be choosy about where fruits are grown. Succulent apples and pears from Sangju, in the central part of the country, can fetch a small fortune, along with grapes from the southwest and west.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly - given the many similar cultural traits shared by the societies that form the Confucian-Asia cluster -, gift-giving in Korea serves the purpose to build and nurture social connections and to keep good kibun.
Etiquette stresses the importance of hierarchy (since, according to Confucian principles, people of higher rank and elders are treated with great respect, gifts of greater values must be offered to seniors and/or superiors), reciprocity, and it places great emphasis on the implications of “face saving” dynamics (e.g, in a business context guests should consider offering a small gift during the first meeting with their Korean counterparts as an ice-breaker, but nothing too expensive to prevent their hosts from “losing their face” in case they haven’t prepared a gift of equal value to reciprocate the gesture).
“Face” matters aside, the value of business gifts can be a difficult area to navigate for a different reason: goods are expected to be of good quality, but not too expensive in order to not be classified as bribery.
“A new anti-corruption bill, described by some as the strictest ever and designed to root out bribery and corruption, forbids people from buying a meal worth more than 30,000 Korean won ($27) for public officials, state-run company employees, journalists and school teachers. It also limits gifts to $45, and donations to $90. Anyone who goes over the limit could face up to three years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines.”, reported the CNN in September 2016.
About China, Calipe Chong’s thoughts:
“Unlike in Korea and Japan where fruit hampers are common, for China and even in ASEAN, it is less common practice in giving fruit hampers. We normally find people give exotic fruit (imported from far away countries) hampers to close relatives and family members. Not so much to the bosses, clients and leaders. Beside flowers, fruit baskets are common when visiting friends who are hospitalised. I believe it is because fruits are easily available and less pricey, Chinese people do not really treat fruits as luxury items. Instead, food hampers are more common in the Asian countries during festive season like Chinese New Year, Mooncake, Dragon Boat (or sometimes called Rice Dumpling Festival). You will find bird nests, ginseng, dried abalone, wines, special herbs, etc. There is no string attach in this gift giving and it is normally carried out by the juniors to the seniors. The seniors (including customers, leaders and bosses) do not return the gesture with another gifts. It is unwritten rule that the more expensive gift, the more you "respect" the senior. Of course, there is now a cap on the value of gifts giving to government officials. I have heard that many government officials have rejected the gifts outright. Not easy for a culture where government officials receive "gifts" in a ritual practice for thousands of years.”
About South Korea, Nancy Ahola’s thoughts:
“High quality meats are also something that is given to people of status. The boxes can go up to over $200 USD and are usually elaborately wrapped in silk scarves.”
With regard to luxury meats, the Luxury Foods Market Analysis published by the Primary Industries and Regions SA (a development agency in the government of South Australia) in 2015 reported that “Hanwoo beef is considered Korea’s top beef, similar to wagyu but considered to be an older art and is a sought after delicacy. Hanwoo beef consumption has grown in Korea, and now accounts for 35% of total beef consumed, even though its price is twice that of imported beef from US or Canada. This is because local beef is considered to be fresher and have better flavour. Koreans have a preference for marbled beef, so the grading system in effect since 1992 gives a high priority to marbling. The top grade is QG 1++ for Korean beef marbling scores. In 2014, over 60% of Hanwoo beef was rated in the top three categories, thereby driving sales. Sales of Hanwoo are high during Lunar New Year, and typical prices of Hanwoo beef are up to US$120- US$130/ kg.”
Furthermore, in relation Nancy’s observation about the elaborate wrapping, the guide advises that “With regard to luxury food, presentation is a key aspect. Koreans are sensitive to the visual appeal of food, and recognise fine dining to be an integral status symbol, as well as an important part of their social functioning. Meals are planned using a colour scheme representing the five elements to achieve optimal attractiveness, with respect to the visual appeal of the dish, as well as health. Water, wood, fire, metal and earth are represented by food colours yellow, green, red, white and black, respectively.”
As for doing business in the Confucian-Asia cluster, Zach Selch’s advice to foreign nationals would be to be try and find a balance between the respect for tradition (the subtle art of “face giving”) and the need to offer an appropriate gift that will not be perceived as bribery. Zach does also advice to share small gifts (such as good quality candies, pastries, etc.) with the team and, where possible, to bring gifts from one’s home Country.
To conclude, Hong-Kong based David Lomax claims that “When I first arrived in Hong Kong, as a ‘boss’ I was frequently given bowls of fruit whenever my people had been on business trips, especially to Japan or China. Of course, the clash of anti bribery laws (many that have only been enforced so as to fall in line with Western regulators, especially in the financial services industry) and the Asian culture has caused some major issues andfruit giving was frequently under the radar as far as gifts go. That said, the AB and Corruption laws here are quite strong and there are limits laid down as to what a meal might cost etc if one is being dined by a client or vendor and many organisations have strict reporting protocols about gifts and what the west would view as social treats.”
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