Faux pas derived from Chinese pronunciation

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For a broader discussion of faux pas in China, see etiquette in Asia.

The following faux pas are derived from homonyms in Mandarin and Cantonese. While originating in Greater China, they may also apply to Chinese-speaking people around the world.

Certain customs regarding good and bad luck are important to many Chinese people. Although these might be regarded as superstitions by people from other cultures, these customs are often tied to religious traditions and are an important part of many people's belief systems, even among well-educated people and affluent sectors of society.


It is undesirable to give someone a clock or other timepiece as a gift. Traditional superstitions regard this as counting the seconds to the recipient's death. Another common interpretation of this is that the phrase "to give a clock" (simplified Chinese: 送钟; traditional Chinese: 送鐘) in Chinese is pronounced "sòng zhōng" in Mandarin, which is a homophone of a phrase for "terminating" or "attending a funeral" (both can be written as 送終 (traditional) or 送终 (simplified)). Cantonese people consider such a gift as a curse.[1]

However, should such a gift be given, the "unluckiness" of the gift can be countered by exacting a small monetary payment so the recipient is buying the clock and thereby counteracting the '送' ("give") expression of the phrase.

Fans and umbrellas[edit]

It is undesirable to give someone a fan or an umbrella as a gift. The words fan "shàn" (扇) and umbrella "sǎn" (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ) sound like the word "sǎn" (散), meaning scatter or to lose. "sǎn kāi" (simplified Chinese: 散开; traditional Chinese: 散開) means to split up.[2]


As a book (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ; pinyin: shū) is a Mandarin homophone of "loss" (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ; pinyin: shū), carrying or looking at a book (simplified Chinese: 带书, 看书; traditional Chinese: 帶書, 看書; pinyin: dài shū, kàn shū) where people are taking a risk, such as gambling or investing in stocks, may be considered to invite bad luck and loss (simplified Chinese: 带输, 看输; traditional Chinese: 帶輸, 看輸; pinyin: dài shū, kàn shū). This bad luck does not apply to carrying or reading newspapers (simplified Chinese: 带报, 看报; traditional Chinese: 帶報, 看報; pinyin: dàibào, kànbào) as newspapers (simplified Chinese: 报纸; traditional Chinese: 報紙; pinyin: bàozhǐ) are not books.[2]


Sharing a pear with friends or loved ones can be a mistake. "Sharing a pear" (分梨) is a homophone of "separate" (simplified Chinese: 分离; traditional Chinese: 分離), both pronounced "fēnlí" in Mandarin. Sharing with distant friends is okay.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Susan Kurth Clot deBroissia International Gift Giving Protocol
  2. ^ a b Wong Yee Lee Gifts in Chinese Culture