Songli (China)

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Songli 🇨🇳
China map.png
Location: China
Definition: Gift-giving as a form of social exchange and developing network relations
Keywords: China East Asia Gift Personal connections Reciprocity Network Favour
Clusters: Redistribution Substantive ambivalence Sociability of instrumentality Economies of favours
Author: Liang Han
Affiliation: Alumnus, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK

By Liang Han, Alumnus, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK

The Chinese word songli means gift-giving (song meaning ‘giving,’ li meaning ‘gift’). Songli denotes the use of relations in the form of social exchange and is often related to guanxi, a dyadic social exchange relationship (see entry in this volume). While guanxi refers to the social connections that can get things done,songli indicates the means whereby these goals may be achieved.

In Chinese, li may mean ‘rite’,’ courtesy’ or ‘gift.’ The relatively modern meaning of gift comes from its ancient usage as rite and courtesy. Gift-exchange has always played a crucial role in human society, and the Chinese have since ancient times regarded the ritual of songli as indispensable etiquette. The Book of Rites, or Li Ji, a Confucian classic, states for instance that ‘Courtesy demands reciprocity; courtesy is given but does not come back; it cannot be maintained. Given and not returned, there is no courtesy’ (Li Ji 2013[1]). Courtesy-visits among the upper social classes should normally be accompanied with gifts. Ancient gifts included meat, wine, jade or silk (Yang 1994: 224[2]). Since reciprocity is highlighted in the code of Confucian ethics, recipients will always give something in return to the donor of a gift in order to keep the balance and maintain the harmony of their relations.

Deeply rooted though it is in traditional Chinese culture, songli has transformed dramatically in contemporary China. The function of ‘maintaining courtesy’ has gradually faded away and utilitarianism has become the dominant logic governing the practice.

In general, songli is an important way to build and maintain social networks, strengthen personal connections, accumulate ‘social capital’ that can be ‘cashed in’ in times of need, reach goals and receive favours from relevant individuals. Since songli comprises both expressive and instrumental features, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish one from another. Usually, it is the degree of intimacy, the interaction dynamics and the purpose of gift-giving that determine various songli strategies and logics.

For instance, when songli is practised within a close circle of relatives and friends, donors often use gifts to express goodwill and cement social bonds. They may not necessarily expect immediate ‘repayment’ from the recipients; rather, they tend to see songli as an ‘investment’ from which they may benefit in the longer run. When songli is practised between two persons with weak social ties but with certain interests at stake, the donor may expect direct or concrete ‘payback’ from the recipient. It is for example common for patients and their relatives to give gifts, often in the form of a ‘red packet’ (money in a red envelope) to the medical doctors in charge of their case, in anticipation of special treatment and extra care (this is especially the case when surgery is required). Parents give gifts to their children’s teachers on Teachers’ Day, hoping that their kids will receive more attention and special consideration at school.

Reciprocity and instrumentalism are not the only logics driving songli. Sometimes people give gifts because of normative concerns or as a result of peer pressure. In China the songli culture is so prevalent in the job market and the workplace that it has become to some extent a ‘hidden rule.’ A survey conducted jointly in 2006 by China Central Television and a recruitment website found that 26 percent of college graduates said that they had given gifts or dinners with a view to obtaining a good job, and that songli and dinners accounted for 8 percent of the total cost of their job hunting activity ( 2015[3]). Those who got jobs with the help of intermediaries gave gifts or meals to the intermediaries to express their gratitude, while other interviewees said that, since ‘red envelopes’ and songli were in some cases the only way to secure a desired job, they felt they had no choice but to take that path ( 2015[4]).

In modern-day China, songli may take various forms. Gifts mays include money; goods such as wine or cigarettes;, an invitation to tea or dinner; a VIP card to a golf club; or a trip to a well-known resort. The successful practice of songli usually implies the agreeable acceptance of the gift, a strengthened bond between donor and recipient, and the eventual granting of the desired favour.

Photograph showing three wedding, red envelopes. This image is used to depict the informal practice of songli.

To go smoothly, songli requires delicate handling. Traditional holidays such as the Spring Festival and the Mid-Autumn Festival provide excellent opportunities since the givers need no extra ‘excuses.’ Weddings and housewarmings are often occasions when ‘red packets’ are presented (Mack 2014[5]). Before engaging in songli, an experience donor will always conduct in-depth research into the potential recipient’s hobbies and preferences in order to ensure that the gift will please. When presenting the gift, the donor often employs a euphemism such as ‘This is a little token of my gratitude’ to disguise the utilitarian nature of songli and to make the story sound plausible.

The association between songli and guanxi reflects China’s transformation from a planned to a socialist market-economy. In the early transition period of the 1970s and 1980s, the underdeveloped nature of the economy led to a shortage of goods and, as a result, the state played a dominant role in the allocation of scarce resources. Ordinary people gave gifts in an effort to ‘skirt around the cumbersome bureaucracy’ and to reach the officials who controlled access to desirable good or opportunities (Yang 2015). At that time, songli was mainly to satisfy basic personal needs.

With the introduction and blossoming of the market economy in the 1990s, songli came to be used more to pursue opportunities and resources for self-development and welfare, such as better kindergartens, schools, jobs and hospitals. At the same time, most of the high-quality social resources still remain within the control of the state.

Yang observes that guanxi flourishes in the business and urban-industrial sphere where private or foreign entrepreneurs need to engage with the officials who control state contracts, access to favourable resources, valuable information and other opportunities (Yang 2002[6]). Naturally, the nurturing of guanxi in such realms is often accompanied by the practice of songli.

As explained above, the use of songli in the common gift-exchange mechanism usually involves a two-way flow of gifts between two individuals regardless of their relative social status (Li 2011[7]). When used within the context of guanxi, however, songli typically entails a one-way flow of gifts—from the weak to the strong, the subordinate to the superior, and not vice versa. Moreover, ‘repayment’ often takes the form of permissions and opportunities rather than of tangible gifts. In the guanxi context, moreover, the recipient of the gift is often someone whose right to use, allocate or redistribute certain public resources enables him or her to use official authority to grant favours and opportunities. In such cases, the boundary between songli and bribery becomes blurred.

Examination of songli in China sheds light on the popular gift-giving culture across Asian societies. Like China, South East Asian countries also use the 'red-envelope' together with other songli strategies in order to cultivate interpersonal relationships. There are for example significant parallels between the Japanese gift-giving practice of okurimono no shûkan (see entry in this volume) and China’s songli. Both are instrumental in nature, stay in the grey zone between bribery and gift-giving, and reflect the overall structure of power.

China’s current anti-corruption campaign has had a huge impact on songli strategies toward government officials. In fear of being accused of bribery and abuse of power, officials tend to refuse or return gifts given by those who want favours from them. Sexual propositions, which used to be presented as gifts to the officials at nightclubs or saunas to strengthen the so-called ‘brotherly bond’ between the businessman and the official (Yang 2015), are now labelled as quan-se jiaoyi (power-sex deal) and their use has fallen sharply as a result of the anti-corruption campaign. Similarly, luxury goods presented as gifts to officials or business partners, which in the past could amount to hundreds of thousands of yuan, have been categorized as bribery. Such exchanges are now labelled as quan-qian jiaoyi (power-money deal) and can result in severe penalties.

As a result, many luxury brands have recently reported a sharp fall in sales in China ( 2013[8]; 2014[9]). In such circumstances, skillful gift-givers now tend to choose gifts that are hard for investigators to measure or to track down.

New technologies and operational tactics have also been adopted. For instance, the social network app WeChat (weixin) enables users to transfer money in the form of ‘e-red packets’ to their Wechat contacts. The time-saving, easy-to-operate and hard-to-track way of giving makes e-red packet a potential new songli tool. The original function of the e-red packet was social-networking and entertaining, especially during the Chinese New Year celebrations. Nowadays however it serves more as a reliable electronic instrument for the transfer of funds. As such, it has gradually developed into a songli technique. Similarly, the rapid development of online-shopping in China offers donors more choices, while the express courier-service ensures the fast delivery of various forms of gifts. Meanwhile, the use of shopping cards and e-shopping allows recipients to choose gifts according to their preferences, making today’s songli more precise and customised.


  1. Li Ji. 2013. The Book of Rites (Li Ji): English-Chinese Version. Create Space Independent Publishing Platform
  2. Yang, M. 1994. Gifts, Favours, and Banquets: The Art of Social Relationships in China. Ithaca: Cornell University Press
  3. 2015. Zhi chang xin fa xian-lian he diaocha baogao da xue sheng jiuye pian: zhao gong zuo hua le duo shao qian (New Study from the workplace—Joint research report on college graduates’ job-hunting: How much it costs to get a job)
  4. 2015. Zhi chang xin fa xian-lian he diaocha baogao da xue sheng jiuye pian: zhao gong zuo hua le duo shao qian (New Study from the workplace—Joint research report on college graduates’ job-hunting: How much it costs to get a job)
  5. Mack, L. 2014. Learn Gift-Giving Etiquette in Chinese Culture. News & Issues
  6. Yang, M. 2002. ‘The Resilience of Guanxi and its New Deployments: A Critique of Some New Guanxi Scholarship,’ The China Quarterly, 170: 459-76
  7. Li, L. 2011. ‘Guanxi, Gift and Corruption - The Enabling Role of Corruption Participants in Corrupt Exchange in China,’ Social Science Research Network Electronic Journal
  8. 2013. ‘Sha she feng’ zhi shechipin zai zhongguo jisu xiahua Guangzhou dapaidian hanjian dazhe (Luxury sales plummet in China due to anti-corruption campaign, rarely-seen discount of luxury goods occur in Guangzhou)
  9. 2014. Beien: zhongguo shechipin shichang jiang shouci chuxian xiahua (Bain &Company: China’s luxury market to undergo first decline)

Further reading

  1. Ledeneva, A. 2006. How Russia Really Works. Ithaca: Cornell University Press
  2. Ledeneva, A. 2008. ‘Blat and Guanxi: Informal Practices in Russia and China,’ Comparative Studies in Society and History 50(1): 118–44
  3. Smart, A. 1998. ‘Guanxi, Gifts and Learning from China: A Review Essay,’ Anthropos, 93(4-6): 559-65
  4. Su, C. and Littlefield, E. 2001. ‘Entering Guanxi: A Business Ethical Dilemma in Mainland China?’ Journal of Business Ethics, 33(3) 199-210
  5. Yang, M. 1989. ‘The Gift Economy and State Power in China,’ Comparative Studies in Society and History, 50(1): 118–44 at p. 25