Gov. Greg Abbott Gave Taiwan's President a Gift Tied to Death in Chinese Culture

Governor Greg Abbott accidentally gave Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen a gift that means death in Chinese. She gave him a vase.
Governor Greg Abbott accidentally gave Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen a gift that means death in Chinese. She gave him a vase. Photo from Gov. Greg Abbott's Office
As if we needed another reason why it's a bad idea for state officials to conduct foreign diplomacy, not only did Governor Greg Abbott recently meet with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen over the polite but forceful objections from the Chinese government, it turns out he also made an inadvertent faux pas by giving her a gift that is associated with death in Chinese culture.

The meeting at an Omni Hotel in Houston last Sunday between Tsai, Abbott and Senator Ted Cruz was touted as a success, with ebullient grip-and-grin photos and statements issued celebrating the meeting between the Taiwanese head of state and the Texas dignitaries, as we've previously reported. However, it turns out all wasn't smooth sailing at the gathering. Tsai gave Abbott a vase. Abbott presented Tsai with a clock.

That might seem like a perfectly harmless and appropriate gift for a visiting foreign leader, but Abbott and his team should have done a little more research, according to Taiwan News. In Chinese the phrase "giving a clock" is pronounced the same as the phrase "going to a funeral." Because of this homophone, presenting someone with a clock as a present is interpreted as meaning the person receiving the gift clock will die an untimely death.

It's not quite as bad as sending someone fish wrapped in clothing ("Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes."). But it's still not good.

Tsai, to her credit, didn't react badly to the clock. Despite the timepiece business, the meeting carried on and afterward Tsai, Abbott and Cruz issued statements proclaiming the gathering a success.

When Abbott's office asked the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office of Houston about whether the clock was an inadvertent insult, division director Patrick Ho reassured Abbott's office that this most certainly wasn't the case, stating:

"Regarding the clock as a gift, please rest assured that the President loves it very much because in our culture the word 'clock' pronounced as 'zhong' also means 'zhong xin' (in English 'wholehearted, heartfelt and cordial' or “best wholehearted wishes”). So it is no problem at all!"

However, various sources, including a book, Chinese Business Etiquette: A Guide to Protocol, Manners and Etiquette in the People's Republic of China, by Scott Seligman, back up the claim that the clock was, at the very least, not the best choice of gift for Tsai.

Seligman observes that while most Chinese people don't really care anymore about the symbolism of a gift clock, the more superstitious will still balk at receiving one because of the meaning tied to it. (It is also bad luck, or at least bad form, in China to send cut flowers, since they are associated with funerals, or to wear a green hat, because "a man who wears a green hat" in Chinese means a man whose wife is cheating on him.)

So Tsai was nice about it, judging by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office's response to the governor's concern that they had erred in her gift, but it still might have been better to have given her something other than a symbol of death in her culture. Just possibly, maybe.

But on the other hand, they could have given Tsai cut flowers, a grandfather clock and a bunch of green hats and a meeting with Texas leaders still would have been worthwhile.

This week China sent its sole aircraft carrier into the Taiwan Strait and Taiwan responded by deploying F-16 fighter jets. Abbott's and Cruz's ignoring China's request not to take meetings with Tsai probably wasn't the only reason tensions between the countries ratcheted up to this level — President-elect Donald Trump's repeated diatribes about China might have something to do with it as well — but it certainly didn't help.

Tsai seems to be intent on, or at least very interested in, pushing Beijing's buttons. What's one slightly ominous timepiece compared to the satisfaction of having done just that?
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray