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Culture Smart: Wrap a Gift and Don’t Forget the Feather

by Sheron Long on December 8, 2013

Swan standing on planet Earth, representing a Chinese gift giving legend. Image © Denis Zaporozhtsev / Hemera.

China’s swan feather legend is a gift to the world.
© Denis Zaporozhtsev / Hemera

In Chinese tradition, the legend of the swan feather dates to the Tang Dynasty (618-906 CE) and is still relevant today, especially during this gift-giving season.

According to legend,  a local official in a far-away vassal state asked Mian Bogao to take two swans to the emperor as a gift. Such gift-giving was customary to show respect to the emperor, and swans (rarely found in China) were the most precious of gifts.

Swan feather, symbolizing gift giving with sincerity and respect in Chinese tradition. Image © Lendy 16 / iStock.

A single swan feather sends a significant message.
© Lendy 16 / iStock

Mian set out on the long journey. As he neared his destination, he stopped by a lake to wash the swans. Freed from their cage, however, the two swans escaped and left only a feather behind.

Though Mian had now lost the precious gift for the emperor, he knew he had to complete his mission. He wrapped the swan feather in a white silk cloth and wrote a poem (as translated by CozyChinese.com):

千里送鵝毛 (qiān lǐ sòng é máo)—A swan’s feather from a thousand miles away
禮輕情意重 (lǐ qīng qíng yì zhòng)—An insignificant gift, with it the sincere wishes of the sender.

When Mian arrived at the palace, he watched as others offered jewelry and great riches to the emperor. When his turn came, he presented his simple gift and explained his story. And the emperor, impressed with Mian’s honesty and diligence to complete his mission, rewarded him greatly.

From this legend came a Chinese saying about walking a thousand miles and presenting a swan feather as a gift. It recognizes the value of the thought and sincerity behind a gift over its cost.

Today, you can honor this Chinese tradition and show sincere sentiments to your friends—just add a beautiful feather to their gifts.

Present tied up with feathers in the bow, showing a Chinese tradition in which a feather symbolizes gift-giving with great sincerity and respect. Image © Studio-Annika / iStock

A feather on a gift is such a thoughtful touch!
© Studio-Annika / iStock

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2 thoughts on “Culture Smart: Wrap a Gift and Don’t Forget the Feather

  1. This morning’s paper mentioned that gift wrapping and shopping bags account for four million tons of trash annually in the USA. I love the message of the feather, but maybe we can suggest alternatives to gift wrapping: a dish towel for food gifts, a reusable tote bag for large packages, the good old comics pages–I’ll bet your readers have lots of ideas!

    • Thanks, Barbara. Your ideas for creative wraps are wonderful, and then there’s always the idea of reusing the ribbons and wraps on the gifts we each receive. I find the prettiest ribbons come back to me or my other friends, and I love seeing their beauty time and time again.

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