Prototypical gifting

arthur grau gratitude x note pad and idea map

The following essay is an excerpt from the work in progress “Gratitude_X”. The full paper seeks to document multiple modes of gift giving within the context of a massive open online course. This excerpt prototypes the gift as a concept.

Giving of gifts is one of the many social practices we use to cooperate as individuals in society. Because gift-giving exhibits complex behaviors, motivations, and meanings it could be the subject of an entire lifetime of study. Indeed it has been for many of the explorers referenced in the paper.

To “short circuit” such a long-term analysis, it may be useful to turn to a prototype. In the field of design, prototypes are used to know what a designer “didn’t even know they didn’t know.” They are used as a practical tool to understand motivation and meaning by observing behavior. The following periscopic view toward the ancient world and its linkage up to the present is intended to serve as a prototyping activity. This section casts for an understanding of values or beliefs embedded in gift giving and the role they play in social activities that still exist today, by extrapolating meaning from symbols and behavioral observation.

First, we go to school, really old school

  • 5000 BCE: Terraced farming is recognized in Eastern Asia
  • 3500 BCE: Mesopotamia exhibits early city-states and art, bringing us the 60 minute hour the 24 hour day, the and the 30 day month, all measures possibly based accounting systems designed to accommodate the new complexity of society. (Graeber, 2011)
  • 2500 BCE: In Egypt, the goddess Maat, seen as truth, order, and the law is regarded in common practice. She was recognized as the arbiter of daily life and in dealing with others morally and ethically in the ever more intricate Egyptian society. Precedence of social giving and reciprocity can be recognized in her precepts and rites. (Morenz, 1973)
  • 1500 BCE: horses are domesticated and pastoral farming is recognized throughout Eurasia. People are becoming organized in complex networked systems. (Fletcher, 2015)

In China during the Western Zhou period between 1046 – 771 BC a concept called 禮尚往來 [Lǐshàngwǎnglái], was first documented several hundred years later in the Liji (Book of Rites). It meant “to reciprocate the courtesy shown to you by another; to treat others as you would like to be treated”. A short detour to have a look at the Chinese hànzì and some of its earlier forms may help craft a prototype understanding for this complex concept of giving, reciprocity, and social adhesive. (Chan, 2013)

Lǐshàngwǎnglái [禮尚往來 ] derives its meaning from three main concepts; giving, reverence and association. Following are the current day hànzì for each concept.

  • 禮, meaning: present, gift, ritual, rite, etiquette, ceremony, salute
  • 尚, meaning: even, fairly; rather, to revere; to worship, to hold in high esteem; to pay attention to; to admire, to assist; to administer (for the emperor), noble; virtuous.
  • 往来, meaning: traffic, coming and going, road, association.

Each current day symbol derives from earlier pictograms. Pictured below are the pictograms from the Western Zhou period when the concept of  Lǐshàngwǎnglái was first documented as coming into use. (Wordsense, Wiktionary, 2018)

禮, present

尚, fair, esteem

[往, going 来, coming ]

In the first glyph, there appears to be ingredients being added to a vessel, or a projection of something splitting or multiplying as it leaves a vessel. In the second inscription (as in the first), there is both upward and downward motion with the sense of a seed being planted or a separation between an upper and lower state of being. Lastly in going and coming there appear to be pathways, one branched and outward reaching and the second curving back in on itself.

The three images are each symmetrical indicating balance and order. ‘Present’ and ‘fairness’ each have a clear definition between the upper and lower realms. This could signal a relationship with powers that are beyond individual control. Could this have something to do with the sum being greater than its parts? Combine this with ‘going’ and ‘coming’ and a long road with many choices becomes apparent. After grouping these signs together one wonders if the gift is indeed not a simple relationship between two points or a tit for tat reciprocity, but is instead a cyclical and unpredictable phenomenon that creates future networks.

New school or more of the same?

So is a gift then, something that can be freely given, or is it always given with some expectation of return? How does one ever “repay” a gift? How do you know when you have given “back” substantially enough to have reciprocated the courtesy?

To return to the modern era, the gift is considered in several contexts. The most influential resource “The Gift – Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies” by sociologist Marcel Mauss, collects field research from historical records and several anthropological works to arrive at a modern understanding of the role of the gift in society. We learn from Mauss that in the case of indigenous people of the south Pacific:

“The gift received is in fact owned, but the ownership is of a particular kind. One might say that it includes many legal principles which we moderns have isolated from one another. It is at the same time property and a possession, a pledge and a loan, an object sold and an object bought, a deposit, a mandate, a trust; for it is given only on condition that it will be used on behalf of, or transmitted to, a third person, the remote partner Such is the economic, legal and moral complex, of quite a typical kind, that Malinowski discovered and described.” (Mauss, 1924)

It is clear here that the obligation to give forward or to trust that more will be given in the future is essential to this gift concept. And from Lewis Hyde, author of “The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World” we understand that the gift defies categorization in order to be understood.

“Mauss noticed, for one thing, that gift economies tend to be marked by three related obligations: the obligation to give, the obligation to accept, and the obligation to reciprocate. He also pointed out that we should understand gift exchange to be a “total social phenomenon”—one whose transactions are at once economic, juridical, moral, aesthetic, religious, and mythological, and whose meaning cannot, therefore, be adequately described from the point of view of any single discipline.” (Hyde, 1984)

The methods, timing, and ceremonies of gift giving along with the resultant feelings of ‘warm glow’  (Andreoni, 2004) obligations and expectations differ across cultures and time periods, but the act of giving remains constant. From less complexity to greater, giving, receiving, and giving again occurs everywhere. Giving happens both independent from and alongside other collective structures of meaning and exchange. (Mauss, 1924)

In the current day, there are numerous examples of gift network economics in the course of business and personal relationships. A relationships system in mainland China called Quanxi or Guanxi is used to describe the complex of relationships individuals engage in with each other. One of the three key components of guanxi is renqing, ‘reciprocal favor or exchange’. It is combined with ‘emotional engagement’ guanqing, and ‘interpersonal trust’ xinren, to govern many aspects of business life. (Yen and Abosag et al, 2015). These practices evolved from Confucian thought and appear to be an outgrowth of the earlier Lǐshàngwǎnglái.

“As individual steps into renqing web or guanxi web, you suddenly become [obligated] to other people in the circle (either you will have the need to send a renqing or owe someone a renqing for stabilizing the guanxi web or keeping it going), thus it is almost impossible to completely get yourself out of these entangled relationships.”   (Wang, 2015)

This quick entry into obligation is mirrored in many cultures. When you receive a gift, you may find yourself asking, “what does this mean?” Think of the last gift you received. What possible meanings could it have had? What relationships were impacted by your acceptance of the gift? What would have happened if you refused it? Though giving and accepting of gifts takes many forms, much of the practice across cultures is a clear way to maintain and generate social cooperation. This lengthy excerpt from Graeber amply illustrates this.

While commerce sets prices, rates and measures, a gift is offered without explicit expectation of return. In fact if we pay a gift back in exact amounts it can be taken as offensive or it can somehow be seen as removing the life itself from the gift. “Exchange allows us to cancel out our debts. It gives us a way to call it even: hence, to end the relationship…. Laura Bohannan writes about arriving in a Tiv community in rural Nigeria; neighbors immediately began arriving bearing little gifts: “two ears corn, a vegetable marrow, one chicken, five tomatoes, one handful peanuts.”  Having no idea what was expected of her, she thanked them and wrote down in a notebook their names and what they had brought. Eventually, two women adopted her and explained that all such gifts did have to be returned. It would be entirely inappropriate to simply accept three eggs from a neighbor and never bring anything back. One did not have to bring back eggs, but one should bring something back of approximately the same value. One could even bring money—there was nothing inappropriate in that—provided one did so at a discreet interval and above all, that one did not bring the exact cost of the eggs. It had to be either a bit more or a bit less. To bring back nothing at all would be to cast oneself as an exploiter or a parasite. To bring back an exact equivalent would be to suggest that one no longer wishes to have anything to do with the neighbor. Tiv women, she learned, might spend a good part of the day walking for miles to distant homesteads to return a handful of okra or a tiny bit of change, “in an endless circle of gifts to which no one ever handed over the precise value of the object last received”—and in doing so, they were continually creating their society.” (Graeber, 2011)

While this story concerns the lives of a distant tribe of people in another time, think for a moment about the last time you went to a friend’s for dinner or offered someone a ride. Had they offered to pay you an exact amount for your offer, you might consider it an affront to the nature of your offer in the first place. It would extinguish the intention of the gift and also negate any relationship or network building that may have been an intention or plain consequence of your gift.

Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski wrote well-known accounts of the Trobriand Islanders and the practice of the Kula Ring, their ritualized gift practice that spanned hundreds of clans across a group of islands scattered through the South Pacific. Later Marcel Mauss treated this supporting evidence of gift exchange.

“The kula, like the American potlatch, consists in giving and receiving. The donors on one occasion being the recipients on the next..Even in the largest, most solemn and highly competitive form of kula, that of the great maritime expeditions (uvalaku), the rule is to set out with nothing to exchange or even to give in return for food (for which of course it is improper to ask). On these visits one is recipient only, and it is when the visiting tribes the following year become the hosts that gifts are repaid with interest.” (Mauss, 1924)

It is interesting to note here that ‘interest’ is brought into the picture. That a gift may also multiply over time. Other unexpected outcomes happen in the form of relationships made by the exchange of gifts.

“Furthermore, when gifts circulate within a group, their commerce leaves a series of interconnected relationships in its wake, and a kind of decentralized cohesiveness emerges.” (Hyde, 1984)

So, in consideration of evidence of gift practice from the modern era and the symbolism of gift practices from ancient times, we may begin to form a picture of gift giving as a social effort that allows for individuals to create value and reputation for themselves while at the same time forging relationships with others that are expected to be durable and to offer unexpected return gifts in the future.


  • Chen, Cindy. Chinese Idiom: Propriety Suggests Reciprocity (禮尚往來). Epoch Times, 11 May 2015
  • Fletcher, Humphrey. World history timeline. 2013
  • Graeber, David. Debt – The First 5,000 Years (Kindle Locations 2140-2152). 2011
  • Hyde, Lewis. The Gift – Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. 1984
  • Mauss, Marcel. The Gift – Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. 1924
  • Morenz, Siegfried. Egyptian Religion p. 273. 1973
  • Wang, Minglei. Guanxi, Renqing, and Mianzi in Chinese social relations and exchange rules. 2012