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What Is a Chinese Auction?

By Alex Newth
Updated May 16, 2024
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The term "Chinese auction" refers to any type of silent auction at which bidders buy tickets and submit them in hopes of winning a prize. These auctions often serve as fundraisers, as they can yield significant funds for charity.

Running a Chinese auction is fairly inexpensive, as only prizes, tickets, and perhaps an auctioneer are needed for the event. As with most fundraisers, the prizes are typically donated by local businesses or individuals.

A Chinese auction is not actually Chinese in origin, and some may find this term outdated or politically incorrect. There are many other terms that can be used instead of "Chinese auction," including "chance auction," "penny social," or "tricky tray."

Types of Chinese Auctions

There are four different types of Chinese auctions, one of which is not an auction at all. The primary difference between the four types is how the winner is chosen.

All Chinese auctions, regardless of format, are silent auctions. A silent auction usually means that there is no auctioneer, and people silently bid on items using a bidding sheet or tickets. Tickets are an important part of these auctions, so running an effective event means there must be a lot of tickets on hand, ready to sell.

  1. The best-known Chinese auction format involves placing a variety of different items on display, each with its own bowl or bucket nearby. Bidders buy tickets, peruse the items, and then deposit their tickets in the bucket of the item on which they want to bid. A bidder can place as many tickets as he or she wants in a particular item's bucket to increase their chances of winning the item.

    At the end of the auction, an event organizer selects a ticket from the bucket, and the owner of that ticket wins that item. The unsuccessful bidders do not get their tickets back, which is a trait shared by all Chinese auctions.

  2. Another Chinese auction format uses an auctioneer and, as in a traditional auction, one item is displayed at a time. As the auctioneer talks about the item, event organizers collect tickets from the bidders. After all the tickets have been collected, the auctioneer picks one ticket to determine the winner.

  3. The third type of Chinese auction also employs an auctioneer, and either one or all of the items will be on display. In this format, everyone deposits his or her tickets at the beginning of the event. The first ticket drawn wins the first item, the second wins the second item, and so on.

  4. There is a fourth type of Chinese auction that is not actually an auction at all. In this type of event, everyone brings a wrapped present of approximately the same value. Each participant then submits a ticket and the first person whose ticket is chosen gets first choice of a present. The second person whose ticket is picked then chooses a present or prize. This continues until everyone has chosen one of the wrapped prizes. This type of Chinese auction is similar to the holiday party game known as a "white elephant gift exchange" or a "Yankee swap."

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Discussion Comments

By anon992067 — On Aug 10, 2015

Warhawk: Xenophobic... That would mean people are afraid of these auctions, and of playing checkers, and that's why they got those titles. A standard silent auction has nothing to do with the format described above. I suppose colors should be outlawed and the entire world painted in shades of grey for the satisfaction of the culturally offended.

By WildHooper — On Oct 20, 2014

You are right about the fact that the name is definitely antiquated. But you also have to understand that names themselves become a big part of the culture surrounding certain things. "Silent" auctions are places for a community to socialize and raise money for great causes all across America. I understand how the name can be offensive but i think that most people also realize how silly the name is which adds to the festive nature of these community events. So whether its right or not, its part of our culture and I don't think the name will be going away any time soon.

By Warhawk — On Oct 20, 2014

Terms like this are so outdated it makes me sick. Anything that's remotely different or strange is instantly mislabeled "Chinese-". Chinese checkers, Chinese auctions and Chinese fire-drills this xenophobic rhetoric has to stop. I don't understand why this article wasn't just labeled "Silent Auction".

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