As China’s emergent middle class finds itself with increasing amounts of disposable income, shopping has become a national pastime. A wide range of goods are available to suit any budget.
Do not expect everything to be cheap. The prices of imported brand name items, such as camping equipment, mountain bikes, mobile phones and electronics, cosmetics, personal care products, sportswear, cheese, chocolate, coffee and milk powder are often higher than overseas. Many Chinese buy such items in Hong Kong or overseas, where they are a lot cheaper than in mainland China.
In most brand name shops, upscale malls and supermarkets, the prices already have Value-Added Tax (VAT) and any sales tax included. Thus, anything with a marked price tends to be sold at that price or, perhaps, slightly below especially if you pay cash and do not require a receipt for your purchase. For unmarked goods, there is wide room for bargaining.
Regarding discounts, Chinese make sales using the character: 折 (zhé) which represented the fraction of the original price you pay. For example, 8折 refers to 20% off and 6.5折 is 35% off.
China excels in handmade items, partly because of long traditions of exquisite artisanship and partly because labor is still comparatively inexpensive. Take your time, look closely at quality and ask questions, but don’t take all the answers at face value! Many visitors come looking for antiques, and hunting in the flea markets can be great fun. The overwhelming majority of the “antique” items you will be shown are fakes, no matter how convincing they look and no matter what the vendor says. Do not spend serious money unless you know what you are doing, since novices are almost always taken for a ride.
Porcelain with a long history of porcelain manufacture, China still makes great porcelain today. Most visitors are familiar with Ming-style blue and white, but the variety of glazes is much greater, including many lovely monochrome glazes which are worth seeking out. Specialist shops near hotels and the top floors of department stores are a good place to start, though not the cheapest. The “antique” markets are also a good place to find reproductions, though it can be hard to escape from vendors’ attempts to convince you that their items are genuine antiques (with prices to match). Two of the most famous centres for porcelain are Jingdezhen and Dehua.
Furniture in the 1990s and 2000s China become a major source of antique furniture, mostly sourced from the vast countryside. As the supply of old items has dwindled many of the restorers are now turning to making new items using the old styles. The quality of new pieces is often excellent and some great bargains can still be had in new and old items. Furniture tends to be concentrated in large warehouses on the outskirts of cities; Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu all have plenty of these and hotels can tell you how to find them. Major sellers can also arrange international shipment in most cases. Zhongshan has a huge furniture market; the city manufactures many replicas, mostly for the Hong Kong and Macau markets.
Art and Fine Art the art scene in China is divided into three non-interacting parts. First, there are the traditional painting academies which specialize in “classical” painting (bird and flower, landscapes with rocks and water, calligraphy), with conservative attitudes and serving up painting that conforms to the traditional image of Chinese art. Second, there is a burgeoning modern art scene, including oil painting, photography and sculpture, bearing little relation to the former type. Both “scenes” are worth checking out and include the full range from the glorious to the dreadful. The centre of the modern scene is undoubtedly Beijing, where the Da Shan Zi (sometimes called 798) warehouse district is emerging as the new frontier for galleries, reminiscent of New York’s Soho in the mid-80s. The third arts scene fits closely with China’s prowess in mass-production. China has become famous for producing hand painted reproductions of great works. The Shenzhen suburb of Dafen is particularly renowned for its reproductions.
Jade There are two types of jade in China today: one type is pale and almost colorless and is made from a variety of stones mined in China. The other type is green in color and is imported from Myanmar (Burma) – if genuine! The first thing to be aware of when buying jade is that you will get what you pay for (at best). Genuine Burmese jade with a good green color is extraordinarily expensive and the “cheap” green jade you will see in the markets is made either from synthetic stone or from natural stone that has been colored with a green dye. When buying jade look closely at the quality of the carving: How well finished is it? Is it refined, or crude with tool marks visible? The quality of the stone often goes along with the quality of the carving. Take your time and compare prices before buying. If you are going to spend a fair sum of money, do it in specialist stores, not flea markets. Khotan in Xinjiang is a famous area for jade production. Ruili on the China-Burma border has extensive trade in Burmese jade.
Carpets China is home to a remarkable variety of carpet-making traditions. These include Mongolian, Ningxia, Tibetan and modern types. Many tourists come looking for silk carpets although these are a fairly recent innovation with most of the designs being taken from middle-eastern traditions rather than reflecting Chinese designs. Although the workmanship is quite fine on these carpets they often skimp on materials, particularly dyes. These are prone to fading and color change, especially if the carpet is displayed in a brightly lit place. Some excellent wool carpets are also made in China. Tibetan carpets are amongst the best in terms of quality and construction, though most carpets described as Tibetan are not actually made in Tibet, with a few notable exceptions. As with jade, best to buy from stores with a reputation to uphold.
In the West of China, especially Kashgar, carpets imported from Pakistan or the nearby countries of Central Asia are readily available as well. The best of these, especially some of the Turkoman pieces, are very high quality indeed and their prices reflect that. However, there are also some interesting rugs at moderate prices.
Pearls & pearl jewellery cultured Akoya and freshwater pearls are mass-produced and sold at markets across China. The use of large scale aquaculture makes pearl jewellery affordable and widely available. Big, lustrous, near-round and round freshwater pearls come out with a variety of colors and overtones. In addition to jewellery, pearl-based cosmetics are also widely available. Southern areas such as Beihai and Sanya are positively overrun with pearl vendors; pricing and quality are generally reasonable, but caution and bargaining are necessary since not all vendors are honest.
Silver coins a variety of silver coins are sold in China’s markets with good reason: in the 19th century, the emperor decreed that foreigners had to pay for all trade goods in silver. The United States even minted a special silver “trade dollar” just to meet this requirement. Collectors can find Mexican, U.S., French Indochinese, Chinese and other silver dollars available for purchase, mostly dated 1850-1920.
One might imagine great profits here since they typically sell for around ¥10, the silver in a real one is worth well over $10, and a collector might pay considerably more. Unfortunately, nearly all the coins on sale now are counterfeit. If you want to collect coins, carry a small portable scale to check their weights. In a tourist area, expect at least 90% to fail this simple test.
Other arts and crafts Other items to look for include Cloisonne (colored enamels on a metal base), lacquer work, opera masks, kites, shadow puppets, Socialist-realist propaganda posters, wood carvings, scholar’s rocks (decorative rocks, some natural, some less so), paper-cuts, and so on.
Luxury goods such as jade, expensive ceramics and other artwork, antiques or carpets are risky. Most of the antique furniture pieces available today are replicas. Much of the jade is either glass or low quality stone that has been dyed a nice green; some is even plastic. Various apparent stone carvings are actually molded glass filled with sand. The samurai swords are mostly either inferior weapons mass-produced for the Japanese military and Manchurian soldiers in World War II or modern Chinese copies. At the right price, any of these items can be a very good buy. However, none of them are worth anywhere near the price of real top-quality goods. Unless you are an expert on whatever you want to buy, you are quite likely to get sold low quality merchandise at high prices.
There are two solutions. Either stick to the cheaper products, some of which are quite nice as keepsakes, or if you do decide to spend a substantial amount, then deal with a large and reputable vendor; you may not get the bargains an expert could find elsewhere, but you probably won’t get cheated either.
China is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of clothing, shoes and accessories. Name-brand goods, whether Chinese or foreign, tend to be expensive when compared with the unbranded clothing sold in markets throughout the country. See next section for additional comment. Chinese brands, similar in look, feel and style to their foreign counterparts, are often an excellent deal. Cheap unbranded clothing is also often cheaply manufactured; check the seams and stitching before making a purchase.
Travellers would be wise to try on any item they wish to purchase as sizes tend to be very erratic. Items of clothing which may be a size XL in the U.S. can be anywhere from an L to a XXXL in China. Most nicer stores have a tailor on call who will adjust the length and hem of pants in 15–30 minutes for free.
There are very affordable tailors anywhere in China. In the major cities, some of them can make a fine job of Western-style garments. Shirts, pants and suits can be measured, fitted, assembled and delivered within three days in many cases. Some tailors have their own fabric selections while others require customers to purchase it in advance from fabric markets. The quality of the tailors, as everywhere, varies widely. More reputable tailors will often come to hotels to do measurements, fittings and final sales.
Items with big worldwide brand labels sold in China may be bogus, especially expensive and exclusive popular brands. By no means all are bogus—many of the major brands market in China—but some will be unauthorized or downright fake.
If you want to buy genuine branded foreign goods, particularly haute couture brands such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Prada, or popular brands such as Nike or Adidas, do not expect them to be cheaper than in Western countries. Wealthy Chinese who can afford to travel often purchase luxury brand name goods in Hong Kong or overseas, as it is significantly cheaper than buying them in mainland China.
There are a number of sources of potential knock-offs or fake brand name goods.
The most common variant comes from a Chinese firm that gets a contract to deliver, say, 100,000 shirts to BigBrand. They actually have to make a few more than that because some will fail quality control. Maybe 105,000? What the heck, make 125,000. Any extras will be easy to sell; after all they have the BigBrand label. So 25,000 shirts—a few “factory seconds” and many perfectly good shirts—arrive on the Chinese market, without BigBrand’s authorization. A traveller might be happy to buy these; just check carefully to avoid the seconds and you get exactly the shirt BigBrand sells, usually for a better price.
However, it doesn’t end there. If the factory owner is greedy, he goes on to crank out a bunch more. Only now he doesn’t have to worry about BigBrand’s quality control. He can cut a few corners, slap the BigBrand label on them, and make a great profit. These may or may not be a good buy, but in any case they are not what you would expect from BigBrand.
Finally, of course, some other factory may be cranking out utterly bogus “BigBrand” shirts. These outright forgeries often misspell the brand name which is a dead giveaway.
Fake brand oddities include items such as a reversible jacket with “Adidas” on one side and “Nike” on the other or shirts with more than one brand. While these might be interesting curiosities, they obviously are not genuine examples of either brand.
There are two basic rules for dealing with expensive brand name goods in China.
First, you cannot just trust the brand; inspect the goods carefully for flaws. Check the spelling on labels.
Second, if the deal seems too good to be true, be very suspicious. China makes a lot of good cheap products, but an amazingly cheap product with a major international label is almost certain to be bogus.
Bogus goods can cause legal problems. Selling “pirate” DVDs or forged brand name goods is illegal in China, but enforcement is lax. It is generally much less lax at customs for travellers’ home countries. Customs officials will seize pirated DVDs or bogus brand name goods if they find them. Some Western travellers have even reported having to pay hefty fines after being caught returning home with bogus products.
Counterfeit and swing production markets in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Beijing are nonetheless fantastically amusing and a great place to get a completely new “designer” wardrobe for a fraction of the cost in a Western country. If you purchase such items, it is a good idea to remove the labels prior to taking them home because this reduces the chance of being hassled by customs.
Software, music and movies
Most CDs (music or software) and DVDs in China are unauthorized copies. The ones that sell for ¥6-10 and come in cheap flat paper envelopes are absolutely certain to be bogus. Some of the ones at higher prices with better packaging might be legal copies, but it can be hard to tell. Probably the best way to avoid bogus discs is to buy at one of the larger bookstores or department stores; most of these have a CD/DVD section. The prices are ¥15-40.
Some good checks, or dead giveaways, for a fake are:
Credits on the back of the case which do not match the movie.
Covers which are obviously made from cinema poster images (“Coming Soon”, the release date, etc. mentioned on them.)
Covers which feature uncomplimentary reviews (“Heavy on the spice and light on the meat”, “Nothing more than you could get from an episode of CSI”, etc.)
In stores, it is usually acceptable to ask the owner to test the DVD to make sure it works and has the correct language soundtrack. Check to make sure the DVD region code is “0” or “ALL”. Otherwise the DVD you buy may not play when you return home unless you go to some trouble to bypass the region controls, which is illegal in some countries.
If you buy DVDs or CDs and plan to take them home, be sure to get a receipt that will prove your good faith to Western customs officers.
There are products that are fairly common in China which you should avoid purchasing — coral, ivory, and parts from endangered animal species. China’s economic miracle has been a disaster for the world’s wildlife and has left such species as the elephant, tiger, rhinoceros, Tibetan antelope and Snow Lotus decimated or on the verge of extinction. The city of Pingyao and several markets on the outskirts of Beijing are notorious for selling rare animal skins, furs, claws, horns, skulls, bones, and other parts from endangered (even extinct) species. Anyone purchasing such items is encouraging the further destruction of the species in question.
It is illegal to trade in such products in nearly all countries, including China, under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Enforcement in China is somewhat lax, but anyone buying such products risks serious hassles either when trying to leave China with them or when trying to import them into another country. This can bring substantial fines and/or jail time. So if a store clerk seems eager to sell you a leopard skin or an ivory trinket, use your better judgment and move on.
Ivory is an odd special case. Trade in modern ivory is illegal worldwide, but some antique ivory items are legal. If you want to take any ivory items home, there will be paperwork — at an absolute minimum, you will need a letter from a reputable dealer stating the date of origin. Check with your own country’s customs department for other requirements. Also remember that China restricts export of anything older than 1911 (see infobox), and that many of the “ivory” items in China are fakes made from various synthetics or ground bone.
Antiquities Banned From Export
China’s government has banned the export of antiques from before 1911, the date of the revolution that ended the Chinese Empire. It is thus illegal to take antiques made under any of the various dynasties out of China. Even antiques from before 1911 bought in proper auctions cannot legally be taken out of the country.
Enforcement at border points and airports is often, but not always, lax. As violation of this law could lead to heavy fines and a possible jail term, it would be wise to heed it.
If you let vendors know you are aware of this law they may lower their prices since they know you know their “antiques” really aren’t Ming Dynasty originals.
Bargaining is a national pastime in China. You can bargain over almost anything, and sometimes it’s even possible to ask for discount in a restaurant at the last minute before you pay the bill. Many restaurants or bars will willingly offer a free dish or two (such as a fruit plate in a KTV) if you have made a particularly large order. Shopping malls are less willing to bargain, but why not ask “Will I get a gift?”
Unlike many southeast Asian countries, the tourism industry in China is overwhelmingly dominated by Chinese businesses, not westerners running businesses for their own such as seen in places like Bangkok’s Khao San Road or Saigon’s Pham Ngu Lao. Merchants in touristy areas, particularly street and sidewalk-stall sellers, are masters in exploiting the wallets of foreigners. They can also be very pushy, sometimes even grabbing your hands. Prices are almost always posted, but they are all substantially marked up, normally 2-3 times. Some items like silk fans (largest size: 1’2″) are posted as ¥60-75, but the lowest price is actually just ¥10. Therefore it’s often better to buy souvenirs somewhere just a few blocks away from the tourist spots. Local Chinese tourists have no issue with posted prices because they are all well trained in the art of bargaining. Foreigners always pay more for everything negotiable in China but remember that Chinese whose accents identify them as being from other provinces also pay higher prices than locals. However, if you have sufficient proof that the businessman asks different people for different prices, you can dial 12315 to protect your own right. It is not allowed to label different prices on one item in one business, though posting a high price and expecting some customers to bargain it down is quite legal.
The purchasing power of the nouveau riche in China makes the place not always cheap anymore. When you go to tourist spots, it is possible to see a ¥1,000 skirt tailor made by a designer, ¥2,000 per a bag of tea, or dozens of thousands for silverware.
It is hard to tell what price to offer when starting negotiations. Depending on the city, product or market in question, 5% to 50% of the posted price or vendor’s first offer is common. If someone offers you too-great-to-be-true discount, it could be a sign that the goods are of less than great quality. The rule of thumb is to walk around and compare. In tourist spots, it’s common to ask for a 30-50% discount, but in a place catering to local people, asking for a 50% discount will only make a fool of yourself.
In tourist places, don’t take what merchants say seriously. When you ask for a 50% discount, they may be appalled and show scorn; it’s a favorite drama. Souvenirs, including “antiques”, are almost all standard products from factories. Compare more. In tourist markets, the room for negotiation is not as wide as it used to be. With so many tourists all shopping for the same products, vendors know they can make high margins and may not be as amenable to negotiating. If your starting price is too low, they may dismiss you because trying to get the margin they want isn’t worth their time.
Souvenirs in some places may have no connection with the history of the place, and change frequently, often appearing to be cheap knicknacks the stallholders association picked up cheap and in bulk from a disposal sale. An example is Ciqikou Ancient Porcelain Village in Shapingba district in Chongqing, on one visit the souvenir stalls had large displays of green Irish shamrock medallions in stock, on a return visit some months later they were all gone, replaced by Mexican trinkets.
In this former communist country, most local people still expect a standard price for grocery products and see it as ‘black-hearted’ (黑心 hēixīn) to charge too much, even if the shops are in a major business district. However, in a tourist place where rental payments are skyrocketing, if someone sells you a bottle of Coca Cola for ¥5 (usually ¥3 in most places), you may have a chance to bargain a little bit too.
Souvenir shops for jewellery, herbs, and tea recommended by hotel staff can also be tricky. While it is common that the staff takes tourists to places that give them commission, it is also common that they take you to certain places because the establishment actually offers decent products and prices. If you make a show of being overly cautious, it is likely to offend your hosts because you are suggesting a ‘good guy’ is actually a cheater.
In several places like the Lijiang Ancient City, when the ethnic horse carriage drivers stop by a souvenir shop, assume that you’re paying commission. These carriage operators are notoriously known for extorting money from shops, or creating trouble if the shops refuse to pay. The local government usually avoids intervening in these cases where minority ethnic groups are involved.
Many group tours include mandatory visits to Chinese medicine hospitals such as the National Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, silk, tea, or jade factories or similar shops. The goods are often expensive and include a commission for the tour guide or group. Use your judgment if you want to buy anything. However, the shops visited on tours can offer competitive prices and safe, reliable, international shipping for goods like silk and jade.
While smoking is decreasing in China, it is still quite common and cigarettes (香烟) are generally cheap. Cigarettes can be purchased from small neighbourhood stores, convenience stores, counters in supermarkets and in department stores. Rolling tobacco and papers are rare in urban China. Lighters (打火机) are usually cheap (about ¥1) but flimsily made. Zippos are widely available but expensive.
Smoking is something of a social activity in China. In a bar or at dinner few Chinese will light up without offering cigarettes around the table, or at least to the men since few Chinese women smoke; visitors should do the same. Having an expensive brand is a status symbol.
Most mainstream Chinese brands sell at around ¥5-20 for a 20-pack. Popular national brands include Zhongnanhai (中南海), Honghe (红河), Baisha, Nanjing, Liqun, and Double Happiness (双喜). Some local brands sold in certain regions can be much cheaper whilst others are more expensive. Western brands are available including Marlboro (万宝路), 555 (三五), Davidoff (大卫杜夫), Kent, Salem and Parliament. Western cigarettes are a little more expensive; real Marlboro are about ¥50 and can be found at major convenience store chains such as C-Store or Kedi. Smaller stores sell counterfeits or smuggled Vietnamese Marlboro at around ¥15.
Chinese cigarettes are stronger than many foreign cigarettes (13 mg tar is the norm). Zhongnanhai is the most popular brand for foreign visitors, having a taste somewhat similar to Marlboro Light but cheaper. They have several variants; the strongest were ¥4 as of 2012 and the mildest ¥10; most foreigners smoked the ¥6 version.
Premium-brand cigarettes are often ridiculously overpriced and are vary rarely smoked personally – they are usually offered as gifts or bribes as an expression of wealth. The two most famous ‘premium brands’ are Zhonghua (中华) (¥60-100) and Panda (¥100). If you choose to buy them then stick to major department stores – those sold in neighbourhood cigarette stores are likely to be fake.
Cigars can be bought from some specialist tobacco stores and Chinese-made cigars are surprisingly good – expect to pay around ¥20-30 for 10 locally produced cigars. Beware of fake western-brand cigars sold in bar-districts; they are usually terrible and ridiculously overpriced. Genuine Cuban cigars are available in cigar bars and upscale establishments in large cities but are often very expensive.
Duty-free stores in international airports, international rail stations (e.g. Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou East) and at land borders sell a greater range of imported brands – expect to pay between ¥80-150 for a 200-cigarette carton.
Cigarettes are much more expensive in Hong Kong, smuggling of cheap Chinese cigarettes is common, and enforcement (especially at land borders) is tight though it mainly targets Chinese visitors and foreigners may be ignored. Legally, you can bring only one pack of cigarettes into Hong Kong without being charged duty.