You may be visiting China to see the Great Wall, marvel at the Terra Cotta Soldiers or chow down on dim sum, but you’ll soon realize that touring China can be a non-stop shopping extravaganza if you want it to be. As you’re presented with towering shopping malls, maze-like street markets and endless vendors on the streets, it’s tough to know what to buy and how to buy it.
Whether you’re practicing your fledgling bargaining skills, or perusing a high-end artisan shop, here’s what to buy in China:
It’s kind of a no-brainer, but tea is a wonderful thing to buy in China. It is sold in markets, tea outlets and directly from tea plantations. Depending on where you decide to buy, you can make tea-buying into its own tourist experience. At upscale tea shops and at the tea plantations you can taste different products and choose from among your favorites.
Talk tea with the vendors and they’ll steer you toward a product they think you’ll enjoy. Wherever you buy tea, look for whole, unbroken leaves. Beijing’s Maliandao Tea Street or Shanghai’s Tianshan Tea Market are two top tea malls for true tea lovers to experience.
China’s silk is so legendary that merchants on horseback braved thousands of miles of road to bring it from China to European markets. Even as the historic Silk Road has been replaced by faster modes of transit, true Chinese silk remains a highly prized gift. Silk scarves, rugs, bed sheets, clothing and underwear are all favorite souvenirs.
When you’re buying silk, there are all sorts of methods for demonstrating whether it’s real or fake. Some vendors even hold their products under a flame so you can watch a corner of silk burn clean instead of melting like an artificial silk would.
Like silk and tea, porcelain is a historically valuable Chinese product. Hundreds of years ago wealthy Europeans could send designs and specifications overseas and have Chinese craftsmen build them the perfect porcelain dinner set, punch bowl or decorative curio. Today you can buy all sorts of porcelain products.
A porcelain teapot or tea set would go really nicely with any tea you are planning on bringing back. You can also get soup spoons, rice bowls, vases and decorative pieces. If you pass through Jingdezhen, China’s traditional porcelain capital, be sure to find the specialty white and blue porcelain the city is famous for.
Jade can be tricky to buy in China unless you know what you are looking for. It’s too easy to be duped by a fake and there are plenty of fakes out there. Real jade can be green, orange or white and is either jadeite jade or nephrite jade. Got another green rock? It may be beautiful enough to take home with you, but know that it’s not real jade. If you are spending a considerable amount of money on a jade piece, it’s best to know exactly what you are doing.
Pearls | China is a large producer of freshwater pearls. A small culture is placed inside a pearl oyster and allowed to develop until it becomes a large, round pearl. Natural pearls found in wild oysters are much rarer and much more expensive. When you’re looking at pearls in a market, they can be white, ivory, pink, peach or coral. The electric blue, grey, purple and yellow pearls you see may also be real, but they’ve been colored using a laser-dye process.
Buy the pearls in the setting that is most beautiful to you. You can tell real pearls from plastic or glass ones by checking for slight irregularities in the shape and color. Real peals also grind off in a powder when they are scraped with a knife. If a plastic pearl is scraped, the paint will flake off.
Chinese street stalls are a vast wonderland for people who love shopping, bargains and fun finds. It can be tricky to find clothing in your size if you are taller or larger than Chinese customers, but the quest for Western-sized clothing can be fun as well.
You can shop for clothing almost anywhere, but Hong Kong’s Night Market is a particular favorite. Shoes, jeans, flirty skirts, knock-offs and funny tee-shirts rub shoulders with more serious stores dedicated to kitchenware and electronics. If you are looking for a Chinese cleaver, the Night Market is a famous place to buy them. Just don’t store it in your carry-on luggage.
Scroll Paintings | Chinese scroll paintings roll up and are traditionally placed in a carved wooden box when not in use. Unlike the paintings you hang up to decorate your walls, scroll paintings are meant for occasional viewing. They are taken from the box, unrolled and viewed with ceremony. Many scrolls come with inscriptions or commentary about the scene, the art or the artist.
It can be tough to take Chinese food through customs. Do a little research and know what is and isn’t allowed. Inert and pre-packaged, Chinese candy can usually make it through and makes for fun gifts for friends and family. Bean cakes, mango flavored gummies, sticky rice cakes and other treats are far from familiar to friends back home. Keep them out of sight, or you might eat them all up on the long plane ride home.
No, we are not talking about chop sticks. Chops are traditional stone seals used to sign documents and mark unopened letters. When you buy a chop, your name will be engraved in characters and frequently embellished. Add an ink pad and you have everything you need to sign official documents.
In China, businesses use chops as an authoritative stamp and many chop marks are legally binding. The chops you commission and purchase won’t have the same legal weight, but they’ll be a fun memento of your trip abroad.
Traveling to China? Find out When Should You Really Cross the Great Wall of China.
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