Shops & Markets
China’s rich artistic heritage is reflected in its stunning range of characteristic works of art – from stylized landscape paintings and calligraphy to delicate ceramic bowls and exquisitely carved bamboo. With the recent burgeoning of tourism and the official encouragement of enterprise, Chinese cities are alive with shops and markets selling an often bewildering array of trinkets and souvenirs. Even though the market is flooded with cheap imitations, many objects are still made by age-old techniques, and authentic items are not hard to find. Perhaps some of the most unique souvenirs are those produced by China’s ethnic minorities, particularly their accomplished embroidery. The major cities have seen the emergence of department stores, which provide certificates of authenticity for items such as jewelry and semi-precious stones (although still no guarantee). Many large hotels also have souvenir shops, although these tend to stock over-priced, up-market items, such as silk and jade.
in a Beijing market
Shops in China are usually open from 8:30am until fairly late in the evening – around 8pm – while winter timings are generally 9am to 7pm. High street stores and malls tend to open from 10am to 10pm. The opening and closing times of shops varies from place to place; in some areas they open as early as 8am, and stay open until well after 8pm. Some of the large shopping centers in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong don’t close before 9pm. Local food shops and markets selling fresh produce remain open for business from early in the morning until late at night. Some shops remain closed on public holidays such as the Chinese New Year (Spring Festival), National Day (October 1), and New Year’s Day (January 1), although most malls remain open.
How to pay
Chinese currency is the yuan, also known as renminbi, or people’s money (shortened to RMB). One yuan is divided into 10 jiao or mao, each of which is divided even farther into 10 fen. Credit cards are only accepted in the larger tourist hotels and in state-run shops. You are unlikely to be able to pay by debit card anywhere. A few ATMs in the larger cities accept foreign credit and debit cards – look around head branches of the major international banks and the Bank of China. It is recommended to carry traveler’s checks, as well as a supply of currency such as US dollars, Euros or pounds sterling as they are the easiest to convert. The Bank of China has exchange desks for foreign currency and traveler’s checks, and these are also found at airports, in larger hotels, and in certain stores. Keep your exchange receipts as you will need them to convert your spare renminbi into another currency before leaving the country (see Banking & Local Currency).
Bargaining is a common practice in China, especially in street markets, night bazaars, and souvenir stands. It is even worth trying in the smarter, more expensive hotels, modern shops, department stores, and government emporia and Friendship Stores as prices may still be reduced. Stallholders are notorious for charging visitors thrice the “real” price, and sometimes their starting price may be up to ten times the cost. Make a comparison of prices and be conscious of what others are paying, particularly local Chinese.
Department Stores & Boutiques
The consumer revolution in China has led to the mushrooming of up-market department stores, shopping plazas, and fashion boutiques in most cities, especially Beijing and Shanghai. Brands from D&G to Barbie, Zara, Apple, and Hershey chocolates can now be found in Shanghai; while Beijing’s retail market is expanding similarly. As in most developed countries, there is heavy emphasis on high-end items such as designer fashion, perfumes, jewelry, and watches, while supermarkets, such as the French chain Carrefour, offer a range of foods, souvenirs, and household goods at reasonable prices. Although some are independent, most department stores are state-run.
Special shops for visitors, referred to as Friendship Stores, are a legacy from the days of Chairman Mao. These shops originally sold luxuries and quality Chinese crafts to diplomats and intrepid tourists, but not to the Chinese. These days only a few outlets remain, selling local products such as tea, silk, jade, calligraphy, and Miao embroidery. Facing fierce competition from the myriad of private shops, the stores struggle to compete on price or quality. English literature and magazines are sometimes available in these stores.
The best way to experience China’s diversity and its many ethnic cultures is to visit the bustling local markets, especially in rural areas. Held on specific days of the week, these are locally known as ganji, which means “going to market,” or gangai, meaning “going to the street.”
Traditionally, people from the surrounding countryside came into town on market days to buy or sell their farm produce. Nowadays however, rural markets are expanding their scope, and it is not uncommon to see stalls selling a range of household items from toothbrushes to woks and cooking pots. While some markets still follow the lunar calendar, which is confusing for most visitors, many have shifted to a more regular schedule. Such markets are busiest between mid-morning and mid-afternoon. The variety of food, souvenirs, and domestic items on sale is astounding, but be prepared to bargain hard.
Unless you’re an expert, buying antiques in China is a rather risky proposition. Many Chinese cities have flourishing antiques markets, but most of the items on sale will undoubtedly be fake. However, as long as you don’t mistake them for the real thing, it is fun to browse and bargain for cheap replicas. The state run antique shops, like the Friendship Stores, are in decline – and never had any bargains anyway. Shops in the foyers of art galleries and museums also sell works of art such as scroll paintings, calligraphy, and attractive silk scarves. In China, objects dating to 1795 or earlier may not be legally exported, so make sure any antiques (of a later date) that you purchase carry a red wax seal permitting export. Always keep the receipts as they may be required at Customs.
What to Buy in China
Market stalls and small shops sell interesting souvenirs in tourist centers throughout China. Traditionally styled items can be found just about everywhere, while many other crafts are regional. You can find beautifully intricate embroidery in the southwest, prayer wheels and flags in Tibet, carpets in Xinjiang, and ginseng in the northeast. When shopping in markets it is essential to bargain. Friendship stores and gift shops at factories usually have fixed, but inflated, prices.
A skill as revered as painting, calligraphy is an ancient Chinese art that is a fluid form of self-expression. Master calligraphers practice their art assiduously, and one of their works could be very expensive. Less costly examples of calligraphy are widely available.
Marble chops are traditionally used to imprint a calligrapher’s seal on to a work. At many craft markets vendors create personalized chops by carving a character version of a person’s name on the base.
Scrolls painted with elegantly striking script make excellent souvenirs. Skilled calligraphers will paint chosen sayings in different styles or you can purchase pre-painted works.
Writing brushes should have a defined tip and firm fur bristles. Ink sticks made of soot are ground down and mixed with water on an ink stone.
Painted on paper or silk with simple brushstrokes, painting is one of the most important traditional arts. Many paintings now have contemporary touches.
|Marble chops||Scrolls painted with elegantly striking script||Writing brushes||Painted on paper or silk with simple brushstrokes, painting|
Chinese ceramics are known the world over. They have been mass produced for hundreds of years, with fired pots being passed through a line of artisans, each adding a layer to the glaze. Porcelain, a fine, translucent ceramic, was invented during the Sui dynasty, and high quality pieces are still produced.
Yixingware, or purple sand pottery from Ding Shan in Anhui (see Yixing County), is usually a dark reddish brown, but can also be green, buff, or gray.
Jingdezhen in Jiangxi has been one of the main producers of porcelain since the 10th century. It still produces fine pieces, although some of the cheaper wares may be decorated by stencil.
Woven from the strands that make up a silk worm’s cocoon, silk is also a Chinese invention . Clothes made of silk, such as ladies’ cheongsams, are widely available, but be aware that silk sold in markets is likely to be rayon. Beautiful embroidery on silk is also available.
|Silk embroidered coasters||Silk-covered cushions||Silk bags|
Other traditional handicrafts
Occasionally created by skilled craftsmen but often mass produced, Chinese handicrafts are almost always highly intricate and of vibrant color. The variety of goods on offer is staggering, from delicate miniature glass bottles to the bold graphics of communist memorabilia.
|Jade, a semi-precious stone||Glass snuff bottles||Carved wooden fan||Lacquerware jewelry box||Decorative tassel||The best paper cuts|
Jade, a semi-precious stone, is associated with immortality. These pendants are green, but the lustrous gem can also be gray or brown.
Glass snuff bottles were popularized during the Qing dynasty, when snuff usage was common. Using a hooked brush, artisans paint miniature scenes inside.
The best paper cuts are made in a few minutes by a master craftsman with a pair of scissors. Most paper cuts are mass produced, with many simultaneously cut to a pattern.
|Cloisonné vases||Baoding balls||Tea, often sold in colorful tin caddies||Mao lighter||Mao badges|
Cloisonné vases, boxes, and jars have been copper-enamelled: copper is faced with pieces of colored enamel and fired, creating a shiny finish.
Baoding balls are weighted and sometimes contain a chime. The two balls are maneuvered in one band, strengthening grip and massaging the channels through which qi runs .
Tea, often sold in colorful tin caddies, is available everywhere. Tie guanyin and other oolong teas of Fujian are very fine. Pu’er is a specialty of the southwest.
Mao memorabilia is based on designs that existed during Mao’s rule. Some is authentic, but most communist souvenirs are produced for the tourist market.
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