Made in China: A Traveller's guide to knowing what to buy in China
China manages to combine a great variety of styles, price ranges, and standards in its shopping. By itself this is not so unusual, but the sheer range of shops, stalls, and markets that it takes to serve its vast population is awesome. Yet the country is no shoppers' paradise, as any traveller who has been deposited by their tour bus at the door of too many Friendship Stores will know.
Even worse are guides who pursue their sales commissions beyond the call of duty, so that their favoured arts and crafts stores assume the same importance as Ming-dynasty palaces on one's itinerary. Sometimes the only thing to do is to protest by refusing to leave the bus.
Counterfeiting is big business in China. 'Designer clothes', 'antiques', and 'antiquities' are mass-produced in supposedly illegal factories (the Chinese authorities have done little to stamp them out). It is important to check carefully the quality of items before buying. Even genuine products can have flaws that the sales staff may try to disguise. Antiques - historic items not more than 180 years old, bought from official stores and stamped with an official wax seal - should be what they purport to be; those from street markets are less likely to be genuine.
Anything more than 180 years old is classed as an antiquity. Tourists are often targeted by touts trying to sell stolen antiquities. Exporting antiquities is a serious offence, and while it happens on a grand scale - an estimated 20,000 of the country's several million historic tombs are looted every year - penalties are severe. Chinese violators are regularly executed. In addition to the moral repugnance of plundering a country's past, the risks of being set up, cheated, or caught and imprisoned should be taken seriously into account by tourists.
Despite all these caveats, there are plenty of fine products and souvenirs that one can bring back from China, so even confirmed non-shoppers should take enough time to consider the possibilities. Haggling is essential and expected. Even in more sophisticated shops and department stores it does no harm to push for a discount, especially if you are buying several items.
Friendship Stores, where only foreigners are allowed to shop, are not as ubiquitous as they might seem, even though all travel guides will lead you there as a matter of course. They can, however, be very useful for visitors with limited time for shopping. They carry a wide range of Chinese goods, but prices are better in the private shops and markets.
Carpets and Rugs
Carpets and rugs made in minority nationality areas, such as Inner Mongolia, Urumqi, and Xinjiang have a good reputation. Almost as good, although the patterns are different, are products from factories in Beijing and Shanghai.
This enamelled metal, or occasionally ceramic, work is decorated with intricate patterns, in which the colours are separated one from the other by copper wires soldered to the surface. Beijing and its surroundings sometimes seem like one big cloisonne factory and shop, and the wide range of ornaments and vessels made are generally of good quality. Xi'an is also a big producer, but tends to be much more expensive.
Chinese hand fans are much sought-after. Not a serious product, perhaps, but an excellent souvenir. Hangzhou and Suzhou are noted for pretty styles. The finest folding fans are made from tragrant sandalwood and black paper.
Technically, jade is a semi-precious stone, usually green or white, that can be found as either of two distinct mineral species: the rare and often translucent jadeite, and the more common nephrite, which has a waxy lustre. Nephrite was being used in ornamental carvings and ritual objects in China as early as the 3rd millennium bc. Jadeite did not reach China until the late- 18th century from Myanmar, where it is still mined under appalling conditions. The Chinese ascribe mystical powers to jade.
Intricate designs in kite form can be purchased almost everywhere. Beijing and Shanghai are good locations, but perhaps best of all is Weifang, in Shandong province, which is known as the home of the kite.
Lacquer is a hard, waterproof material made from the resin of the lacquer tree, which is native to China and Japan. It can be coloured, polished, and carved, and since ancient times it has been used to decorate wooden vessels and furniture in China. Most of the main tourist zones have heaps of lacquerware, both good and bad, for sale.
Paintings and Calligraphy
Line, rather than light and shadow, forms the basic structural element in traditional Chinese painting, and deft brushwork was, and is, used to create works of great delicacy from the simplest of painterly ingredients. Chinese artists aim to capture the essence as well as the form of a subject, whether it be a flower or a river, or a gaggle of elegantly coiffed imperial concubines dining at table. The works on sale at tourist traps will fall a long way short of such ideals, but may still form an adequate souvenir of a visit to China. Brushes for making your own Chinese paintings are good buys, with those from Huzhou and Jiangsu having the best reputation, although they are available everywhere.
Calligraphy, the art of Chinese penmanship, is writing at its most formal and decorative. In early times, writing was achieved by making marks with a sharpened willow stick on to strips of bamboo. General Meng Tian is credited with inventing the brush made of hair during the Chin dynasty (221 bc¡ªad 220) when, whilst supervising the construction of the Great Wall, he saw a tuft of goat's hair stuck to one of the stones and tried to write with it. Calligraphic paintings, brushes, writing materials, and chops -name stamps used by artists to sign' their paintings (and by others to imprint their names on documents) - can all be bought and make satisfying souvenirs. Chop-makers will make you a personal stamp bearing the characters that equate to your surname.
Usually, and appropriately, known as china, porcelain is a hard, thin, vitreous and translucent material, fired at high temperatures. The best porcelain is considered to be as white as jade, as shiny as a mirror, as thin as paper, and as resonant as a bell. There are many regional styles, although most can be purchased all over China -foshan is noted for Shiwan porcelain, lingdezhen for blue-and-white, eggshell and celadon, Shantou for multicoloured flower motifs, and Yixing for purple-coloured and unglazed wares.
Silk production originated in China, and the country still provides much of the world's highest-quality silk. The fabric is renowned for its lustre and drape. Suzhou, Hangzhou, and Nanjing all have good reputations for their silk, and sell high-quality goods at reasonable prices. Suzhou is considered best for embroidered silk, and Shanghai for brocade. Silk can be bought by the metre, and in a vast range of made-up products, including scarves, blouses, ties, jackets, underwear, and handkerchiefs.
Tea, Herbs, and Spices
Markets and shops in all Chinese towns and cities sell masses of fine and aromatic souvenirs, including ginseng, dried Sichuan peppers, and black, green, semi-fermented, and flower-petal teas.