The best souvenirs to buy on a trip to China

By Carole Terwilliger Meyers

Don't forget to visit the night markets

Image: humphery/

This post was originally published by Carole Terwilliger Meyers on her blog Carole is a travel writer and author of 17 books. She shares her travel adventures on her blog to inspire others to see the world.

It’s always a good idea to have a few souvenir ideas in mind before any trip. That way you can do a little research in advance and, if you’re lucky, make a bee-line for what you want. If you’re taking a guided tour of China, this is a particularly good idea because often you are taken to visit well-priced government stores that are so big it made my head spin. It was difficult to know which way to go first. Be prepared.

Do as I say, not as I did. I was almost prepared. I wanted to buy a pearl to fit a gold setting from which I had lost a stone but found out too late that I had left a little bag holding the setting at home! So, though I saw plenty of well-priced pearls that looked like they would fit, I decided to pass them by.  Maybe I’ll find one someday in Tahiti—and remember to bring the setting. 

Should you have the opportunity, night markets are a lot of fun and good sources for unusual souvenirs.

If you have time, do some browsing in a Chinese department store. They have unusual inventory, and you don’t have to bargain. You can ship things home, but make sure to insure.  And you must be patient. You’ve heard about the slow boat to China — that is the one they usually use, and it can take one or two months to get from China to the U.S.

Of course, you never are required to bargain, but with street vendors it is expected. Except if it is food. No bargaining is done in China on either packaged or restaurant food. 

The accepted method of haggling in China is to counter any offer with half the asking price. You take the price being asked for, divide it in half, and then in half again, and that is that amount you offer back if you are interested. Put another way, your counter offer should be 25% of what is being asked.  

The final selling price should be somewhere between 30 per cent and 40 per cent of the asking price. I found that vendors who saw my disinterest and were getting desperate would drop it very quickly, without me having to say anything. In fact, this sometimes happened so fast that I became suspicious and withdrew. I regret a few things that got away because of this.  My advice, go for it, and buy it when you see it! 

Read more: The wonder of China's Terracotta Warriors

Handy bargaining phrases:

tai guai la (too expensive)
pian yi yi dian (a little cheaper)

The souvenirs:

1. Silk

Visitors to Tianhou Silk factory, Shanghai, see a demonstration of how Chinese silk has been produced since the 14th century.  Factoids I learned include that the life of a silkworm is just 45 days and that a cocoon produces a single strand that can be up to 2.5km long! 

Everyone in my group was given the opportunity to try stretching the silk to fit one layer of a comforter. 

Of course, there is also the option to purchase the silk at a good price. Few are able to resist, most especially me, but I arrived prepared. I jumped right in and bought a medium-weight queen comforter for about US$130/$165AUD (all sizes cost the same but there are several weights), two queen-size pillows for US$40/$50AUD each (the only option was queen), and two lovely decorative silk pillowcases for US$87/$110AUD (they came only as a set).

Items are compressed to remove all the air and then shrink-wrapped, making them easier to pack and carry. In addition to a gigantic room dedicated to bedding, another huge room displays clothing, including luxurious pajamas, scarves, and other items. I later heard advice to get the king-size comforter, regardless of your bed size, since the dimensions are smaller than we are used to in the U.S. and the price for any size is the same. Also, I didn’t discover until I got home and started living with them that I adore my silk pillowcases. I actually pet them and so far have not allowed us to sleep on them. Note that the actual factory is somewhere else, this is just a retail store. 

2. Tea

Tea Garden, Shanghai. I visited this shop in Shanghai to purchase my tea. The number one tea in China is green Dragon Well/Long Jing. It comes from the Hangzhou area, tastes of roasted hazelnuts, and is reputed to nourish the mind, lift spirits, detoxify the blood, improve metabolism, and remove free radicals. Why, then, did I not buy some? Next time for sure! Instead, under time pressure, I selected Lapsangsouchong black tea and Big Red Robe oolong tea for my souvenirs. 

3. Jade

The government factory in Beijing is said to have the best prices and best carving skill for jade. Half of all the Olympic medals in 2008 were made here. China has more than 1,200 kinds of jade. Greener is better, and harder is better. Green jade changes colour when you wear it, and, just like a diamond, good jade can cut glass.

In China, green jade jewellery is worn only on the left side because it is the side of the heart. When a baby is born, relatives take off their green jade jewellery and present it to the baby. Popular jade animals include the dragon (a symbol of the emperor and power), lions (which are always in pairs—one female, one male), and a “pisou” beast that eats money. Jade bracelets are always a good choice, and something useful might be a translucent jade bowl. 

4. Pearls

An introductory talk at the government pearl centre, Beijing, informed us that 98 per cent of freshwater pearls are produced in China. I’m sure you’ve heard to determine whether a pearl is real you should test with your teeth — if it is rough, the pearl is real, if smooth, it is a fake. I’m sure any shop will let you test —not! Here they told us to rub two pearls together, and if they are real a dust should form. I didn’t test this, but... really?  In this immense facility you can pick individual pearls, including my favourite black pearls, and have them set the way you want.  Knowing this, I dragged along an empty setting from which I had lost a stone, and hoped to come back with a pearl to get reset at home. But I hadn’t had time to visit my jeweller before I left, and so wasn’t sure which would work. Time pressure did me in. While here, you can also try pearl face cream that is reputed to make you look younger. I’d heard that "fun" pearls were a bargain, but I had seen much more exciting designs and much lower prices in Hawaii last year. Here, the bargains are said to be in Tibet. Advice seems to be that if you want fine pearls, you should go to a quality shop.

5. Terracotta warriors

Though I must mention, just last week I saw a dusty 2-foot-high warrior looking rather forlorn in a U.S. antique shop. 

6. Arts, paintings or handmade craft

Art is always a good souvenir from anywhere you travel. 

Plus one you can’t take home:

7. Massage

Get a massage if you are inclined and have the time. They are generally very inexpensive. I heard a rate of $20 for one and a half hours. At home, I know a place where I can get a one-hour foot reflexology massage for $25, which is hard to beat in the U.S. 

Plus one not-so-good one you can take home:

8. A nasty cold and cough

This is one you don’t want, but one that I got. I suspect a random cough from a crowd I was in, but it could also have been the strawberries that I washed with faucet water before I remembered I needed to use bottled water (I did then switch to bottled water, but probably the damage was already done, and I also violated that rule about not eating produce you can’t peel). Two weeks later after a round of antibiotics, my head is still clogged, I have low energy, and I cough every night. Perhaps you should wear a face mask like many locals do. (A month later, I am fully recovered.) 

Carole Terwilliger Meyers
What souvenirs would you bring back from China?