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Shopping & Browing --- What to Buy

Silk Chinese Medicine Ceramics
Pearls Jade Carvings Embroidery
Antiques Carpets Chops
Lacquer Ware Painted Snuff Bottles Paintings and Calligraphy Scrolls
Cloisonne' Books Kites
Bone Stamps Clay Figures
Papercutting Linens Other Good Buys


For over 5,000 years the history of silk and the history of China have been closely intertwined. The methods of production were carefully guarded secrets for most of those years. For centuries silk has been one of China's most important items of trade. It is hard to believe, but one small cocoon can yield an incredible two kilometers of silk thread.

Friendship stores and government tourism stores are the best bet for purchases because of the wide selections and fine qualities available.
You can be certain you are buying pure silk at these stores. It will be so marked.

When purchasing silk by the yard come prepared with yardage amount needed as there are no patterns in the store for reference.

Almost every clothing need is available in silk such as pajamas, shirts, robes, underwear, ties, scarves, dresses, etc. Silk dressing gowns are a wonderful purchase and a special remembrance of China. Qing dynasty style long coat dresses are particularly wonderful for that special evening out at home.

Be careful, try on clothing as sizes don't always run true as marked, and not all are made for a full figure. Remember, most Chinese are very small.

As with silk by the yard, items marked as pure silk are pure silk in government stores, but don't count on that being true when buying from markets or small vendors. There are many synthetic imitations on the market.

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China's system of traditional medicine is over 2,000 years old and it is more popular now than ever throughout the world. More than 90% of Chinese traditional medicines come from plants. Other sources are of of mineral or animal origin. Some of the animal origins are quite controversial.

Chinese Medicine Hospitals as well as pharmacies sell herbal remedies in pill or tonic form. Schedule an appointment at a hospital and have your "pulse read" and prescription written before purchasing items unless you know what you are doing and know what you want. Some pharmacies that sell the medicines also have 'doctors' on staff who can 'read your pulse and prescribe.

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China's 7,000 year ceramic history continues to the present day and is still flourishing. The Chinese invented porcelain and tightly held the secrets of its production for hundreds of years. It became a favored item of trade with the Middle East and the West. Antique and current pieces are for sale almost everywhere in Beijing Since the Yuan Dynasty, Jingdezhen, southwest of Shanghai, has been the primary production center for porcelain in China, producing most of the famous Imperial porcelain of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Museums around the world house some of these beautiful pieces.

Export of genuine antiques is not allowed without special government permission these days. But, a special wax seal, usually red, does signify permission. Many of these items can be found at government stores. A certificate is also given to allow legal export. Buying antique porcelain without the seal or proper paperwork can be risky.
It could be a fake, or it could have been stolen by a grave robber at some point thus not eligible for export and could be confiscated upon departure from China.

Reproductions of Ming and Qing Dynasty pieces are sold, but they are stated as such and the prices are not bad.

Many other beautiful ceramic items can be purchased such as the famous 'purple clay', or Yixing Teapots. Some of these come in sets with the tea cups. Learn the Chinese Tea Ceremony, quite different from the Japanese. The Yixing Teapots come in many shapes and designs and quite loved by tea connoisseurs around the world. Great buys!

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Chinese freshwater pearls produced in southern China account for over 90% of the world's total freshwater pearls. China's Hepu or South Seas pearl is considered better than other cultured pearls and is far more expensive.

There are pearl necklaces, bracelets, earrings and pins sold everywhere and they come in a range of sizes and shapes as well as in many colors or hues. Do not confuse these with the Japanese Cultured Salt Water Pearl.

Learn a bit from your jeweler back home about pearls before you look and buy. Stores that primarily sell pearls in China will have knowledgeable English speaking assistants to answer questions as well. Before buying a necklace check that all pearls are the same color, size and shape.
Find out the material of the clasp, and make certain the stringing material is strong and not worn in any place. Only the most expensive necklaces will be knotted between pearls.

Many places also sell a cream of ground up pearls. It is said that when massaged on the top of one's hand it will take away age or liver spots after a time.

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The material most highly valued by the Chinese for carving smaller figures and vessels has always been jade. The Chinese word for jade, Yu, refers not only to the minerals nephrite and jadeite, but also means "precious", "pure", and "noble" as well as "stone worthy of carving".

Remember that the only two minerals internationally accepted as jade are nephrite and jadeite. Jade is difficult and time-consuming to work as it is extremely hard. It is worked today much as it has been for centuries. It is very difficult to scratch read jade, nephrite or jadeite, with a pin.

Chinese consider jade as a stone descended from heaven, and they value its hard, cool texture and translucent colors.

In China many other hard stones are considered jade even though internationally they are not considered as such. So you may be buying "real jade" or red agate, white agate, crystal, amethyst, quartz, alabaster or other stones. None of the others are as hard as "real jade". When buying a carved figure or a piece of jewelry consider the workmanship as well, not just the composition of the material. The most valuable pieces are not those of a single color, but those objects carved of double or multiple colors.

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Embroidery is one of the original folk arts of China. According to many historical accounts, embroideries were added designs on dresses, skirts and other clothing over 4,000 years ago. The history of silk and embroideries parallel as most embroideries have been done in silk threads.

Elaborate embroideries were added to imperial and court robes, the most elaborate ones were done during the Qing Dynasty, but had been done since the Yuan and Ming Dynasties.

Much embroidery is done by machine today, but hand embroidery is still done all over China.

Look for the recently developed double faced embroideries under glass in wooden stands. Most of these have a different subject on each side but recently a further innovation, the same design on each side in different colors.

Many shops also sell beautiful embroidered wall hangings and scrolls.

This ancient folk art continues to grow and change.

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Because of its place in Chinese history Beijing attracts antique-seekers from all over the world. Before you think of buying, learn something about your subject. There are lots of antique shopping areas such as Liulichang Cultural Street and Beijing Curio City with more than 250 shops under one roof.

In China anything made prior to 1949 is considered an antique. Antiques that date prior to 1795 are forbidden for sale or export. Those dated between 1796 and 1949 should bear a small red wax seal and a Certificate for Relics Export from the Beijing Cultural Relics Bureau (BCRB) to allow them to be taken out of China, and also proves the genuineness of the item. Don't loose receipts and/or certificates. Upon leaving China one could be asked if any antiques had been purchased, and luggage could be inspected at the whim of Chinese Customs.. Items purchased that are antiques, but have no seal or certificate should be taken to the BCRB and application made, but it can be a long process, not an overnight one. Government owned stored should provide everything the purchaser needs.

The more independent antique shopper shops the antique markets discussed above or in the "Where to Shop" section or seeks out other sources on their own. Proper documentation and seals are not necessarily provided on items bought from these shops or market stalls. Remember, they could be fakes, reproductions, or they could be real antiques. Buyer, be aware.

Stay away from purchasing real ivory as it is not allowed to be imported into many countries, antique or not.

Furniture, porcelain, garments, calligraphy scrolls, painting scrolls, and jade are the most popular purchases.

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The carpet factories in Beijing make close woven fine wool carpets. Using a specially designed knife or scissors tool they sometimes sculpt the various patterns of the rug to accentuate the design.

Silk carpets are made in other areas of China, and these carpets can be sculpted as well, but not always. The charm of the silk carpet is that it has one look, but when reversed from end to end, the color hues change significantly adding to the beauty. A silk carpet is the most luxurious of all.

New silk and wool carpets are sold at many places in Beijing as well as are antique ones. Wonderful traditional design Chinese carpets can feature dragons or phoenix designs. Many carpets are available at bargain prices and could be used as tapestries or wall hangings as well.

There are many quality levels of carpets. Always check the back of the carpet, it should not be cloth covered. Ask how many knots there are per square inch and ask to see examples of each. The higher number of knots per square inch, the better and more expensive the carpet will be.
Most carpets are machine made, but there are some still made by hand, and can be very costly. Shipping is available, but most rugs can be folded and packaged to take on an aircraft. Buyers choice. Schedule a factory visit if more knowledge is desired before a major purchase.


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A favorite purchase in China is buying a Chop, or personal seal, for yourself or family and friends. Many larger hotels provide this service and demonstration in their lobby.

A chop, rather than a signature, has been used on official documents or for personal affairs for centuries in China.. From ancient imperial times to modern government offices, the use of Chops is common. Chops are carved from many types of stone, jade, wood, metal, or in years past, ivory.

Some Chops are very plain, others may have Chinese Zodiac figures topping them making them even more personal. Names are carved into the end of the Chop. Usually carvers have a list of English names with their Chinese equivalent to select from. Make certain to purchase the small container of the red ink paste to use with it. The carver will give instructions on the method for a clear impression.

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Lacquer ware dates back to Neolithic times in China as a black lacquer bowl was found near Hangzhou, China dated to that period. Lacquer is an exceptional material that gives a hard, smooth protective coating to materials such as wood, cloth, leather or metal, and comes from the sap of the lacquer tree, an indigenous tree to China. The sap is naturally a dull, gray color, but can be colored red, green, brown, white, yellow, and black. Black and red, cinnabar, are the most popular colors.

A lacquer item takes a long time to produce as one layer, or coat, of lacquer must be applied at a time and allowed to dry before polishing and adding another layer and polishing once again. Some pieces are as many as 500 coats.

One of the earliest decorative used of lacquer was the painting of designs of contrasting colors on a plain lacquer decorative item.

Carved lacquer appeared first in the Yuan Dynasty. Different colors are applied at pre-planned intervals to the piece, and then a carver would carve the design reaching different colors at different depths.
Landscape scenes are favorites of artists. Many times now only red, cinnabar, and black are used on pieces to be carved. A wide variety of small boxes can be found in all shopping areas.
The finer the carving the more expensive the piece.

Inlaid lacquer pieces from the Shang Dynasty with shell and bone inlays have been discovered. Gold and silver foil, mother-of-pearl, are all popular today inlaid on lacquer boxes and on furniture pieces such as cabinets and the many panel screens, or room dividers so associated with China.

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Another lovely, but inexpensive gift or personal purchase from Beijing is a Painted Snuff Bottle.
This art was developed and perfected during the Qing Dynasty. Some antique snuff bottles are terribly expensive and are highly valued by collectors around the world.

The bottles can be made of glass, jade or crystal agate. Some bottles can be very small, but others can be several inches high. The bottles come in a variety of shapes and sizes but the most unique feature is that they are painted from the inside of the bottle. First, iron sand grains are inserted in the bottle and shaken until the inside turns a smooth silky white and then they are cleaned. An artist, specially trained in this technique, then inserts a special bamboo painting brush with the brush tipped end bent on an angle. Usually a different brush is used for each color and painting technique. The neck part of the bottle is very small requiring extreme skill by the artist. Subjects can be historical, stories, animals, calligraphy, flowers, birds or beautiful women.

Many shops have artists at work demonstrating heir skill and their artistic creativity. Prices are more than reasonable, very good buys.

Glass balls, also painted on the inside are other popular items.

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Chinese paintings and calligraphy have traditionally been affixed to scrolls and never framed.

Landscape painting is the most highly regarded subject for paintings in China. They and calligraphy works can be found for sale all over Beijing varying in age, quality and price. Most come with custom boxes making them fairly safe to transport.

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Cloisonne' originated in Beijing during the Yuan Dynasty, but reached it's artistic peak during the Ming Dynasty. Pieces from that period are nearly priceless and are prized by collectors worldwide.

Cloisonne' is an enamel ware, in which the different colors of the designs are separated by thin metal strips on a metal base. The metal is usually copper. The process begins with the casting of bronze into a desired shape such as a vase, bracelet, bowl or perhaps a box. A flat copper wire is then affixed in a decorative pattern. Enamels of different colors are applied by brush to fill the 'cloisons', or hollows. Each piece is kiln fired three times with a new coal of enamel added each time. After each firing the pieces are ground and polished to a gold hue. In 1904 a piece of Chinese Cloisonne' won the first prize at the Chicago World Fair.

Beijingers love Cloisonne' , they decorate their homes with it, and can be seen wearing the jewellery. Cloisonne' items can be found all over Beijing in the form of jewelry, vases, bowls, and boxes. Make certain to notice some of the large pieces which decorate the entrances to many stores. They are exquisite works of art.

The most expensive and valuable pieces are of unusual shapes and sizes.
Take a close look at an expensive piece and you will notice that all of the 'cloisons' are nearly completely filled in, and few pin holes show in the enamel.

Cloisonne' is truly the finest of traditional Chinese handicrafts.

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Many stores sell books both in Chinese and in English translations.
There is even a book street, Haidian, near Beijing University.
Wonderful art books, translations of Chinese classics and textbooks are available. The Beijing Foreign Language bookstore has 137 branches all over Beijing. One is located near the north exit of The Forbidden City.

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Kites are for sale everywhere in Beijing in stores, from peddlers on the street, and from small vendors. Kite flying is a popular past time in Beijing as there is plenty of wind.

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Bone products made from camel or oxen include necklaces, bracelets, knives, forks and spoons.

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Stamps in commemorative folders can be found in many stores, as well as from small venders and peddlers.

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Clay figures of people and animals, and dough modeled figures, flowers and birds are popular toys and collectibles, and are found everywhere.

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Papercutting is one of Beijing's most popular folk crafts. Examples can be found in cards and pictures. They are delicate and are usually boxed. Designs are intricately cut with scissors.

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Wonderful buys of all kinds of tablecloths and napkins, sheets and handkerchiefs are available. Many are cut work with embroidery. Bring table measurements requirement with you.

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Don't forget the classical Chinese cotton shoes, cashmere items, children's toys and clothing, and other practical clothing items. Silk scarves and men's ties are great buys. Not many items made for the Chinese domestic market come in larger sizes, and shoes are hard to fine over a size 7.  

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