Things to by in China
China excels in handmade items, partly because of long traditions of exquisite handmade items, partly because labor is still cheap relative to other countries. Take your time, look closely at quality and ask questions (but don’t take all the answers at face value!)
Note on antiques: China’s government passed a law in May 2007 banning the export of antiques from before 1911. It is now illegal to purchase antiques from before 1911 and take them out of China. Even antiques bought in proper auctions cannot be taken out of China.
Porcelain with a long history of porcelain making, China still makes great porcelain today. Most visitors are familiar with blue and white, but the variety of glazes is much greater, including many lovely monochrome glazes which are worth seeking out. Specialist shops near hotels and the top floors of department stores are a good place to start, though not the cheapest. The “antique” markets are also a good place to find reproductions, though it can be hard to escape from attempts to convince you that the items are genuine antiques (with prices to match). Two of the most famous centers for porcelain are Jingdezhen and Quanzhou.
Furniture in the last 15 years China has become a major source of antique furniture, mostly sourced from China’s vast countryside. As the supply of old items dwindles many of the restorers are now turning to making new items. The quality of the new pieces is often excellent and some great bargains can still be had in new and old items. Furniture tends to be concentrated in large warehouses on the outskirts of town, Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu all have plenty of these. Hotels will tell you how to find them. They can also arrange shipment in most cases. Zhongshan has a huge furniture market.
Art and Fine Art the art scene in China is divided into two non-interacting parts. On the one side there are the traditional painting academies, specializing in “classical” painting (bird and flower, landscapes with rocks and water, calligraphy), with conservative attitudes and serving up painting that conforms to the traditional image of Chinese art. On the other hand there is a burgeoning modern art scene, including oil painting, photography and sculpture, bearing little relation to the former type. Both “scenes” are worth checking out and include the full range from the glorious to the dreadful. The center of the modern scene is undoubtedly Beijing, where the Da Shan Zi (sometimes called 798) warehouse district is emerging as the new frontier for galleries, reminiscent of New York’s Soho in the mid-80s.
Jade There are two types of Jade in China today: one type is pale and almost colorless and is made from a variety of stones mined in China. The other type is green in color and is imported from Myanmar (Burma) – if genuine!. The first thing to be aware of when buying Jade is that you will get what you pay for (at best). Genuine Burmese jade with a good green color is extraordinarily expensive and the “cheap” green jade you will see in the markets is made either from synthetic stone or from natural stone that has been colored with a green dye. When buying jade look closely at the quality of the carving (How well finished is it? Is it refined, or crude with tool marks visible?). The quality of the stone often goes along with the quality of the carving. Take your time and compare prices before buying. If you are going to spend a fair sum of money, do it in the specialist stores, not in the fleamarkets. Khotan in Xinjiang is a famous area for jade.
Carpets China is home to a remarkable variety of carpet-making traditions. These include Mongolian, Ningxia, Tibetan and modern types. Many tourists come looking for silk carpets: these are actually a fairly recent “tradition”, most of the designs being taken from middle-eastern traditions rather than reflecting Chinese designs. Be aware that though the workmanship is quite fine on these carpets they often skimp on materials, particularly dyes. These are prone to fading and color change if the carpet is displayed in a brightly lit place. Some excellent wool carpets are also made in China. Tibetan carpets are amongst the best in terms of quality and construction, but be aware that most carpets described as Tibetan are not made in Tibet, with a few notable exceptions. As with jade, best to buy from stores with a reputation to uphold.
Other arts and Crafts Other things to look for include Cloisonne (colored enamels on a metal base), laquer work, masks, kites, wood carving, scholar’s rocks (decorative rocks, some natural, some less so), papercuts, and so on.