Mike Cairnduff from Hello Teacher!

Updated September 15, 2019
Mike Cairnduff

Shopping for souvenirs in China

Let’s face it – every overseas trip means a suitcase full of questionable souvenirs to sift through when you get home.

From weird t-shirts to retro Chairman Mao statues, China is up there for having some of the tackiest souvenirs around. 

Here’s what you could end up buying on a trip to this fast-developing and crazy country.

1. I ‘heart’ t-shirts

Ok, I admit it – there’s something cute about declaring your love for a Chinese city by wearing a white t-shirt with a few black letters and a red heart.

But you can thank New York for this one. I ‘heart’ NY t-shirts started in New York a gazillion years ago, and the craze has spread to every touristy city across the globe.

Shanghai’s version of the t-shirt is ‘I heart SH’, while Beijing’s is the ambiguous ‘I heart BJ’. It’s Chinglish at its best!

Buying tacky Chinese souvenirs is just what you do in China!

An 'I heart BJ' t-shirt. What the!?

2. Fake antiques

I have two words of advice when shopping for antiques in China: buyer beware.

Fake antiques are rife in markets across much of China. While they might look like ancient treasures – old watches, wooden dragons and jade trinkets – just wait until you get home and realize your neighbor bought exactly the same thing when they visited China!

Unless you know what a genuine relic certificate looks like – or you’re qualified to host the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow programme – it’s best you buy antiques at low prices knowing that they’re not, well, antiques.

SEE ALSO: SHOPPING IN CHINA - AN OVERVIEW

3. Mao paraphernalia

You’ll see Mao Zedong paraphernalia for sale everywhere in China. The most common items include the Little Red Book, statues, plates and badges.

Mao Zedong paraphernalia, like this statue, can be found all over China.

Mao Zedong paraphernalia, like this statue, can be found all over China.

You’ve probably got a mini Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty statue sitting on a shelf somewhere at home. So why not add a mini Chairman Mao statue to the collection?

Sure, miniature statues are a little unimaginative, but they’re a nice way of keeping tabs on all the places you’ve been to.

You’ll find mini Maos in all shapes and sizes, from baby-sized ones to life-sized ones (not so mini, after all!).

If you’re serious about buying a decent statue, go for a brass one that you can shine until your heart’s content.

If you’re in China for a while (for example, teaching English like Brooke did), send it home early unless you’ve got lots of room in your suitcase.

4. Silk pyjamas

No trip to China is complete without a 'tour' of a silk factory.

The tour will start with an explanation of silk worms, and you’ll get to see some real ones doing their thing (for show, of course). Following that, you’ll get a run-down of the production process and how it’s been modernized over time.

Silk factory near Suzhou in eastern China.

Silk factory near Suzhou, eastern China.

The tour will culminate in a massive hall of silk products, ranging from luxurious bed sheets to children’s pyjamas. 

If you’re buying an expensive item, or even a few smaller things, it’s definitely worth asking for a discount.

Haggling for the best price is part of a Chinese person’s DNA. 

5. Jade

Most jade you'll see in China is fake. This isn't necessarily a bad thing as there are some nice pieces.

If you want to buy real jade, and are willing to pay the hefty price, the seller should be able to provide a certificate of authenticity.

Many tour guides are paid commissions for the sales they bring in, so don't take their word for it.

Imitation jade is a typical souvenir you will find in China

The jade you'll buy in China will most likely be fake, unless it comes with a certificate of authenticity.

TripSavvy has a handy guide on buying jade jewelry, including a fingernail test to detect real jade from the fake stuff.

6. Kites

You probably can’t get a tackier Chinese souvenir than a kite.

These plastic toys of dubious quality can be found in many places in China, including the open spaces around the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium. 

Kite flying near the Bird’s Nest in Beijing, China.

Kite-flying near the Bird’s Nest in Beijing.

This particularly windy area in the nation’s capital, Beijing, makes for perfect kite-flying conditions. That’s why you’ll see numerous kite sellers showing off their wares in this part of town. 

Want to know the only good thing about this Chinese souvenir? It shouldn’t set you back more than a few dollars.

7. Hand-painted bottles

These little glass bottles are painstakingly painted by hand or mass-produced in factories. A good quality one can look lovely in the right spot.

Pandas, flowers, dragons – the choice is endless when it comes to the scene you want painted on your bottle.

Seeing the artist in action is a sure-fire way of guaranteeing your bottle is handmade.

Hand painted bottles are a popular souvenir to buy in China.

Hand painted bottles – tacky or not?

8. Calligraphy sets

While not as prevalent as they used to be (thank you, iPad), there’s something very quaint about a Chinese calligraphy set.

Sure, it’s a Chinese souvenir that you or your loved one will probably never use, but at least it does honor one of the ancient Chinese traditions – writing.

For an additional fee, some stores will be able to engrave your initials into the stamp. Now what’s tackier than that?

SEE ALSO: THE EXPAT'S GUIDE TO SHOPPING AT IKEA IN CHINA

9. Tea

This is probably my favorite Chinese souvenir because it’s practical.

If you choose wisely, you’ll return home and actually be able to enjoy drinking some real, fragrant Chinese tea.

Tea is a regional product in China, meaning different areas produce different types of teas. For example, I recently picked up some lychee tea in Shenzhen.

Tea is one of the most practical Chinese souvenirs.

Tea is one of the most practical Chinese souvenirs.

If you're on a whirlwind tour you'll probably be taken to a tourist shop to buy tea. Prices are often exorbitant so make sure you haggle - start at half of what the asking price is and go from there.

Your best bet is to go to a supermarket and buy some local, good quality tea for a fraction of the price.

If you’re in China for a while, for example teaching English like Malachy, ask a local for a recommended tea shop. Many cities have lovely local tea shops – to buy from or drink at – which the tour guides will never take you to.

10. Terracotta warriors

Ahhhh, the ubiquitous terracotta warrior statues.

Even if you don’t get to visit Xian, where the real terracotta warriors are located, you’ll be able to buy these little gems anywhere you see hordes of tourists.

Terracotta Warriors souvenirs

Terracotta Army statues are a popular Chinese souvenir.

Like most things in China, the quality of the warriors can really vary.

You’ll be able to pick up a cheap and dirty box for just a few dollars, or pay top dollar for a carefully crafted set.

Here’s a quick quality check: touch a warrior and if it leaves a black mark on your finger then you know it’s not worth paying much for.

Bonus tip

Are you heading to China soon?

In case you haven’t heard, the internet in China is censored.

This means that many of the websites and apps you rely on, like Google, Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp, won't work in China.

To get around this, you'll need to download a virtual private network (VPN) app on your phone.

I've reviewed some of the best VPNs that work in China to help you stay connected.

Make sure you download the VPN app before you arrive in China, as it won't be possible once you arrive due to the country's firewall.


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