Haggling in China

More than the souvenirs that a tourist mindlessly accumulates in the course of a trip, a Filipino traveler’s most treasured memories are those of fantastic bargains struck with local merchants.  The experience has all the flavor of that first historic encounter between foreigner and native.  The huge communication gap is instantly bridged by the most rudimentary of phrases:  “How much?” “Too much”, and “O.K.”  Through the dense layer of barely understood words, sentiments are conveyed and decoded.  The universal language of trade prevails.

These days no exchange of words may even take place.  A seller points at the object of your momentary fascination and quickly enters a number on a calculator.  If you show enough interest, he gives you the calculator and urges you to pin in your own price.  Haggling, for the Filipino traveler, is a great sport.  And in China, home of possibly the world’s most persistent traders, the Pinoy tourist finds her match and paradise.

My first purchase in China was a kite shaped like an eagle.  On Sundays, Tiananmen Square is virtually taken over by kite-flyers. Peddlers, like demonstrators, are banned from the square, but it is not a crime to fly a kite.  Vendors come to fly their goods and make a sale sometimes by simply handing over the string to the buyer.  The eagle, with a wing span of about 4 feet, was initially priced at 125 yuan.  I brought it down to 30 yuan, or about P170.  These kites are so exquisitely designed that I could not help feeling exploitative about having to haggle. I thought I had driven a hard bargain until one of our companions got the same kite for exactly 15 yuan!

Outside the fabulous pits containing the famous 2200-year-old terracotta army in Xi’an is a veritable flea market selling replicas of all the figures that China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, had commissioned before his death.  This quaint army of 7000 clay soldiers and horses was supposed to serve him in the after-life.

Peddlers sell replicas of the terracotta warriors for $1 a box, each box containing 5 figurines.  It’s a steal at that price.  But the starting price for the Western tourist may be as much as $5.  Economists call this “dynamic pricing.”  Inside the state-run museum store, the same figurines supposedly made from better clay are priced at $10 a box. But there is really no way of telling the difference.  In the group that I traveled with recently, no one bought at museum prices.  One of our companions managed the best bargain of all – 3 boxes for $2.

My wife and I made the mistake of straying into the interior of the makeshift stalls in the hope of finding a more authentic-looking memento of the place.  A man eagerly showed us a table laden with museum-like artifacts: clay jars, celadon plates, trinkets, bronze statues, jade and wood carvings.  With no real intention of buying, I indifferently picked up an old wooden box with a delicately carved bas-relief of the Buddha.  That innocent move signaled for our Chinese peddler what he assumed was a passionate interest in Buddha carvings.

In an instant, he commanded his wife to bring in more such pieces as we tried slowly to extricate ourselves from his presence.  Sensing that we were about to walk away, the man planted himself in front of me, his hands earnestly clasping the two carvings he had chosen.  From a starting price of 100 yuan per piece, he voluntarily brought down the price to 50 and then finally to 10 each.  I smiled and told him I was not interested.

Desperately, he raised his tortured face to me and said in a fractured rendition of the foreigner’s language, “Please, O.K.,  ten yuan only for two.”  I have never seen such grimness and conviction under such banal circumstances, and I felt ashamed that I could not immediately respond to the urgency of his plea.  I gave him the money, the price of a bottle of mineral water, and took only one of the carvings.  He insisted in giving me the two objects.  I felt bad at having performed what was patently an example of unequal exchange.  Back home, I accidentally dropped the plastic bag containing these wooden antique carvings.  The carvings made an unusual sound.  One of them was shattered, revealing the unmistakable plaster in which it was molded. A thick coating of varnish and dust gave these fakes the patina of antiquity.  For the first time in my life, I was happy that I had been had.

China’s markets are now just starting to grow again under Deng Xiaoping’s concept of “market socialism”.  Markets, he argued, do not belong solely to capitalism; there’s no reason why socialism cannot have its own.  As a result of this simple insight, tourists visiting China today will find in this once unshakable stronghold of state socialism the most vibrant and exciting markets in Asia.

As late as the 1980s, visitors had no choice but to make their purchases in the fixed-price State-run emporiums known as “Friendship Stores”.  Our tour guides brought us to the Friendship Stores only on two occasions.  The first time was to eat a bland tourist lunch in the cavernous restaurant inside the store, the only one on the highway to the Great Wall.  The second was to perform the obligatory ritual of going through the store’s doors so that we could park our bus there and go shopping elsewhere.

“To get rich is glorious” is a slogan that one now sees everywhere in China.  Just as one need not be sad to be militant, so too, I guess, one need not be poor to be socialist.  Prosperity is modern China’s burning ambition.  A visitor steeped in Marxism would be hardpressed to find in China traces of textbook socialism.


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