We Chinese have been haggling for millennia, although
it really gained entertainment value with the emergence
of the foreign shopper. In Ayi's day, we bargained for
everything including the kitchen sink, but now what's
subject to negotiation varies from place to place. Most
private and state-owned shops discourage it. But large
hotels often give discounts on rooms upon request. The
many street markets around Beijing should be considered
fair game. You can bargain for virtually anything from
chopsticks to the latest line of Versace casual wear.
Remember, bargaining in China is
a game, not a battle. It is not an uncommon sight to
see a foreigner entering into a melee of screams and
threats with a stall owner over the price of a t-shirt.
Although watching Chinese people haggle over the last
mao for wilted vegetables may appear like a duel to
the death, they are merely entering into the spirit
of what is in fact a complex art. Prices often soar
skyward for a number of reasons, ranging from the color
of your skin to the cut of your shoes. This can be frustrating,
but unless you too enter with the necessary politeness
and sense of humor, all will be lost. Since this complex
social skill takes even a China Hand many years to perfect,
it is the least your Ayi can do to pass on some insider's
Be prepared. The first time you go
to a market, it is worthwhile to eavesdrop a little
in order to find out the prices other people are paying
or alternatively go with someone who has been there
before. That way when you are charged eight times the
amount for that "North Fake" jacket you've had your
eye on, you will be ready to convincingly feign alarm.
Remember that vendors can smell desire,
and drooling over something you may have been spending
a lifetime looking for will not aid your cause. Stay
calm, try not to break into a sweat, and instead of
going straight for the kill pick up another item and
ask the price. When the vendor comes back with a number
that could buy you a small tropical island, reel backwards
and protest loudly, making a counter offer at a quarter
of the price.
It is now the seller's turn to have
a coronary, wailing and declaiming poverty. The price
comes down. This procedure carries on for quite a while
until you feel confident that a stalemate has been reached
from which neither of you will budge. At this point
sigh, and with an air of resignation pick up the item
next to it - the one you really want. The seller's stamina
should be well and truly broken by the time the process
starts all over again.
If you're a newcomer it might be
worth your while to employ the help of a Chinese friend,
with whom you can embark on a secret ritual of hair-scratching
and head-nodding. To befuddle vendors, the foreigner
should play the savvy, stubborn embodiment of practicality
while the local plays the swooning, smitten sucker who
absolutely must have the item in question. While the
laowai feigns complete resistance to purchasing anything,
the local forms an "alliance" with the shopkeeper to
lower the price to get the spendthrift foreigner to
cough up the cash.
Although the use of Mandarin in bargaining
will increase your leverage dramatically, the more adventurous
could alternatively try the well-used system of hand
signals to indicate a price. These alone will certainly
get the job done. Your Ayi has often observed foreigners
using digital dialogue for serious bargaining.
If you look carefully, you can see
many traditional bargaining techniques in practice on
the streets of Beijing. One of these is the Crab Claw,
where the would-be buyer approaches the item in question
quickly and ferociously, latching on with the tenacity
of a crab. On hearing the price, the buyer then instantly
lets go and begins to scuttle away in a crustacean manner.
The price will drop as surely as the jaw of the stunned
vendor, who seconds earlier had been confident of an
easy sale. Price gougers won't easily forget the bite
of the Crab.
Eye of Hawk, used for high-end goods,
can turn the strength of the vendor into weakness. As
the object is approached and the haggling begins, the
buyer uses the Eye both to scrutinize the product intensely
and to stare piercingly into the eyes of the vendor
during price negotiation. If the gaze of the seller
is strong, causing the buyer to flinch, all is lost.
But if the buyer is pure of heart, the strongest-willed
vendor will yield.
I hasten to remind you that, as with
all of the Chinese arts involving personal interaction,
bargaining techniques are grounded in a deeper philosophy.
Before brandishing the might of the Crab Claw, one should
determine the necessity of bargaining for every last
jiao. Ayi suspects a few of her foreign friends won't
go hungry if they fall short of the rock-bottom price
by a couple of mao, or even ten kuai for that matter.
It is worth keeping in mind that these sellers are earning
a living and will not sell at a loss. So, the next time
your friends bring you to shame by saying they got the
same shirt in Silk Alley for five yuan less, Ayi recommends
you respond with a heartfelt "Who cares?" Bargain well,
keep smiling and remember: the true warrior wields his
weapons with discretion.