Four Tips for Bargaining in China

The art of negotiating in the Middle Kingdom.

Posted Aug 07, 2019

When I lived in Tokyo in 1984-85 and again in 2010-11, I never thought of bargaining for anything. I may have balked at the price tags, but I never tried to negotiate a better deal. It simply wasn’t done in that orderly country of exacting rules and rituals, and I knew I had to pay up or go without. 

Cynthia Kim Beglin
Stanley Market in Hong Kong on a rainy day
Source: Cynthia Kim Beglin

But during a short stint living in Hong Kong in 2011, I was reminded that bargaining is an art to the Chinese. While prices are fixed in the fashionable designer stores of Central, where decades of British rule have left their mark, the alleyways between the buildings on even the chicest streets are filled with merchants ready to make a deal. Elsewhere on the island, from the stalls of Stanley Market to the teeming bazaars on “Kowloon side,” bargaining is an inevitable part of the shopping experience. 

Even though I had been to Hong Kong years before, I was out of practice by the time I returned. My most recent bargaining “success” had been buying an overpriced scarf from a Middle Eastern street merchant near the Eiffel Tower a few years before. But in touristy Stanley Market, where hawkers assault the senses and you can’t walk a meter without someone trying to sell you something, I found myself bargaining with a soft-spoken Chinese man. I was drawn as much to the beautiful pastel shawls in his tiny shop as to his kind, serene face in the midst of the surrounding chaos. 

After a few minutes of polite haggling, I could tell he wasn’t happy with how things were proceeding. But when I offered him a higher price, much to my surprise, he countered with a lower one. “You give up too easy,” he quietly admonished me. “You have to be tough. You have to offer me much less, then meet somewhere below the middle. Otherwise, you pay too much.” He shook his head as if I had disappointed him. 

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Fast forward to two years later, when we had been living in Beijing for 18 months. I was in the Yashow Market, where a mix of foreigners, tourists, and only a few Beijingers shopped. Leaving our tailor’s shop, I walked by a booth advertising stylish “100% cashmere” sweaters. “You like?” the vendor nearly shouted at me. “Only 700 yuan, but I give you for 600! It’s 100% cashmere. Okay, okay?”

“Tai gui le!” I exclaimed, well versed by now in the lingo of bargaining and its routine. “Too expensive,” I repeated in English, covertly admiring the cut of the sweater. 

“Okay, okay. You pay 550.” 

I looked doubtfully at the sweater before reaching out to feel the fabric. “That’s not 100% cashmere,” I said, obviously disappointed.

“Yes, yes! Is 100% cashmere!” he insisted, as I started to walk away. “Okay, okay! Is 75% cashmere!” I shook my head and continued walking. “Okay, okay! Is 50% cashmere, but I give you good deal! Come back, lady! Come back!”

I couldn’t help smiling as I turned to address the enthusiastic vendor. “It’s not even 50% cashmere,” I said, shaking my head. 

“Okay, okay," he conceded with a hint of admiration. How much cashmere you want it to be?” he added, still trying earnestly to make a deal. 

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Another day at Hongqiao, aka the Pearl Market – a huge building frequented largely by foreigners and tourists – I walked past a booth selling lovely ties that the owner insisted were silk. While they were made of a nice-ish fabric, I could tell they weren’t silk. When the owner maintained that they were, I insisted that they weren’t and added that I had been living in Beijing for over a year. “Okay lady,” he said, hesitating for barely a moment before he proceeded to chat me up. “They not silk, but you bring your friends when they come from U.S. and maybe they buy my silk ties!” 

He laughed good-naturedly, and I walked away smiling. I couldn’t fault him for trying, and I knew that in China, it was my responsibility to know real silk from fake. If the vendor was clever enough to convince me otherwise, that was my fault, not his. I could count on him to tell me the truth only after we had developed a more established relationship based on mutually beneficial transactions over a longer period of time.

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 Cynthia Kim Beglin
Panjiayuan, aka the Dirt Market, in Beijing
Source: Cynthia Kim Beglin

Some vendors will even go to extremes to make a sale, especially at the enormous Panjiayuan in Beijing, where there are countless booths, and competition is fierce. Also known as the Dirt Market - so-named years ago when people came from the surrounding countryside to display their wares in the dirt of the marketplace - we once took a visiting American friend there to buy some gifts. When he expressed interest in a pair of brass bookends, we tried to negotiate a good price for him, but the seller wouldn’t come down even one yuan, so we advised our friend that they were too expensive. 

After we moved on, we helped our friend through the brief, predictable negotiations that resulted in him purchasing some gifts. But soon the first vendor began to pursue us, thrusting the bookends into our faces at every turn, lowering the price each time, until we had to firmly insist that our friend was no longer interested. As he slouched away, clearly crestfallen, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the man. He looked so dejected.

An hour later, as we were heading for the gate, the bookend vendor suddenly appeared and proudly hurled the brass objects onto the brick street at our feet. Too surprised to react, we stared at the man as he announced his “best price” for his obviously sturdy bookends. Even though our friend had already spent all of his qian, we bought the bookends for him, as the seller had come down so far in price, we couldn’t not buy them. The man would have lost face, and we would have passed up a huge bargain.

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When my mild-mannered Chinese jeweler was out of town and I had to bargain with his stern-faced wife instead, I nodded in sympathy as she pleaded poverty, explaining that she couldn’t afford to reduce her prices more for another visiting friend. I let her save face, ignoring her youngest child playing a game on his expensive iPhone in the corner of her rather well-appointed shop. Never mind that he was her second child, meaning that she and her husband must have been financially penalized for violating the One-Child policy. (At the time, only wealthy Beijingers had more than one child.) I nodded politely before explaining that my friend was on a budget, and we ended up agreeing on a price somewhere in the middle for the pearl baubles in question.

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My Chinese teacher said it best:

“The wisest bargainer is the one who is ready to walk away. Decide what you want and know how much it should cost. Remember that both parties must get at least something they want. Even the person getting the worse part of the deal should not be made to lose face. For example, when you are shopping in Beijing on the street where they 'make the antiques,' do not accuse the shopkeeper of lying to you. Both sides must act respectfully, or else everyone loses, since if there is no respect, there can be no deal."