Traveling the world not only allows you to get to know new places and people, but also objects you’ve never seen before. Anyone who’s been to China well knows that many things, even the most common ones, can be very different than what we’re used to. The same goes for a ton of objects that can’t be found anywhere but the Middle Kingdom.
With this article I hope to gather a few ideas about souvenirs you can buy in China. By reading it, you’ll have a few more choices the next time you need to bring some “little gifts” to your friends and family. If you have no intention of visiting China…you can think of something for someone who’s going to bring you, taking advantage of someone else’s trip!
What souvenirs to bring home from China? – Index
When thinking about buying a souvenir, in general there are two levels of “importance”. In some cases you’re just looking for cheap gifts to buy by the dozen without thinking about who will receive them, almost always buying much more than needed just to be sure not to forget anyone (also because they don’t take up too much space in your suitcase since they’re so small); for more “important” people, there’s the tendency to choose something that’s specifically for them and even a little more expensive.
In the first case, magnets are common as well as postcards with pictures of natural landscapes, buildings and other images of places you’ve been such as the Forbidden City (故宫 Gùgōng), the Great Wall (长城 Chángchéng) or The Bund in Shanghai (外灘 Wàitān), just to mention a few of the more “popular” places; keychains, bracelets, necklaces and pens abound in stalls and shops along with small knick-knacks of various types.
You can usually buy a bunch of them for a few yuan at stalls in the shops and markets.
The Chinese often have the habit of “haggling” the price with customers (讨价 tǎojià): a “game” that the vendors know well – which usually involves asking a higher price in the beginning then lowering it until it’s a good sale – for the buyers too, who will hardly ever pay the amount asked without at least trying to get a discount, especially in small shops or when buying from street sellers.
You can find a ton of these little objects on “tourist” streets and at the airports; if you spend a few days in one place you’ll certainly discover a few hidden shops where you can not only buy cheap reproductions, but also unique products, often at lower prices than in the areas more frequented by travelers.
Many products having to do with a particular place, such as a temple or historic building, can be bought at the place itself or nearby, even though you’ll often find them in other, less central shops, identical and at much cheaper prices… buy them only if you don’t have the chance to look around for a bit, or if you find them at a reasonable price (they often cost so little that there’s no point in “haggling”!).
Obviously, there are some products that are more “typically Chinese” than others. Some objects can become a souvenir simply because of the Chinese characters that “adorn” them (it’s just writing but it has an exotic mystique), or because their shape is slightly different than what we are used to; however we can’t deny, or example, that something in the shape of a panda (熊猫 xióngmāo) automatically brings China to mind, as does the Chinese dragon (龙 lóng) which is found on lots of things and for a long time represented the power of the Emperor of the Heavenly Empire, bamboo (竹子 zhúzi) and the plum blossom (梅花 méihuā), the Chinese national flower.
Another typical Chinese image (as well as Asia in general) is of the Buddha (佛 Fó), specifically the “smiling Buddha”, who is fat and bald and often surrounded by children, which is a famous symbol of good luck.
Sometimes he is considered to be the representation of monk who once actually existed, Budai (布袋Bùdài, literally “bag of rags”), other times as the reincarnation of the future Buddha, Maitreiya (弥勒佛 Mílèfó). You’ll find them in all shapes and sizes, from the cheapest plastic versions to gorgeous ones made of jade and precious materials.
Really easy to find and always well-received are coins 通宝 (tōngbǎo), round and with a square hole in the middle, they are often sold in “strings” tied by a red thread or as charms for a few yuan. In this case too there are cheap ones as well as ancient, valuable ones – but you’ll probably not want to spend a lot on something that’s so easy to counterfeit, unless you’re a connoisseur.
Lastly, in almost every city in China there are “counterfeit markets” 假货市场 (jiǎ huò shìchǎng), where you can find “knockoff” clothing, shoes and technology at low prices (you can find more information here). Obviously giving someone a “knockoff” gift isn’t very classy… but at times you can find amusing Chinese versions, such as “Abibas” T-shirts!
In these markets you can buy lots of T-shirts and bags that aren’t necessarily name-brand but with nice illustrations or typical Chinese decorations, which may not be as cheap as the little things we talked about up until now and are rather bulky, but are always a nice gift.
What we’ve considered up to now are classic souvenirs that, in various forms, can be found just about everywhere. There are however a few types of objects that can only be found in China or their Chinese versions are not found elsewhere, which can make them excellent gift ideas.
It’s well-known that in China they eat with chopsticks (筷子 kuàizi), which substitute for our forks (there are spoons of various shapes for soups and other dishes). You can find cheap ones in wood or without any decoration, like those used for eating, but also extremely beautiful ones with the upper part painted with typical themes or covered in gold.
Giving chopsticks as gifts, among other things, is also good luck according to Chinese tradition, which says that gifts should always be made in even numbers, to wish for “double” luck. For this reason decorated chopsticks, sometimes made of precious materials and sold in elegant boxes, are also a common gift among the Chinese.
China is one of the largest producers and consumers of tea (茶chá). It is found in lots of varieties, in different tastes and colors, fermented or simply dried. They’re often sold as leaves (茶叶 cháyè), gathered into bags (as are ones in the West, but without a filter) in boxes, or “compacted” into solid shapes (沱茶 tuóchá), usually disks.
The most widespread variety in China is green tea (绿茶 lǜchá), the most natural type; the one closest to Western tastes is the black tea (红茶 hóngchá, which literally means “red tea”); the friends that you bring green tea might find it too “strange” and not appreciate it that much for its strong leaf flavor that’s very different than the tea we’re used to.
There are lots of other varieties: if the subject interests you, you can read this article.
You’ll also find lots of flavored teas (花茶 huāchá), which can be a mix of tea and other leaves and flowers (jasmine tea is probably the most famous type), or even just infusions of other plants without a trace of tea.
Here too there are teas that you can drink every day, which are quite cheap, and found in any supermarket, to valuable leaves that are sometimes very expensive; a piece of advice I can give you is that regardless of the price, look for a flavor that isn’t too “exotic” if you want to give it as a gift to someone who doesn’t know their tea, while if you have friends that are fans of this drink you can go wild and look for unique varieties to have them taste them.
Remember that Chinese tea is not taken with sugar and in this sense is far from the peach tea that we sip in the summer… perhaps for this reason many people I’ve given it to as a gift didn’t like it all that much! One last piece of advice: tea leaves can be reused by adding hot water, for a lighter drink to sip during the day.
Many Chinese prepare their tea in a thermos in the morning and with the same leaves, drink tea until the evening just by adding additional water.
Remember that tea is an important tradition for the Chinese: not just the leaves themselves but also cups and teapots, so just like all objects used in tea ceremonies, they can make excellent gifts which are appreciated by both connoisseurs and the Chinese themselves.
Staying “at the table”, China offers an enormous variety of “strange” foods that would make excellent souvenir ideas.
However not all of them are suitable for putting in your suitcase or preserving for a long time; candies like the famous “White rabbit” (大白兔奶糖 Dàbáitù Nǎitáng) and chewing gum are both very nice and cheap ideas that can accompany small gifts like postcards and keychains while keeping to a tiny budget; you can also buy them at airports after going through security, paying a little bit more but avoiding problems with the weight of your bags.
Snack cakes and other packaged foods can be a great idea, even if you have to pay attention to when you put them in your suitcase: if it doesn’t have a solid package, they could get smushed.
A unique idea, if you’re thinking about a gift for a friend who loves cooking, are the ingredients that can only been found in China, such as many types of rice, sauces and spices such as the famous Sichuan peppers (花椒 huājiāo).
It’s very hard to bring exotic plants with you, but you can easily buy seeds at the market, even though weather conditions are different and they might not grow. Keep in mind though that almost everything in China is slightly different than it is back home: so even “Chinese” tomatoes. eggplants or squash can be a nice discovery for someone who has a “green thumb”.
I only had success with the tomatoes; of the dozens of different flower seeds I’ve bought, only the vanilla grew, but then almost immediately withered (but maybe it’s because I’m not a great gardener…).
For fans of Chinese culture, a great choice is a kit of everything you need for the art of calligraphy, from brushes (毛笔 máobǐ) to carved decorated chops (墨块 mò kuài), to valuable paper (宣纸 Xuānzhǐ) and ink stones (砚 yàn), which are also finely decorated.
There are beautiful decorated boxes with the “four treasures of the literary man’s room” (文房四宝 wénfángsìbǎo). Some are little more than small knick-knacks that contain miniature versions of the “four treasures”.
The treasures are the brush (笔bǐ), ink (墨mò), paper (纸zhǐ) and inkwell (砚yàn), but obviously the paper isn’t put into the box; often though there’s a little decorated jar for water, a little spoon to mix it and a seal with a cup of cinnabar which you need in order to use it (I’ll speak about it more fully later on).
Obviously there are also bigger, more expensive boxes, with other “real” and usable tools, and for the majority of the objects we’re listing there are also luxury alternatives.
The four treasures, taken singularly, are also great gift ideas. Brushes always have the classic shape of Chinese brushes, with a rounded point, so even the cheapest ones will be appreciated by fans of painting and design; ink bars are decorated in elegant motifs (it often seems a shame to use them!) and they come in all shapes, sizes and prices.
The same goes for inkstones, which weigh a lot (keep that in mind when you travel), making them rather unsuitable for transport; the same thing applies to paper, which is sold in very big sheets that can be easily ruined, but which can also be bought bound in notebooks of various sizes.
Above I referred to seals (印章 yìnzhāng) and cinnabar (朱砂 zhūshā), which are also objects from Chinese tradition. The seal is similar to a stamp, carved in hard semi-precious materials; they usually have the characters of the owner’s name engraved, but they can also be personalized with proverbs or characters with a specific meaning.
It takes a bit of time to engrave them, so after finding a master in one of the calligraphy or souvenir shops, you’ll have to wait at least an hour. On many tourist roads there are shops where you can have it done in fifteen minutes, but obviously the quality is not the same.
Usually characters are engraved in an “archaic” style that is very beautiful to look at. The object itself can be made of different materials, shapes and colors, and the cost changes accordingly, but usually hovers around a hundred yuan for a not too valuable version.
Along with a seal, you’ll also need a jar of cinnabar, a type of red ink that itself will cost about a hundred yuan depending on the package and the quality of the color.
I received a seal with my name on it as a gift and I was thrilled! If you want to learn more about Chinese names, or want to find the Chinese name of someone you want to give a seal as a gift, there’s an article here.
Really pretty are the “penholders” (笔架 bǐjià) in wood, which can be easily dismantled for transport, are very light and can cost less than a hundred yuan but can also cost more than a thousand if made out of valuable, finely inlaid wood. Obviously it’s not a gift for everyone!
A nice idea for a gift is to give a water cloth along with a brush to practice writing the characters (水写布 shuǐxiěbù). This is a rectangular gray cloth that is used to “balance” the characters when writing; dipping the brush in the water, the cloth changes color, then returns to its original color once it dries, allowing you to endlessly reuse it. Children (and not just them) love it!
Pictures and Calligraphy
After having seen the “tools” used by Chinese artists, we can’t fail to mention their works. Although watercolors and calligraphy might seem pricey, walking among the markets you can find prices that are truly reasonable. Often, you can see the artist or calligraphy master at work, make a video of it and bring home the result of their work!
The most typical ones are the calligraphy scrolls (墨宝 mòbǎo), landscapes (山水画 shānshuǐhuà) and the painted fans (画扇 huà shàn), which are decidedly “Chinese” in appearance and make for beautiful souvenirs. You can find hand-made ones that are more expensive, but also prints for a lower price.
Another type of artwork that you may decide to bring home are papercuts (剪纸 jiǎnzhǐ): a sheet of fancy, decorated paper meticulously and patiently carved into traditional figures, Taoist divinities or the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac.
One of the most famous products coming from China is silk (丝绸 sīchóu). You can buy headscarves and various types of clothing, even if prices are often a bit high, as well as rolls of silk (if you have friends that like to sew, it could be a great idea).
Quite valuable and extremely elegant are the qipao (旗袍 qípáo), traditional women’s clothing that are also “Chinese” men’s shirts. These are rather expensive gifts and a bit difficult to give unless the person you’re buying it for has your same measurements; but it could be the perfect gift… for yourself!
It may be commonplace that in China technology “costs less”, but up to a certain point. What costs less are the gadgets “from the stalls” such as mini fans, power banks, phone covers, headphones and so on, while phones and computers, unless they are refurbished or not name-brand, cost about the same as abroad. Among other things, computers and phones will have a Chinese operating system, and if you’re not an expert it will be a bit difficult to change it… even if you change the language, many settings will still stay in Chinese.
Stores such as the chain Miniso (with all the “imitations” derived from their success) are now found everywhere, and are true paradise for these types of products as well as an endless supply of inexpensive trinkets and cute but useless things. I’d say it’s an almost obligatory stop when you’re looking for souvenirs!
A really unique and enjoyable product is the jianzi (毽子 jiànzi), similar to a badminton shuttlecock, formed by feathers connected at a rubber base with weights, usually made of tin discs. You’ll surely have seen the Chinese, young and old, playing with them in the streets, kicking them and “juggling” them alone or passing it between each other, trying to intercept them in the most spectacular ways.
You can buy them “unassembled”, in plastic bags that cost just a few yuan and weigh practically nothing. If the intended recipient doesn’t want to play with it, it can always make for an unusual and curious trinket!
To conclude, here’s a pair of ideas that could prove useful.
When you have to put something in your suitcase that could break (including painted scrolls or valuable paper), I found it very helpful to use potato chip tubes (like Pringles), even putting one on top of the other, which are strong and light enough and can be easily fit into a suitcase among your clothes.
Another cute idea I found very helpful is to make little packages that contain a few of all the little cheap gifts I mentioned at the beginning – keychains, postcards, as well as tea bags or hi-tech toys, wrapping them in decorative paper with a Chinese motif (they’re really pretty and it goes without saying, are really cheap).
If you visit several cities and places in China, you could get something different in each place then put them all together: for a minimal cost you can bring your friends a “piece” of your trip, and when you hand them the package, it will certainly make a great occasion to tell them about your experience!
I hope that after having read this article you’ll be able to better find the perfect gift for every occasion! Do you have other gift ideas to share with us? Leave us a comment!
[Photo Credits (Creative Commons CC0): Pixabay.com]