These are the quintessential Chinese souvenirs.
China is an ultimate shopping destination, with a plethora of designer goods, cultural icons and bargain buys. So what should you be looking out for when you’re wandering around the malls and haggling in markets? This is our short list of quintessential souvenirs and keepsakes and where in this vast country to find them.
Jade is the equivalent of gold in China, and in fact, it can be far more valuable. While it’s been revered for over 5,000 years as both a practical material and ceremonial stone, jade still has resonance in modern Chinese culture. It symbolizes virtue, loyalty, and longevity. One common way to wear jade is as a talisman Pi Xiu (guardian animal) against your Ben Ming Nian, or your unlucky birth zodiac year. The stones luck-bearing and health-bringing qualities make it one of the most sought after gems in the world, and you’ll find it all over China, in varying prices and levels of authenticity. One of the best places to find high quality (and pricey) jade ornaments, jewelry, and stones is on Canton Road, colloquially known as Jade Street, in Hong Kong.
China is home to some of the hottest dishes in the world, and while your first thought might be the numbingly spicy Sichuan pepper, don’t overlook Chongqing’s spicy hot pot, Hubei’s hot and dry noodles, and Hunan’s fiery red chili sauce. Chili fans will love dipping into the spice shops, and sampling the varieties of chili sauce, from peanut-loaded to black bean-infused. Excellent Chili sauces can be found in any grocery store in China, but our favorite gourmet grocer is City’super in the Times Square Mall in Hong Kong.
At one point, Dafen Artist Village was producing 60% of the world’s oil paintings, and though it’s no longer in its heyday and production methods have changed, this is still one of the best places in the world to get customized artwork. These skilled painters can reproduce incredible works for a fraction of the price. Show them a photo of what you want, and have your very own, freshly-painted Monet or Van Gogh within hours.
For nearly 2,000 years, tea in China has been used for medicinal purposes, ceremonial occasions, and everyday quaffing. Yunnan province is home to the famous Pu’er black tea, while Guizhou province is known for its light and fragrant green and white teas. Excellent tea can be purchased in the smallest villages in China, but for a truly singular experience, visit Tea Street in Beijing, a mile-long shopping street with thousands of tea shops.
Silk and the Chinese Knot
Originating in Henan province, silk has been produced in China for over 5,000 years. These days, scarves and robes are commonplace in souvenir markets and stores, and wholesalers like Hangzhou’s China Silk Town export to all over the world. Chinese silk knots are great keepsakes and easy to bring silk home. Traditionally made with lucky red thread, the intricate hand-woven knots gained popularity during the Qing dynasty, but the craft was nearly eradicated in the Cultural Revolution. In recent years, Chinese designers have revived and incorporated aspects of China’s cultural heritage into fashion items: look out for the Chinese knot on buttons or clothes, or the vivid red variety from souvenir shops.
Pearls from oysters and mussels have been farmed in China since the 3rd century AD, and China has been the world’s largest producer of cultured pearls for over three decades. Zhuji, just 40 miles south of Hangzhou, is the birthplace of modern pearl cultivation and a great place to buy these unique gems.
Chopsticks were invented in China over 9000 years ago and while they’ve certainly evolved over time, chopsticks from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) are ubiquitous and what you’ll most likely see in restaurants; they’re wide and square at the top, with a chunky rounded end. When buying chopsticks, keep in mind that the materials, shape, quality, and price point will vary wildly—the world’s most expensive chopsticks are priced at $34,000 and encrusted with 84 high-quality colorless diamonds. Head to Mountain Folkcraft in Hong Kong for a unique antique set of sticks to take home with you, or hit the shops on Nathan Road for something more utilitarian.
The 18th-century Beijing Opera is still one of the cultural highlights of Capital City. Actually originating in Anhui and Hubei province, the opera began as a royal tradition to honor the birthday of the Qianlong Emperor in 1790 but has since been made famous in Beijing. Each mask color represents different character traits: the red mask is usually the hero, while the yellow, green and white masks denote different degrees of villainy.
Depending on when you visit China, and which area you are in, you may want a fan just to keep cool. The folding paper fan you’ll see in almost every souvenir shop all over the country actually originated in Japan, but China has hundreds of other varieties, including the famous sandalwood fans from Jiangsu, the ink-sketched, fire-painting fans from Guangdong region, and the Zhejiang silk fans.