Head Straight to the Source
While you might find the same traditional crafts and goods in every Chinese city (fans, brushes, dolls), each originates from one or more regions. Go there, and you’ll find the best quality. In Xi’an, the ancient street of Shuyuanmen is a good place to pick up calligraphy brushes from art-equipment stalls. Or, if you’re in search of hand-painted decorative fans, it’s worth the three-hour trip from Guilin along the Li River to the small village of Fuli, where you’ll find Fan Street.
Know When to Fake It
Sometimes it’s best not to buy the real thing. Beijing’s massive Panjiayuan flea market is chockablock with ceramics, furniture, beads, curios, and collectibles, many of them affordable, attractive—and fake. Except for the jewelry, there are very few real antiques, but that doesn’t make the experience of wandering the aisles any less enjoyable.
Get Off the Beaten Track
Often, the best finds really are worth the search: Tianjin, 80 miles southeast of Beijing, is where you’ll come across the warehouse of antique Chinese furniture expert C. L. Ma, with both restored and unrestored pieces, as well as quality reproductions.
Bargain at the Right Times
Bargaining is expected in markets and well-touristed areas, though not in shopping malls or high-end boutiques. Patience and a sense of humor are key. Offer 25 to 50 percent of the opening price, and don’t worry about going too low, as a vendor will never sell at a loss. At a shop like Spin, in Shanghai, a stylish, contemporary warehouse space with pared-down simple ceramics, prices will be fixed.
Talk to Those in the Know
There’s nothing better than first-hand information from an expert. Chris Buckley, author of Tibetan Furniture, can trace the history of the handwoven carpets and centuries-old textiles in his new Torana Carpets gallery in the Shunyi district of Beijing.