The Game

No, not that game. (But “Go Lions!” Wait, they didn’t make it, again? Damn. I’m a little behind the times here in China, if you couldn’t tell.)

In a shopping mall in Shanghai

Shopping mall, Shanghai

Back home there’s a radio talk show host my father listens to called Dennis Prager, and one of Prager’s cardinal rules of shopping—derived I believe from the Jewish Talmud—is that it’s unethical to ask the price of an item you know you are not going to buy. In other words, you can waste as much of the shopkeeper’s time as you want if you believe you might buy something. But if you absolutely know you’re not and you waste his time anyway, you are to be brought to the town square and stoned to death by your peers.

It’s hard to walk the straight-and-narrow checkout line in China, where shopping is an all-in, adrenaline-pumping, full contact sport. It would help if some of the prices were labeled, but lacking that, I broke Dennis Prager’s cardinal rule a couple of months ago at the Shanghai jiade (fake) market. To get an idea of the starting prices in one of the shops, I inquired as to the cost of a DVD I already owned. For the fourth season of the tv series Fringe, the shopkeeper quoted me over twice what I had paid for all four seasons of the same show. As I walked away, the shopkeeper called out “Wait! How much you pay! Come back.” And when I wouldn’t come back, she called with a smile, “Come back, you are playing Game!”


Lijiang sign

I had often heard the word ‘Game’ used to describe the buying process in China, but usually by the waigoren (foreigners), not by the vendors themselves. Here’s the game she was referring to:

You haggle with the vendor until the vendor reaches his or her lowest possible price. At which point if you don’t want to pay the still inflated price, you have to actually walk out of the store or away from the vendor. Now of course, if the shopkeeper doesn’t call you back, you risk extreme loss of face if you try to return and buy the item. So if you really want the item, some are tempted not to leave. But in all likelihood the shopkeeper will call you back. Although the savvy ones will wait until you are actually down the row about to enter another shop. She’ll call you back into the shop wherein you will begin the haggling process afresh with new parameters established.

Repeat this process about five times and while you may have wasted thirty minutes of your life, you may also have reached the “Chinese” price of the item. Probably not though because, unless you knew better, the first figure you pulled out of your mao zi (I think that means hat) was well above the Chinese price.


NOT the Shanghai jiade market. Local fruit market, Yunnan Province, near Yuanyang.

I’ve heard the first price a shopkeeper quotes a foreigner is generally between four and ten times the Chinese price. But the best advice I’ve heard—given to me by a fellow tourist in Shanghai—is to completely disregard any price the shopkeeper first throws at you. They could quote a million rmb if they wanted to. Really, what would they lose? Instead, volley back with one-half of what you eventually want to pay, even if you know she can’t possibly sell it at your lowball bid. At this point the shopkeeper should act so offended by your first bid that she says she does not even want to bargain with you.

If not, you have bid too high.

“No, I am not playing game,” I tried to explain to the DVD merchant whose calls followed my down the hall to the other end of the inside market, “I am really, truly walking away.”

Her calls followed me across the market until I reached a shop with a jacket I wanted to buy.


“Sky City” shopping mall, Jinghong, Yunnan Province

“Normally…” said, the new shopkeeper, typing “1200” into her calculator…”but for you,” … she typed in “900”. I suppose I should have been honored to receive a 300 rmb markdown just for being me, but I had already seen the real thing offered in an upscale, legit West Nanjing (expat central) department store for 800 rmb ($140). And that was precisely why I had come here. I wanted to pay 240 rmb ($40), so I took my fellow traveler’s advice and came out with 120, even though it was one-tenth of her original. We ended up at 220. It was below what I would have paid, but it must have been great for the vendor because when I excused myself to go to the atm for cash—figuring I could always stop into another store to see if the price was on the mark—the shopkeeper followed me to the ATM across the mall with the jacket like a self-propelled i.v. pole.

The jacket served me quite well in my next stop, freezing Beijing…

The Rosetta Stone of Chinese Shopping

The Rosetta Stone of Chinese Shopping

[Above: the Rosetta Stone of Chinese Shopping. For weeks I’d seen these mysterious, indecipherable sales signs across China. A number up to nine followed by the character 折. One afternoon in Guilin, shoppers were going crazy inside this clothes store, and lo and behold, its sign finally explained the code in English:

In China the numbers signify a tenth, not a percentage or 100th. So 3 means 3/10ths, or 30%. Also, they discount in the opposite direction we do. So 3 followed by the character 折 (meaning “discount, rebate, or fold”) actually means 70% off.]

About sinestor

Originally from Los Angeles/Long Beach, California, I'm currently spending a year exploring the amazing world known as China. My main website is Every Day's a Holiday.


  1. The Chinese Dennis Prager wouldn’t be upset. It is how shopping is done with waigoren (foreigners) in China. Their customs are different. Lets see your new jacket.

  2. lisanestorwells

    In Canada, they’re much more intractable about the pricing. Look on the back of any item that comes from outside the country and you’ll probably see something like: $14.99 US ($19.99). Even when the US and CN dollars are at par. There is no haggling, bargaining, or playing any games. You’re Canadian, you suck, you pay more, end of story. Want a bargain? Go drive south for an hour and deal with the border crossing! And don’t even get me started about Netflix!

  3. Remember, a while back $19.99 Canadian was less than $14.99 US. But not so much anymore. And it looks like the price tags aren’t keeping up with the new reality.

    As for pricing in China, sometimes I prefer going to a department store where I know how much things cost. Believe it or not there’s a Walmart in Xiaguan, right near Dali. Back home I would avoid Walmart, but here it feels like a brief vacation to a strange, faraway land where I understand the rules.

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