That’s why every time I visit my family back in the UK, my mom sends me a huge list of things to buy for her in Shanghai. Luckily, I love 购物 (gòu wù) – shopping, so I’m happy to help!
And shopping is a favorite weekend pastime in of almost everyone in my neighbourhood, from the determined 阿姨 (ā yí) – aunties - rummaging in the markets for a bargain, to the fashionable twenty-somethings hanging out in the mall.
And, if you’re shopping in China (or in Chinatowns around the world), speaking Chinese maximizes your chances of getting exactly what you want.
In this blog post, I’ll introduce the essential words and phrases you need to shop in Chinese.
How (and where) to haggle
That meant I massively overpaid when buying tailor-made shirts in the market, but confused shopkeepers by trying to negotiate the price of vegetables.
Gradually, I learned a basic rule of thumb – in general, only negotiate if there is no price tag and you don’t eat or drink whatever it is you’re buying.
The most common places to negotiate are markets selling clothes, handbags, and small electronics products. In these places, speaking Chinese shows you have local knowledge and massively increases your chances of getting a bargain.
Start by asking “多少钱 (duō shǎo qián) – how much is this?” Then, use “太贵了(tài guì le) – it’s too expensive” and “可以便宜一点吗 (kě yǐ pián yi yì diǎn ma) – can you make it a little cheaper?” to get the best price.
For the ultimate demonstration of haggling in Chinese, there's nothing better than watching Mama Cheng - Yangyang's mom - negotiating with a shoe salesperson in Beijing.
Check out these lessons in our Upper Intermediate Conversational Course to see her in action, with a clear breakdown of all the grammar and vocabulary:
How to address the shopkeeper
In a Chinese Mom-and-Pop stores, instead of “Ms.” or “Mister”, the owner is addressed as 老板 (lǎo bǎn) – boss or 老板娘 – (lǎo bǎn niáng) (female) boss.
Meanwhile, in a chain store or mall with lots of staff, where it’s not clear who the 老板 (lǎo bǎn) is, store assistants are addressed as 帅哥 (shuài gē) – handsome guy or 美女 (měi nǚ) – pretty girl.
It feels pretty weird at first to call every store assistant “handsome” or “pretty”, but trust me it’s polite in Chinese!
Check out this blog post for your ultimate guide to "How to Address Anyone You Meet in Chinese".
Key measure words for shopping
Knowing when to use certain measure words is one of the trickiest aspects of Chinese, and one of the most common mistakes by non-native speakers!
For example, during my first trip to China I went to a small local restaurant and was excited to be able to recognize the character 鱼 (yú) – fish on the menu. I ordered what I thought would be a portion of fish. When an entire large fish arrived just for me, I was shocked and quite embarrassed!
I hadn’t noticed the measure word on the menu was 条 (tiáo) – a measure word used for long, thin things (like whole fish), instead of 份 (fèn) – portion!
When shopping for food and clothes, the most important measure words are 份 (fèn) – portion, 件 (jiàn) item, and 双 (shuāng) – pair.
For example, a portion of noodles is 一份面条 (yí fèn miàn tiáo), a shirt is 一件衬衫 (yí jiàn chèn shān), and a pair of shoes is 一双鞋子 (yì shuāng xié zi).
Eating out and paying the bill
When you enter, ask for the 菜单 (cài dān) – menu (literally “dish list”).
* By the way - if you haven't seen it already, this amazing live hangout and learn how to read a Chinese menu is a must watch:
And, when it’s time to pay up, ask the 帅哥 (shuài gē) or 美女 (měi nǚ) for the 买单 (mǎi dān) – (literally “buy list”).
Also, remember that many stores and restaurants in China don’t accept MasterCard, American Express, or Visa. (Read our guide to using credit cards in China here).
Instead, prepare to use 现金 (xiàn jīn) – cash (literally “current gold”), 微信 (wēi xìn) – WeChat pay, or 支付宝 (zhī fù bǎo) – Alipay (China’s ApplePay equivalents).
How to buy cooking ingredients
Most locals in Shanghai don’t get their ingredients from the supermarket. Instead, they go to large food markets with separate stalls for vegetables, meat, eggs, tofu, noodles (and any other Chinese ingredient you can imagine!).
This lesson from our Upper Intermediate Conversational Course, where Yangyang and Mama Cheng visit a market in Beijing, is an amazing glimpse into shopping in a Chinese market. You'll hear them chatting with the seller, and even talking about the etiquette of sampling before you buy:
Here, you need to tell the sellers how much of a particular ingredient you want. But, you can’t use kilograms or pounds. Instead, Chinese market sellers use 斤 (jīn) – 500 grams.
So if you want 500 grams of beef, ask for “一斤牛肉 (yì jīn niú ròu)”, and if you want 1 kilogram, ask for “两斤牛肉 (liǎng jīn niú ròu) – two 斤 (jīn) of beef”.
Or, if you don’t feel like cooking but don’t want to eat out, you can order 外卖 (wài mài) takeout online, or ask for 打包 (dǎ bāo) – food to go in a restaurant. In fact, many of my Chinese friends don’t cook at all, and even order a 外卖 (wài mài) lunch delivered to their office door every day!
Nervous about picking up the phone and ordering 外卖 (wài mài)? Check out this blog post for our tips for talking on the phone in Chinese.
How to take advantage of China’s amazing online shopping
Like hundreds of millions of Chinese people, this November 11 I bought a bunch of discounted new clothes online for 双十一 (shuāng shí yī) – Singles’ Day, China’s mega online shopping festival (literally “Double 11”).
(Singles’ Day was originally invented to encourage single people to treat themselves, but became super popular among couples and families too.)
Shopping online is one of the best was to score a bargain in China. But, instead of Amazon or eBay, most Chinese people use 淘宝 (táo bǎo) – TaoBao, a huge online marketplace.
(Check out this blog post for our "Top 10 Chinese Websites You'll Want to Visit").
While using the 淘宝 (táo bǎo) website or app may seem daunting at first, it’s actually pretty simple with a few key words:
• First, 加入购物车 (jiā rù gòu wù chē) – add to shopping cart
• Then, check if your purchase 免运费 (miǎn yùn fèi) – includes free shipping• Finally, 提交订单 (tí jiāo dìng dān) – place your order!
Do you have any stories to share about shopping in Chinese? Have you experienced China’s awesome markets and malls?
Let us know in the comments below!