Buying From China

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How to import from China without being cheated


Most antiques offered for sale from within China are fakes or copies.   Antiques are reproduced by the boatload.  They're sold in all markets on every street corner.

 Off and on, I've spent years teaching in China.  I've seen the markets with their tray loads of antiques, stamps, coinage and all.  Market places are full of rare Chinese coins and curios by the tray load.  There's carved stonework and vases ... You name it, it's there somewhere.  They sell them alongside the vegetables. 

Most old things were destroyed during Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution.  That's a simple fact. He told the population to 'destroy the old'.  Those old antique clocks and tables you see advertised on ebay .. believe me, they're not old.  They're not antiques. They may be 20- 30 years old perhaps or even copies of older things.  It's  actually illegal to sell/send overseas anything that is of antiquity or historical value.  I once went into a small workshop that was producing 4000 year old stoneware pots. The guy selling them genuinely didn't understand they weren't genuine antiques.  They looked like the true originals so they must be valuable?

Bought in a Nanjing market selling curios and bric a brac etc .. The sort of place you just know that you'll find a bargain .. It looks like Jade.  An antique bargain!  But no .. this is the local 'rain flower stone' that looks like jade.  They make them for the tourists.  I paid about £1 each for them - the entwined serpents and the horse. Perhaps I can sell them on Ebay for a small fortune?  Actually .. 'jade' covers a whole spectrum.  There's expensive rare jade and jade they sell to the tourists; just like onyx and alabaster are from opposite ends of the same rock.


Of course there are old things to be bought on every market stall, though do bear in mind that in China, old equates to around twenty - thirty years.  Yes, there are genuine coins and all that in the boxes of junk/bric a brac, but they have no real antique value in the true sense of the meaning; interesting perhaps, but of no monetary value.  It's like going to a car boot sale. You can pick up something interesting for just a few pounds.

So who's selling all this stuff?  Well, a lot of it is down to 'foreign teachers' -  teachers from English speaking countries who are teaching in China and see the low priced and often counterfeit goods like dvds  ...  and perhaps in the rush of optimism where the lure of a quick buck beckons, they put items up for sale.  Perhaps they don't realise.  Who knows?

There's the out and out con merchants who know what they are trying to sell has no value.  That's people of all nationalities.  As a rule of thumb, a genuine antique from China would cost the same as it would in the UK or USA. It's just that when we look at Asia, we are blinded by the same mentality of finding a £1 bargain in a car boot sale that can be later sold for hundreds ... ?


Items such as genuine Gucci handbags come with a certificate to say that the article is real.  Imitation Gucci (or anything else...) can come with a certificate to say that it is genuine.  That's a  fake certificate for a fake item.  The harsh truth is that in China you can buy a fake certificate for anything.  Outside of universities there's pieces of paper plastered on walls offering a fake degree.  The place is littered with them.  On street corners you see the pieces of paper stuck on walls offering 'to make you any certificate you need.'  Want a Chinese driving licence without having the bother of a driving test? 

The Scammers

There is no such thing as 'bargain' and very cheap electrical goods such as MP4 players etc to be bought in China (or any other Asian country).  Let's clear that point up straight away.  Item such as MP4 players, computers and digital cameras are cheaper in Europe.  Most computer components are manufactured in Korea and Japan.  The components are assembled in China, so even if that computer says 'made in China' it probably wasn't.

If you stumble across a dubious website offering exceptionally low-priced electrical goods or someone offering to supply low priced electrical goods then warning bells should immediately ring.  Photos are liable to have been taken from genuine manufacturer's  websites.  If you part with any money then in all reality, that money has gone for good. Though you are actually more likely to come across dubious items for sale on the likes of Ebay as opposed to on an actual website.

The scammer is likely to ask for money up front and is more than likely to be outside of your country of residence.  The scammer will probably also be offering the goods at an unbeatable not-to-be-missed price which puts pressure on you to buy before someone else snaps up the bargain.

Get a 'feel' for the seller.  If they claim to have huge stocks of everything in China, treat it with disbelief.  Email them and ask them if they have something like a buoyancy aid for a disabled dolphin.  The con merchant will try and sell you anything that doesn't exist and then disappear.  The genuine seller won't mind becoming involved in a two-way exchange of information, however long it takes.

The Genuine Sellers

Genuine sellers of Chinese goods do so in 2 main ways:

  • Importing the goods themselves and then reselling on Ebay.   They may even have their own Ebay shop with all the safeguards that go with it such as feedback.  Like a couple of friends of mine they import goods which are stored in spare bedrooms and lock-up garages while they're advertised online.
  •  The agent.  Quite often this will be somebody who has a knowledge of China having lived/worked there.  The agent keeps no stock either in his own country or China. The genuine agent will arrange the goods and export for you and charge you a little bit of commission for doing it.  You can get a 'feel' of an agent by their website and by their responses to your questions.

I Want To Import Goods From China

What does China offer?  Well, everything else to say the least.  The more you buy the cheaper the order becomes.   Computers and mobile phones cost more in China than they do in the west.  Hand produced carvings and chests from Dongyang in Zhejiang province are good value.  There's carved stone from Nanjing and silk and freshwater pearls direct from the factories in Suzhou.  Engineering tools, electric scooters and plant equipment are very inexpensive when compared to western prices.  Often the Chinese manufacturers concerned have had many years experience of manufacturing these items.

Engineering equipment, compressors, lathes, tools, electric bikes ... all good value

You need a reputable agent.  Somebody who will arrange your bulk order to be shipped to you.  Somebody who will take care of the hassle of shipping/postage -  and somebody you must pay.  Somebody who will take care of all the paperwork imposed by  Chinese customs.  If you don't speak and write Chinese don't even consider trying to make your own arrangements.

Chinese Manufacturers

It can be problematic for the reason  that Chinese manufacturers never advertise their prices.  Look on any Chinese website for a price - none given. There are a couple of reasons for this, one of them being it's a very cultural way of doing business.  There's meetings and meals to discuss prices and whilst to the western mind it feels as though you are going round in circles and getting nowhere, in China it is the norm.

Try phoning a manufacturer in China to ask how much certain goods cost.  You won't be given an on the spot price.  It doesn't happen.  Labour charges in China are cut to the bone and Chinese manufacturers seemingly have a dread of their competitors finding out how much they are selling particular products for.  Yes, it seems strange to us, but you need to understand the cultural differences.  That's where the likes of independent agents such as or fit into the picture. People who can arrange it all for you.

If you're serious about importing from China, there's really only two ways of going about it.  Use an agent or visit the country yourself. If you have any thoughts about making your own phone calls/emails/arrangements to save costs, then some sound advice is to forget it. You'll end up going round in circles going nowhere fast.

Or you can always visit the 'export' city of Yiwu, in Zhejiang Province.  It's the export centre of China. It's a 5 hour train/bus ride from Shanghai .  Yiwu is geared up to trade price bulk orders and there are export agents everywhere within the centre.From fishing rods to diesel generators, Yiwu has it all.  It's like the giant indoor shopping centre in Newcastle - the Metro Centre -  except that the small shops are all owned by major producers and used to display goods at trade/bulk prices. I visited the place when I was teaching at a nearby college.

Part of the export centre at Yiwu -  a vast place.  Traders from all over the world visit it to buy in bulk.  Inside the centre there are export agents who will arrange the shipping of bulk orders.

There's also Sanyan, on Hainan island to the south of China.  I've never been to Hainan but I'm told it's good for 'cheap crap'.  You can also search the Internet for what you want .. 'welding equipment China' to locate a particular company.  Though do remember you're unlikely to see any prices advertised. Many of the staff are ex -students who speak English to varying degrees. Or not, as the case may be.

One of my ex-students in the 'vase shop' in Yiwu export centreEach vase is a sample of what the manufacturer produces.  Approximate price per individual vase would be  £4 or less .  Yiwu has everything from artists brushes at 'coppers each', electronics, knives and swords .. .. well, you name it and it's there.

Buying a single item from China? It's probably not worth it unless it's something that you specifically want for yourself.  If you're buying in bulk the cost of the order goes down as the number of items increases.  However, the negotiating about the price must be done FIRST.  You need - and it is strongly emphasised- need somebody to make enquiries on your behalf, even if it just done via the telephone.  Most breakdowns and misunderstandings are actually due to cultural and language differences. 

Dongyang City, Zhejiang Province:

An area noted for wood carvings and woodwork Some of the carvings are huge - a couple of metres tall.  The city also produces carved chests and numerous other items of wood carvings.  Most wood in China is softwood, the simple reason being that most of the country was deforested during the cultural revolution and afterwards.  Hardwood is quite rare and expensive.



Sending cash in an envelope is probably the cheapest way of getting money to China.  It's also the best way of ensuring the envelope doesn't reach its destination. A high proportion of letters go astray somewhere in the system.  The Chinese do not have postal addresses as we understand them.  Chinese homes do not have letter boxes or even postal deliveries to the door.  Mail is sent to their workplace address or remains at the local post office until collected.  It's vastly different from what we are accustomed to.

An airmail letter takes at least 10 days to get to its destination, perhaps 3 weeks depending on the actual location.  Sending the email letter 'international signed for' costs just over twice the price of ordinary airmail postage and is a good way of ensuring that the letter does reach the person to whom it is intended.  Be aware that cash even in 'international signed for' is not insured.  If you send a cheque it can take a whole month for it to clear, plus all the handling charges incurred by the recipient.  Most Chinese have never seen a cheque.

Using a money transfer service like western union incurs fees.  Currently they charge you £12 for wiring £100 to China.  Unless you have wired the money in Chinese currency (Yuan) the recipient will also be charged about the same amount to convert it.  Don't forget to take those handling charges into account. I'm told Paypal is much cheaper for transferring money.

Big Businesses

Big businesses prefer letters of credit or bankers drafts.  Usually you have to pay as a deposit a percentage of the order when it is placed and the balance before the order will be shipped.  The business concerned may have an export agent who works on their behalf.  The shipping/export agents fees are in addition to the cost of the goods.

It would be very unwise to send the full amount for a large order direct to a supplier/manufacturer. A reputable agent will hold the money on your behalf, making staged payments to the supplier and also keeping tabs on progess.


The mark-up price of Chinese goods in the UK is phenomenal.  My friend who is married to a Chinese girl imports clothes and jewellery   - he pays £4,500 a month rental for 3 'barrows' (stalls) at indoor shopping centres throughout the UK.   Recently I bought an 18 speed racing bike whilst teaching in China.  It cost £28.  The same bike in the UK costs £115   Much depends on the type of goods you order of course, but the mark up (profit) per item can vary from 60% upwards.

Shipping Costs

1.  By Air

Unless it's a small single item that you particularly want, forget about air.  Recently I posted three dvds in polythene wrappers as one small parcel from China to England. It cost £16.  On top of this there's the hassle of getting it sent.  The first thing China Post do is open the packet to see what is inside. Then they insist you buy one of their boxes or padded envelopes. 

2. Sea/Export

Export charges are not shown by Chinese manufacturers.  Export is usually handled by an agent, though sometimes the company concerned have their own people who will arrange it (at extra cost).

As a general rule of thumb according to a friend who imports from China, it costs between £50-£100 per cubic metre in shipping charges to have something shipped to the UK (takes 3 months to arrive).  Of course much depends on the size, weight and quantity, plus the destination country and port.

Example Prices

Good examples are the electric scooters and 125cc motorcycles you see in 'More Than One Wheel City' shops. A 125 cc motorcycle will cost you £1100-£1300.  The same bike in China is about £300, depending on the model.  Those mountain bikes starting at £100 cost £15 -£28 in China.

The Downside

The downside is of course that many people are importing from China and reselling.  The market place is now awash with jewellery and clothes in particular. That's the actual street markets I'm talking about.  With the recent hike in petrol costs, a friend who has his own market stall business is thinking about quitting after 6 years of doing ok.  Petrol costs, hotel accommodation costs, bad weather keeping people indoors, always being away from home at markets up and down the country .. 

The Upside

Another friend gave up his market stall business for exactly the same reasons mentioned above.  He has tens of thousands of pounds worth of goods imported from China which he sells online (on Ebay, funnily enough).  He does very well online, thank you.  Though he would take great pains to point out to you that whilst selling via Ebay is profitable, it is also extremely time consuming.  You have to be dedicated and realise that it is a full time job and not an 'interesting sideline.'

A Market street in Yantai.  The stalls really do sell everything from vegetables to copied dvds and 'curios'.  It's a way of life

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