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Shopping in China is furnished with new codes and old rituals

Bargaining culture seems wildly out of kilter with the ultra-modern nature of Chinese retail

We were admiring a large, yoke-back armchair in the Ming style when my companion nodded towards the showroom manager who was looking back at us from behind a red sandalwood table with an upturned flange.

“I’ve told him that you’re interested in Chinese culture and that you are very knowledgeable about it. I said this is just one of the places you were visiting,” she said.

This was in fact the only furniture showroom I was visiting and it can’t have taken long for the manager to work out that I was no expert. I had just found a flat to live in and I wanted a few chairs and tables for not too much money.

I was looking for something traditional and Chinese but antiques were out of the question and this place offered a superior class of reproduction. Using authentic techniques and materials, their workshop made furniture in the style of the Ming and Qing dynasties that was good enough to be used for official events and presentations to visiting dignitaries.


The Ming chairs and tables I was looking at were simple and elegant but they were also practical in view of the climate in Beijing, which is cold and dry in winter and warm and humid in the summer. This can have a calamitous impact on much European wooden furniture, which shrinks in winter and swells in the summer, often falling apart after a year or two.

Traditional Chinese furniture used no nails or glue but was held together by means of elaborate joinery that made it flexible enough to withstand the climate and more easily dismantled than an IKEA flatpack. I took a shine to a pair of horseshoe-back chairs and a tall pedestal table but my companion had issued a firm warning against allowing such feelings to show.

“I suggest you don’t put in an order and don’t express any interest. That’s the strategy for a better price later,” she said.

This was my first experience of China’s bargaining culture, something I had heard much about before arriving without really believing in it. Apart from anything else, it seemed wildly out of kilter with the ultra-modern nature of Chinese retail, which is far more advanced than anything in Europe or the United States.

At the heart of China’s retail economy is a system of mobile payments that is so cheap and simple it has allowed most people to ditch cash without ever having used credit or debit cards. Retailers and customers each have a unique QR code and either party can scan the other’s code to make a payment.

Unlike systems like ApplePay, it doesn’t require any expensive technology apart from a smartphone and small retailers have their QR codes printed on a piece of cardboard. A man I meet on the street every morning who begs for a living has his code on a card that he holds out as he asks for help.

The system is dominated by the duopoly of WeChat and Alipay which between them account for more than 90 per cent of mobile payments. There are no charges for transactions below 10,000 yuan (€1,380) but the system gives the two companies masses of data on everyone who uses it.

WeChat and Alipay’s parent Alibaba operate platforms that have become complete digital ecosystems offering everything from messaging to food delivery and ride hailing. You can use internal “mini-apps” to buy rail and bus tickets, pay utility bills or book a doctor’s appointment.

But haggling over the price remains part of the performance of buying and selling in China and before we left the furniture showroom, the manager, my companion and I took part in an ancient choreography of commerce. Each of us stepped into our roles with conviction, with the manager implying that the smallest discount would bankrupt the company and impoverish himself, me putting on an elaborate display of indifference and my companion presenting herself as the honest broker.

In the end, we would take out our phones to scan a code and everything from the payment to the delivery would be recorded in notifications, verification codes and tracking updates. But as we stood amid the brand new Ming and Qing chairs and tables, we were doing what people have done here for thousands of years, testing the merchandise, taking one another’s measure and arguing over the price.