Travelling to China? Bring a little bit of the country home with you with the best souvenirs from China. With the help of our destination experts, we pulled together our favourite souvenirs that you can feel good about buying in the world’s most populous nation!
Asia-bound travellers on the hunt for the best souvenirs from China certainly won’t find themselves short on choices in the world’s most populous country. This vast nation is, after all, the production capital of the world, and visitors here can find nearly any item (authentic or less-than-authentic) in a local market or mall.
But for the culturally curious, it’s unlikely that a knock off Louis Vuitton bag is a souvenir worthy of extra luggage space! Thankfully, China is also home to some truly unique souvenirs, each with a little story to tell about China and its people.
With the help of our China team, we rounded up our all-time favourite souvenirs in China – and how and where to buy them responsibly!
Before the Cultural Revolution, China was a hub for tea culture, which was as interwoven in traditional Chinese culture as it was in every family’s mealtime. For much of China’s history, tea was a significant part of traditional healing and ceremonies, and tea varieties were carefully selected for particular uses. Though tea culture in its most traditional sense has vanished in much of modern China, the remnants of this important cultural element still exists, even if it’s only in a teacup.
Despite traditional Chinese tea culture being all but gone in the country today, China was one of the first nations to produce tea on a large scale – and even then, in staggering quantities. It’s now produced around the world, but the world’s best tea can still be found where it all started. In China, tea started as a medicinal drink, and even today most tea varieties are believed to have particular medicinal qualities.
Like many places, tea in China is available anywhere that sells food and drinks. There are a few famous tea markets in the country’s biggest cities, though, that have the best selections of traditional Chinese tea. In Beijing, head to Maliandao Tea Street or in Shanghai, try Tianshan Tea Market.
Favourite varieties include Longjing and Oolong, though Pu-er tea (a fermented black tea that comes in giant cakes) is somewhat of a collector’s item for tea enthusiasts.
Centuries ago, silk was produced solely in China, and the method of its production a closely guarded secret. This made silk a supremely luxurious far East export, and silk masters in China became the best in the world. Since then, China no longer holds the secrets of silk production, but remains one of the best places in the world to find silk at its finest.
Even today, most Chinese locals still hold fine silk in high esteem, with a favourite in China being the silk quilt. These hypo-allergenic works of art are perfect for China’s temperamental weather, as they stay cool in summer and warm in winter. Other favourite items are silk dresses and ties, which play a starring role in traditional Chinese garments.
Though silk is available throughout the country, as most souvenirs are, the best place to buy is at its source. In China, the most prolific silk producers are in Hangzhou and Suzhou, as both towns are famous for their silk.
Buying from here means getting the very best pieces before export, and a chance to meet the artisans who create it. Most quality silk quilts will cost around USD 100 to 150, with other pieces higher or lower in price, depending on size and quality.
Called jianzhi in Chinese, paper cutting in China is the first of its kind. That’s because paper was invented within China, by Cai Lun in the Eastern Han Dynasty. That makes paper cuttings not only beautiful works of art, but also a piece of Chinese history.
Among all of China’s traditional art, paper cuttings are likely the most simple yet ornate of the bunch. These are exactly what they sound like – paper cut into highly detailed designs, and used for auspicious occasions by local Chinese. You’ll likely see plenty of these stunning works of art hanging in the windows of the locals while in China, since these are still a popular form of decoration in the country.
As China’s historic and cultural capital, Beijing is one of the best places in the country to find incredible works of paper cutting art. It’s traditional hutongs – labyrinthine residential areas that are still home to some of the country’s oldest shops and houses – promise a variety of handmade works. In Xi’an, head to the Muslim Quarter for a great selection as well. Depending on the piece, paper cuttings can range anywhere from a few dollars to up to USD 100.
As the home of eight distinct culinary styles, China is a hotbed for herbs and spices that give each region’s dishes a unique flavour. Sichuan-style cooking is perhaps one of China’s tastiest – and includes dishes like Kung Pao Chicken and Mapo Dofu – and nearly all dishes from the region use Sichuan Pepper.
Sichuan Pepper is a stand-out among China’s seasonings as its taste is slightly sweet and numbing, rather than hot. This gives dishes made with it a peculiar taste that you can easily replicate at home with the right seasonings.
It’s easy to find Sichuan Pepper in nearly every supermarket in China, but the very best is found right in the heart of Sichuan, in Chengdu. Here, you’ll find Sichuan Pepper at local markets and shops alike. Ask your guide to help finding a place to buy it, with a small bag setting you back less than a dollar.
As China’s national gem, jade has a 4000 year history in China, and has a special importance for women in the nation. As with many treasured items in the country, jade is usually passed down through generations in a family. Traditionally, jade bracelets are passed down from mothers to daughters in Chinese families, with some pieces dating back centuries!
Since jade is a treasured gem throughout China, you can find it nearly anywhere you go. That said, jade ranges in quality and unless you know how to inspect pieces, it’s hard to identify which pieces are high quality. Most quality jade is crafted into small pieces, so things like pendants and bracelets are the safest purchases, rather than large carvings.
Don’t be afraid to take a local guide with you, who should be able to help you identify which jade is quality, and which is not. And since quality pieces can cost upwards of a hundred or a thousand dollars, it’s important to know what you’re investing in! For a few tips on how to select quality jade yourself, check out this helpful guide from Lonely Planet.
In Shanghai, the Pearl Tower is an indicator of the importance of pearl in China. With a strong connection of symbolism and traditional value, pearls are incredibly important in China. It’s not uncommon to see intricate works of art featuring a dragon chasing a pearl, which symbolises perfection and enlightenment in certain contexts.
In Shanghai, a vast collection of fresh water cultured pearl farms makes these special kinds of pearls famous in the city. And, since they are produced so nearby, fresh water pearls in Shanghai are cheaper here than most places around the country.
Shanghai is perhaps the best place to buy fresh water pearls, with favourite spots including Hongqiao Pearl Market. For those looking for something of a particular quality, head to Amylin’s Pearls, where such names as the Clintons have picked up a few items.
Before you start making your souvenir list, begin by creating your perfect itinerary through China! Each customised China tour promises a local guide to help you make the most of your journey.