The story of China, the very beginning of the story, the one that resonates in the Chinese consciousness (or so I understand from the couple of books I've read), is not a beginning at all, but a continuation. The Shang Dynasty of about 1766-1122 BC, which has the oldest written history of China, is known as the "second dynasty". There always seems to have been a "something before" that was China. All together, something like four or five or six thousand years of linear, continuous China. So, China is old, really old. But Mao Zedong, wanting to leap greatly forward and create a fully new society, attempted, from 1966 to about 1976, to force his vision of a New China into reality by, among other things, sending out his Red Army to destroy every bit of ancient and antique pottery, embroidery, furniture, calligraphy, statuary, porcelain and painting the Red Army could get their Revolutionary hands on. Museums and cultural sites were burned to the ground. Many people destroyed their family heirlooms for fear of being horribly punished if caught possessing them. Many aspects of traditional Chinese culture, such as calligraphy, painting, kite-making and so on, ground to a halt and have since lost much of their prominence in daily life and customs.
Although today's Chinese government remains firmly on the Mao-Zedong-was-great-for-the-Chinese side of the argument (in fact, there is no argument), even the current government admits there may have been one or two excesses at the time, publicly admitting that the destruction of cultural sites, heirlooms, antiques and customs was maybe one of Mao's less than totally awesome ideas. Today, in a flip of the cultural integrity coin, the Chinese government is trying to reign in the bleeding of cultural things from the land. In an attempt to keep China's rich cultural history for the Chinese people, it is illegal today for any foreigner to own and/or take any cultural relic out of the nation. Previously, anything made before 1911, the end of the Qing Dynasty, would have been illegal to remove from China. Today, any item of "cultural significance" cannot belong to a foreigner. Technically, anything culturally of any significance "belongs to the Chinese people" and is therefore subject to confiscation. So, "culturally significant", eh? That's pretty broad. Even an original 1970s alarm clock graced with Mao's cherubic face might be considered culturally significant for the Revolution by the signifying powers-that-be (more on that later). Therefore, as a foreigner looking for flea market or antique items, you will be coming across either illegal-to-own, culturally insignificant or, most likely, fang gu things. Fang gu, colloquially, means "fake". Most of what you will find readily available will be fang gu. Maybe 90%. Maybe 100%. But don't discount the fang gu off hand. This fake stuff is some of the best fake stuff in the world. The experts at the most prestigious art institutes in the world have been fooled (and perhaps they still are). The lengths to which the pros will go to fake an item are often amazing: Soaking things in animal urine to achieve a certain patina (smelling things helps to indicate to sellers that you've been around the block...or at least the Internet), burying items in the ground, even adding radioactive chemicals to a glaze to fool possible age-determining thermoluminesence laboratory tests.
So, still knowing all that, I went ahead and spent some time at a few flea markets. And if I saw something I liked, I went ahead and haggled. Because, c'mon: Look at this stuff! Whether "real" or really real, this stuff is awesome. I want some. I'll post the treasures I brought home in another post.
I really, really wanted all three of these acupuncture mannequins. I don't have any acupuncture mannequins! I must have acupuncture mannequins! My kids said, "No. No acupuncture mannequins." So, I still don't have any acupuncture mannequins. *hmpf*
Panjiayuan "antiques" market.
Calligraphy supply seller, Luilichang cultural street, Beijing.
Lordy, I love that painting. I could kick myself for not buying it.
Here, an artisan carves a chop. A chop is a unique stone stamp with the characters of your name that you would use to sign something. This young fellow is getting his first chop.
A lucky cricket hanging in a basket chirps to bring happiness to this store.
Birds in bamboo cages are popular. Some people walk around with them.
On the Luilichang cultural street, Beijing.
What I particularly enjoy about China is the sport of haggling. Most prices in most places are really flexible. Really, really, really flexible. Just about as flexible as the date to which an "antique" item should (or can) be attributed. And just how flexible you can make the price go--in both directions before reaching a comfortable position for both parties--is the game. And it is a game. And in that regard, it should be fun. Some tips for haggling are this: Let the merchant start and name a price. Then smile and walk away either giving them the impression that 1) they have insulted you with such a ridiculously high price or 2) that you don't want to insult them with a counter offer that would be too low. The merchant will follow you and indicate to name your price on a calculator. Okay, okay, I'll give him a price, just to humor him. I start at about one-quarter of his starting price. He'll steadfastly say, "no" and enter a price just below his starting price, only because "he thinks I am a nice person" or "my children are beautiful". I smile and walk away again, saying something like, "See? I didn't want to insult you. But that is what I can afford". He'll follow me again and hand me the calculator. I enter a price that is no more than 30% of his original price. And that is where I will stay until he walks away. And he won't. And if he won't walk away, then he's happy with the price. He's happy, I'm happy. Happy people all around. Depending on how long this takes, very often a small crowd of people will form. Folks here are not shy. This is street theater and seeing as how I stuck out like a sore thumb anyway, I tried to give the audience a good show with lots of arm gestures and exaggerated expressions of incredulity. Frankly, I'll never know if the "last price" was the best or even a fair price for this or that trinket. But when do I ever know when I am shopping anywhere for anything? This haggling over a "real" antique feels actually a bit more honest than spending hundreds of dollars on a pair of jeans at the mall that are supposed to transport me to the lifestyle depicted on the posters mounted on the walls. I'd rather pay too much to this little man on the street who looks me in the eye than to some amalgam of retail marketing triggers.
What about you?