The art of haggling is about forming connections

By Jane Hanson ( China Daily ) Updated: 2008-07-23 14:23:21

Recently, we went shopping near the Forbidden City and bought some silk for a gorgeous kimono-style robe, before moving on to select artwork. On a little street located on the east side of the imperial palace, we found a small shop that had some appealing things.

Our new Chinese friend, whom I call "Pebble", explained to the shop girl that I was looking for something unique and different. The shop girl made a call, and soon a man came to show us a selection of scrolls and paintings. I romantically fantasized that he lived in a little house nearby, but more likely he had just come from one of the thriving corner bars, with signs that read, "Beer is GOOD here!"

After showing me several items, he stopped and looked at me and thought. Then he pulled out a long, dusty scroll from underneath a workbench. As he opened it, I watched as the beautiful watercolor strokes of horse bodies begin to appear, then Chinese women mounted on the horses. The colors were lovely, and it was just what I wanted. He said it was an old work of his, from the 1960s, before he even had a shop.

Then the haggling began.

Haggling in China is a way of life. I think that to understand haggling is to gain a cultural insight into the persistence and perseverance of the Chinese people. They enjoy this. It almost seems to have a necessary social significance.

A Westerner soon comes to understand that the sweetest accolade is the phrase, "I no make any money here, lady"! Anyway, I chose another less exotic screen as a gift, and the price actually dropped, then dropped again, as Pebble made another plea for "pianyi idiar" (a little cheaper), please. At last, the bargain was struck. A sense of accomplishment ensued for all.

In the interaction, we had become connected somehow. The man is a noted calligrapher, and he later offered to make us a scroll as a gift. He studied his visitors carefully, then pulled out some beautiful scroll frames and assembled the tools of his trade.

He proceeded to question Pebble about her father, and then to ask about me. In the rapid-fire interchange in Chinese, I found only the occasional word intelligible, but he seemed satisfied, and after a muttered "haode, haode," he bent to his bench and lifted his brush.

He paused, then began to write beautiful Chinese characters in black ink on the creamy off-white paper. He added his signature, then a red seal, then another to show his authentication of the scroll. Beautiful.

But then he told Pebble to tell me that he had written about a cycle of good, and how the good within each of us can be shared with those around us so that it continues to come back. He gave me a beautiful split-toothed smile and stuck out his hand to shake mine. As I write this, I am still moved by the experience.

There are so many wonderful things to see here in China. I am so thankful that I have been here long enough to see all of the sights, and to be able to feel the sense of who these people are and to SEE them. It is just an amazing journey.

(China Daily 07/23/2008 page20)

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