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The Mandarin Learner’s Guide to Haggling: 10 Keys to Success

Looking to get the best deals in Chinese shops? Learn to barter and haggle in Mandarin!

Whether you’ve got your heart set on a high-priced fake Louis Vuitton purse, or you simply want to get a better deal on your Sichuanese crayfish, you’ll probably know by now that most Chinese vendors drive a hard bargain!

One of the best ways to save money whilst learning Mandarin is - you guessed it - by mastering the art of bartering and careful negotiation.

Some Mandarin learners can feel shy, or a sense of embarrassment and even guilt at the prospect of haggling to get the best deals. In China and many other Mandarin speaking countries however, new visitors to an area who choose not to haggle can sometimes come across as ignorant and even fall prey to trickery.

Haggling is actually common practice among local merchants and shoppers in China and a useful skill to master!

The Chinese civilization is one of the most ancient in the world and the custom of bartering is almost just as old. The practice of bartering took place as far back as the 6th century when merchants and buyers would barter with cowry shells – so it’s really nothing new and nothing to be afraid of!

Virtually all sellers in Chinese shops or market stalls (in China that is!) will initially offer a price significantly higher than what they expect to sell their goods for, this is all part of bargaining tactics. After all they are trying to make a profit!

Make sure you don’t come home feeling ripped off at the price of that fish for Sunday’s dinner or those crushed velvet shoes you just purchased.

Learning Mandarin for bargaining can transform you from a standard linguist into a multilingual master bargain hunter if you have a few language learning tricks up your sleeve.

Just follow these nifty steps to haggling success...

Good Words in Mandarin
A few good words perfect for Mandarin haggling!

1. Good words and phrases for haggling

If you are living or studying in China, haggling can not only be a great way to develop your negotiation skills and wrangle yourself a bargain, but also an ideal chance to practice speaking in Chinese. The first step to becoming a prime haggler in Mandarin is, needless to say, by engaging in dialogue with the salesperson.

Reeling off a handful of well-rehearsed Chinese bartering phrases can go a long way to getting the lowest price possible!

These are some good words to know as a beginner Mandarin learner that will enable you to communicate in Chinese with the vendor whilst mastering that all-important trick of haggling the price down!

Step 1 – How much is it?

Naturally, a good place to start is by asking the seller how much they are expecting to receive for the item in question.

多少钱 (Duōshǎo qián)
How much does it cost?

Step 2 – Cheap chocolate or expensive wine?

Once you have determined the cost, you can start to learn a few good Chinese words that will help describe the item or the cost of the item, such as, cheap and expensive.

Try adding a couple of these handy adjectives to your vocabulary during your next shopping spree to save you having to invest too much in your purchases:

便宜 (Piányí)
Cheap

贵 (Guì)
Expensive

划算 (Huásuàn)
Cost-effective

值得 (Zhídé)
Worth it

You can also modify the adjectives to emphasise what you are saying. Simply put a 不 (Bù) in front of any adjective in order to negate the statement. You can also add 太 (Tài) and 了 (Le) either side of the adjective to mean too much of something.

For example:

不便宜(Bù piányí - Not cheap) and 不值得 (Bù zhídé - Not worth it).

You can also say 太贵了!(Tài guìle - Too expensive!), or 太不划算了! (Tài bù huásuànle - Too cost-ineffective/Really not cost-effective!).

Step 3 - Cost Cutting

Finally, the last stage of the exchange would be to implore the seller to cut the cost of the item.

If there is no marked price, then the cost is probably negotiable - financing your dream dress might not be so hard after all!

To increase your bargaining power, remember to start with an amount much lower than what you would expect to pay for the item. You will probably need to increase your offer eventually as part of an agreed compromise.

可不可以,便宜一点?(Kěbù kěyǐ, piányí yīdiǎn?)
Can you make it a bit cheaper?

五块钱,行吗?(Wǔ kuài qián, xíng ma?
5 kuai (RMB), would that be OK?

Emotive Language Sad Kitty
Stir the seller's emotions with emotive language

2. Emotive Language

The second key to haggling success is to win over the salesperson by using emotive language.

Adding more emotive language to your conversation will help to make your Mandarin sound natural and more like a native speaker. Your emotions may also help to convince the seller that you are truly interested in making a transaction.

If you are a beginner Mandarin learner, try conveying your emotions by structuring your sentences around the Chinese word for so, which is 那么 (Nàme). Simply add 那么 in front of any adjective for emphasis.

The term can be used with just an adjective as an emotive comment on its own or as part of a longer sentence.

For example, if you have your heart set on a beautiful cashmere cardigan, simple Chinese grammar and emotive language like this can help to express to the vendor that you think the cardigan is so beautiful and so soft, but sadly, also, so expensive!

These are some handy emotive 那么 phrases that you can try out and follow with a heartfelt sigh for extra dramatic effect:

那么漂亮! (Nàme piàoliang)
So pretty!

那么美! (nàme měi)
So beautiful!

那么好看!(nàme hǎokàn)
It looks so nice/ so nice looking!

那么好用!(nàme hǎo yòng)
So useful!

那么贵! (nàme guì)
So expensive!

Faking It
Feigning disinterest can be one of the best ways to save money!

3. Faking it!

You may or may not know that, much like Chinese cuisine and Chinese dialects, haggling styles in China actually vary from province to province and city to city.

Customers in Chinese shops sometimes declare that the cost of an item is far too high or more than they can afford and walk away, only to be met with dramatic shouts down the street from the seller as they desperately bid a lower price in an effort to make a sale. More often than not, these customers are faking it and in reality, are dying to make a purchase!

The haggling strategy of 'faking it' is actually common in some areas in Northern China, such as Beijing or Tianjin, where customers can often be seen feigning disinterest.

If you want to try feigning disinterest to get a good bargain, make sure you learn Mandarin numbers correctly, so that you don’t mistake 四十四 (Sìshísì - Forty four) for 十四 (Shísì - Fourteen) and inadvertently agree to a much higher price!

This haggling technique is also less common in areas, such as, Chengdu or even Shanghai, where sellers may take your disinterest at face value. Listen to how local customers barter; let them guide you and give you an insight into different bargaining strategies.

Your best bet is to fine-tune your technique to the local area!

When in Rome
When in Rome, when in China...

4. When in Rome

‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’, so the famous saying goes.

All the phrase really means is learn to adopt local customs as if they are your own when visiting new areas, the Chinese equivalent of the phrase 入乡随俗 (Rù xiāng suí sú) perhaps better illustrates this idea.

Another good hack for haggling in China, and indeed learning any foreign language, is to learn about crucial aspects of the local culture. Local people and sellers will come to respect the effort you have made to understand the local culture and may even regard you as a local shopper.

Next time you pop down to the local Chinese shop, try explaining that you are a local foreigner living in the area, a 本地老外 (Běndì lǎowài), rather than just a tourist passing by.

Who knows, it could get you a discount or two!

Student Card
Let your student card bring you a bargain!

5. Student Card

Whatever country you are in, everyone knows that students tend to have less cash to splash than the average working professional.

Flashing your student card to let the vendor know you are a student couldn't do any harm when trying to grab a bargain.

我是学生 (Wǒ shì xuéshēng)
I am a student

If you don't have your student card to hand, you can also try repeating the above Mandarin sentence to make the seller aware of your student status and that you are probably struggling to make ends meet.

Hand gestures
Hand gestures can aid your Mandarin language communication

6. Hand Gestures

Learning Mandarin is not easy and more often than not misunderstandings can occur due to tones, pronunciation difficulties, not being heard properly, or for whatever reason.

When learners new to the Chinese language turn their hand to haggling in Mandarin, it can sometimes be a frustrating experience. You can try improving your Chinese accent through speech techniques, but hand gestures can help you get your message across to make negotiations easier.

You may notice that the seller is also using hand gestures to indicate numbers in a different way to how we do in Europe.

Have a go at learning the Chinese number gestures and other useful Chinese body language signals to help build a closer relationship with the seller.

Befriend the Seller
Making friends never hurt anyone!

7. Befriending the Seller

Many people in Europe say one should not mix business with pleasure, however, in Mainland China, negotiations are all about building relationships.

Just because you want to save money and get a good bargain does not mean that the seller is your enemy!

Befriending the vendor by smiling sincerely, or striking conversation in Mandarin can put you both at ease.

Try talking to them about their life or work, asking for tips on how to learn Chinese, or about elements of Chinese culture, such as, Chinese calligraphy, Chinese songs, Chinese videos, WeChat, etc. Your conversational Mandarin skills may improve as you get the chance to talk in a relaxed environment and the seller may even offer you a discount if they feel you have a special bond.

Customer Loyalty
What Chinese shop doesn't like a loyal customer!

8. Customer Loyalty

Loyal customers who return to the same Chinese retailer or market stall on several occasions are known as 常客 (Chángkè).

Wherever you may be, very few shops exist that don't value customer loyalty. If you prefer those especially juicy peaches or pears from a particular stall, then make an effort to shop there in the future.

Returning to the same place rather than chopping and changing between different shops and stalls can help get you on a good footing for bartering.

Have a go at using your privilege as a 常客, to haggle down to a good price.

The following phrase might come in handy when trying to show your customer loyalty:

这一次买好了,下一次还会照顾您的生意 (Zhè yīcì mǎihǎole, xià yīcì hái huì zhàogù nín de shēngyì)
After I have bought this [item], I will come back and support your business again next time.

Should I barter?
Bartering is not just for the marketplace!

9. To Barter, or not to Barter?

Now that you have pretty much mastered the basics of haggling in Mandarin you can head straight to the flea market!

You may be wondering when is best to barter and when is best not to. However, if you thought bartering and negotiations were solely for the marketplace, you may be pleasantly surprised.

Haggling in China is not considered rude and does not have to be confined to shopping.

Whether you want to persuade your landlord to agree to a lower rent fee, get a discount on your gym membership or even negotiate the best deal when doing business, haggling is definitely one of the perks of learning Mandarin and a skill that can be used in all walks of life!

Last Key to Success: Act Polite
A little bit of politeness can go a long way!

10. The Final Key to Success? Be Polite!

Last, but not least, the final thing to remember is that haggling should actually be a fun experience.

The key to haggling success is to be polite. Respect the seller by using the formal 'you' in Chinese - addressing them as 您 (Nín).

Even if you have not been a Mandarin learner long and your Chinese is not fluent just yet, as long as you are friendly and warm (rather than rude, cold or aggressive!) you can't really go wrong!

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Rachel Kanev

Rachel Kanev

Mandarin studies led me to China where I met my husband. I work in the Chinese department of Goldsmiths and am bringing up my son trilingually. Languages have shaped my life in the strangest of ways.

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