Posted by: thelocaldialect | June 14, 2007

Mianzi Not Included

I just wanted to take a moment to say how much I really enjoy buying used things. I got a new digital camera last week, a Sony 5.0 megapixel number, quite new looking, in perfect working condition, for only 500RMB (a mere 60 or so dollars). New, this camera would cost me a large chunk of my monthly salary, but used, it’s affordable. It was, I must say, a real bargain.

This seems to be a trait that is uniquely American (perhaps Western?) — we enjoy getting a bargain. Chinese people, on the other hand, do not like to buy used things. They say used clothes are dirty, and that you can get AIDS from them. Used appliances are acceptable, but it would be better to buy something brand new, which would give you a bit more “face” than the old stuff.

I once went to Dali with a couple of friends, and we were randomly browsing around a jade shop, with really no intention whatsoever of buying anything. The jade pieces have pricetags on them, and they’re never cheap. A quick browse through the shop would reveal everything from 500RMB-5000RMB. My friend was looking at a jade Guanyin, the goddess of mercy. She was only about an inch long, and the pricetag read 3000RMB (roughly 380USD). The shop owner noticed my friend looking, and took her out of the case to show her off. While it was a pretty piece, we weren’t going to spend 3000RMB on a piece of jade. The owner encouraged my friend to make an offer, but he declined, saying it was out of his price range. The owner persisted, and finally my friend laughingly, as we were headed out the door, said “75RMB!” To our surprise, the owner immediately called us back in and the 3000RMB guanyin now had a new home. We asked the owner what the deal was with the pricetags, why the huge markup? She said, in all seriousness, that lots of rich tourists — not from foreign countries, but from China itself, from places like Beijing and Shanghai — would pay the sticker price without even trying to negotiate. Why? Well, when you go back to Beijing with a guanyin around your neck and your buddies ask you where you got it, you can say “this is pure Burmese jade, I got it in Yunnan. Cost me 3000RMB, but it was worth every penny!” and your friends would ooh and ahh, not so much over the jade, but over the extravagance of the purchase, and you’d immediately have won “face” with them.

That’s why Chinese people don’t buy used things. Poor people buy used things. People who can’t afford new things buy used things. People wouldn’t think of buying clothes, even designer labels like Chanel or Prada, off of E-bay. I remember the day I brought home both a fully automatic washing machine and a refrigerator for 200RMB each. A friend of mine had payed three times that amount for a lesser, only partially automatic, washing machine. My washing machine still works, like a charm, over a year later, although my refrigerator has succumbed to the heat. But the beauty of used things is that they’re easily replaceable. I don’t feel the same guilt, the same sense of buyer’s remorse over my dead 200RMB refrigerator, because, seriously, 200RMB is about 25 dollars and I’ll just get a new one, big deal. If I’d spent 8000RMB on a brand new refrigerator that broke on me, you can bet I’d be crying over it as we speak. So I might lose “face” with my used purchases, but I gain value.

I have to say, I started writing this post about a week ago, but didn’t finish it and forgot about it until today. Why? Well, another trip to the used stuff market and we’re the proud owners of two new comfy computer chairs. We had just bargained chair number one, a nearly-new plush red number, down to 30RMB and were about to load it onto the cart to take home when we spotted it’s brother, a blue version of the same chair, but slightly more beat up. My husband offered up 20RMB for the raggedy chair, which was quickly agreed to, and so we took home a pair of chairs instead of just one. I’m sitting in my new-used 30RMB chair now, and I gotta say it’s comfy as hell. Thanks used stuff market! Later on in the day, we went to Wal-Mart and purchased an iron, and at the register, in glass cases, were electric razors that cost 1500RMB. Why on earth, I asked Wang Yao, would anyone in their right mind pay 1500RMB for an electric razor? “Honey,” he said, “they’re the same people who would pay 3000RMB for a 70RMB jade necklace. It’s all about the face.”


  1. Hi – I’m rtpm from fwc. Funnily enough Italians don’t buy used things either! I’ve been trying to find a used clothing or furniture store in Rome to no avail and Italian ebay is a joke – no one uses it much except for new things.

    All the more for us foreigners I say!

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