Writer Wang Shuo once observed that there were still devout Communists to be found in China, all of them safely under lock and key in a mental asylum. Consumerism is the official ideology of China, and shopping is the national sport. Spend, spend, and spend some more is the message drummed into China's willing citizens at every turn.
Dusty, empty, and useless state-run department stores are thankfully a thing of the past, though the Friendship Store still stands as an amusing reminder of the old days. Megamalls, shopping streets, and the few remaining open-air markets fight for a share of the spoils. Avoid shopping forays on weekends and evenings, when it can feel as if all of Beijing's 15 million residents line up at the cash registers to do their bit for the economic miracle.
Note: Unless otherwise noted, shops are open daily from between 9 and 10am to 9 or 10pm.
The Shopping Scene
Western-style shopping malls are flexing their muscles in Beijing, replacing the traditional storefronts, Chinese department stores, and alley markets. Even the new, privately run stores on major shopping streets tend to be versions of the boutiques and specialty outlets familiar to shoppers in the West. But there are still plenty of open-air markets and streetside vendors offering more traditional arts and crafts, collectibles, and clothing, usually at prices far below those in the big plazas and modern stores.
Beijing's Best Buys -- Stores and markets in Beijing sell everything from cashmere and silk to knockoff designer-label clothing and athletic wear, antiques, traditional art, cloisonné, lacquerware, Ming furniture, Mao memorabilia, and enough miscellaneous Chinesey doodads to stuff Christmas stockings from now until eternity. Prices are reasonable (certainly lower than in the Asian goods boutiques back home), though increasingly less so. Cheap one-time-use luggage is widely available for hauling your booty if you get carried away.
Before you rush to the ATM, it is important to remember that not all that is green and gleams in Beijing is jade. Indeed, the majority of it is colored glass. The same principle holds for pearls, famous-brand clothing, antiques, and just about everything else. If you plan to make big purchases, you should educate yourself about quality and price well beforehand.
Beijing's Top Shopping Areas -- The grandest shopping area in Beijing is Wangfujing Dajie, east of the Forbidden City. The street was overhauled in 1999, and the south section was turned into a pedestrian-only commercial avenue lined with clothing outlets, souvenir shops, fast-food restaurants, and two very popular malls -- the Sun (Xin) Dong An Plaza and Oriental Plaza (Dongfang Guangchang). Dong Dan Bei Dajie, a long block east, is a strip of clothing boutiques and CD shops popular among fashionable Beijing youth. On the western side of town is the mirror image of Dong Dan, bustling Xi Dan, and farther north, Xinjiekou Dajie.
The extremely popular The Village at Sanlitun is a new shopping and entertainment complex in the heart of Beijing's famous bar district. On any given evening you will run into a fascinating cross section of Beijing all commingling in the Village's courtyard: migrant workers walking through after a hard day's work, Beijing yuppies shopping for new threads, and local expats sipping on iced lattes.
South of Tian'an Men is the newly constructed Qianmen Dajie. Originally built in 1436, it is one of the city's oldest commercial streets. All the buildings here are new, but modeled after traditional Chinese architecture.
Other major Westernized shopping areas include the section of Jianguo Men Wai Dajie between the Friendship Store and the China World Trade Center, and the neighborhood outside the Northeast Third Ring Road North, southeast of San Yuan Qiao around the new embassy district.
Beijing's liveliest shopping zone, beloved for its atmosphere and Chinese-style goods, is the centuries-old commercial district southwest of Qian Men. Liulichang is an almost too-quaint collection of art, book, tea, and antiques shops. The stores are lined up side by side in a polished-for-tourists Old Beijing-style hutong, running east-west 2 blocks south of the Heping Men metro stop. The street is good for window-shopping strolls and small purchases -- like the unavoidable chop (tuzhang; stone or jade stamp), carved with your name. But beware of large purchases: Almost everything here is fake and overpriced. In a similar setting but more raucous, Da Zhalan ("Dashilanr" in the Beijing dialect) is the prole alternative. Located in a pedestrian-only hutong 2 blocks south of Qian Men, it is jammed on either side with cheap clothing outlets, restaurants, and luggage shops.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.