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What We Use in China


Section II: Living in China continued

Shopping and Common Chinese Weights and Measurements

This chapter discusses the most salient points you need to know while shopping in China and reviews the most common Chinese weights and measurements that you will have to use when dealing with merchants.


China is a shopper's paradise. In addition to the plethora of department stores that one can find in the city, street vendors can be seen everywhere selling their wares, often until late at night. Although it is not possible to bargain inside a department store, street vendors expect it and starting prices are often 50 to 100% higher because of it. You should never pay the initial asking price from any street vendor or small, privately-owned business. Bargaining is a survival skill in China.

The difficulty with shopping in China is that the old adage Caveat Emptor (buyer beware) applies 100 times over.

Clothing is relatively very inexpensive in China. A pair of decent blue jeans can be purchased for no more than 100 kuai (about USD $14.00) and you can have a suit tailor-made for less than it would cost you to buy one off the rack back home. Most mid- to large-sized cities will contain Western department stores such as Wal-Mart and a large French chain called Carrefour. Although these chains typically offer a much wider variety of "Western goods" than you might otherwise find in a large, domestic department store, foreigners tend to make too much of a big deal over their presence. The truth is, the type of merchandise to be found in these chains is certainly not the same as one will find back home and they are very much influenced by local buying habits. For example, in one relatively small city in the south, Philadelphia Cream Cheese was not available in Carrefour but was, much to the amazement of the teacher, available in a local and domestic supermarket chain. In addition, a favored product that may be available for months will, all of a sudden, simply one day vanish from the shelves without warning or explanation. Many supermarkets may be willing to special order a product for you if you are willing to order in large quantity or if there is enough of a foreign teacher demand for that product—so please, don't fret if your particular city doesn't boast the presence of a Wal-Mart or Carrefour. Many domestic supermarkets are now beginning to stock some form of American and Cheddar cheeses (which, previously, were only available at Wal-Mart and Carrefour).

Typical Fresh Market Typical Outdoor Fresh Market

The difficulty with shopping in China is that the old adage Caveat Emptor (buyer beware) applies 100 times over. The Judeo-Christian values and ethics that underlie Western culture, including business practices, are not prevalent in China. Labels actually mean something in the West because of strict government regulations bolstered by consistent and rigorous enforcement: In China, labels mean absolutely nothing. Behaviors that most foreigners would regard as “cheating,” “lying” and “stealing” are viewed from a very different perspective here. In fact, the Chinese typically brace themselves against being cheated when involved in any type of business transaction with anyone other than a close friend or relative and it would not be unusual for a local to spend 30 minutes or more haggling over what we would consider to be an insignificant amount. Someone once wrote that the Chinese will never enter into any business transaction unless they are convinced that they will be receiving the better end of the bargain, and this adage should be kept in mind when dealing with merchants, especially street vendors.

Keep in mind too that what was written about cheaper, less reliable and counterfeit alternatives in regard to computer technology is no less true when it comes to just about anything in China. As foreigners, we take after-market customer service for granted: If we have a problem with a product after purchase, we can return it for either a full refund or a new product. That type of service is just about non-existent in China: If you run into a problem with a product after you have purchased it, do not expect most underpaid salesclerks to care—it is truly your problem alone.

If you purchase an imported major brand name mobile phone (e.g., Motorola, Nokia, etc.) from a large department store and you have trouble with it after the fact, within the warranty period, the manufacturer (not the retail store) will honor the service agreement and you can expect competent repair service (if you can get the clerk at the retail store to finally provide you with the name, address and telephone number of the service center—which, of course, is never on the same premises). But if you purchased, let's say, a used phone from a street vendor (or even a new generic Chinese brand from a department store without a local independent service center), he or she (or the clerk in the store) will look at you with utter and total disbelief if you try to return it. Similarly, if you purchase a blouse, a pair of pants or shoes (even from a well-established and reputable department store) and then notice a significant defect in it after you pay for it, it would be best to either live with it or throw it out: Do not bother wasting your time returning to the store with it. Caveat Emptor!

Grocery Store Aisle Girl Waiting to Assist Almost all department and grocery stores have "aisle attendants" who are waiting to assist you.

However, having just written this, it should also be noted that the Chinese do respect, value and reward customer loyalty. Customers unbeknownst to local storekeepers, whether they are foreigners or Chinese who have recently moved from another province, will generally pay a higher price until something of an ongoing relationship is established. Many foreign teachers have reported how they mysteriously seem to pay less and less for the same goods over each successive visit to the same store. This is not unusual or surprising when you consider the role and importance of guanxi (relationship) in China (see unit on Mianzi and Guanxi earlier in this guide). Whenever possible, make a point of patronizing the same vendors and shops over time: doing so will eventually save you money and, in addition, you will also receive a degree of actual concern and level of customer service that relative strangers do not.

The other peculiarity about shopping in China, one that usually strikes foreigners within a few weeks of arrival, is the fact that businesses congregate and are geographically situated by product type. So, for example, if you want to buy a lighting fixture for your bathroom, the store you are taken to will have three to four other lighting fixture stores directly adjacent to it—often selling precisely the same merchandise! Although this tends to be extremely convenient for the shopper, business zoning ordinances in most Western countries would prohibit such practice. However, owing to the sheer volume of people in China, this practice seems to work for them.

Clothes Sizing System in China

The clothes sizing system in China is quite confusing because they use a variety of systems depending on the item, e.g., blouses, pants, shoes, hats, etc., as well as whether the clothing is intended for domestic use only or international export. In addition, and to further complicate matters, sizing conversion tables do not take into account the fact that the physiques of Chinese men and women are significantly narrower or slighter than those of their Western counterparts, so—in regard to the chest-waist-hip ratio—Chinese clothing is proportioned quite differently than it is back home for both men and women.

Clothing manufactured for domestic use only tends to loosely follow the American system of small, medium, large, and extra-large but keep in mind that a Chinese "large" is typically smaller than an American small. In essence, one would have to find a size marked XXL in China to approximate a blouse or shirt sized medium to large in America.

In addition, several female readers have reported enormous difficulty finding bras that fit them properly in China. While the sizing system in mainland China is similar to the one used in America, the size and relative proportions of the bust and underbust girth to cup size (height, depth, and curvature) are based on a typical Chinese woman whose breasts are typically smaller and shaped differently with a bust girth that is much narrower in proportion to her cup size. Thus, a bra sized 34B in China will not fit in the same way a bra equivalent in size would fit in the United States. As one female reader reported:

Bras that fit a Western woman are nearly impossible to find in Jinan. The sizing system is different here, and assumes a MUCH smaller waistline than naturally occurs on most Westerners. I've had quite a few frustrating hours trying on bras, and after giving up I was told by other female expats that I'll have to go to Beijing or order them online; Western women just aren't built as small as Chinese women, and our breasts sit differently on our chests even when we do lose weight. Also, well-made Chinese bras aren't any cheaper than those in the US.

Pants are sized according to the waistline in inches, just as they are in the United States, but the lengths are measured in centimeters. Again, in regard to proportion, keep in mind that the average height of a Chinese man is 170cm (about 5'7") and the average Chinese woman is 160cm (about 5'3") in height. Consequently, Western men and women who are particularly tall by Chinese standards, especially if they are of average weight for their height, will have enormous difficulty finding pants that fit them properly, i.e., pants that fit in length will be far too big in the waist. In addition, foreigners who wear anything larger than a 40inch waist will struggle considerably with finding clothes in cities outside of Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.

Men's shirts, as well as shoes for men and women, are roughly sized according to the European system. Thus a man who wears a shirt with a 17½ inch collar in the United States would wear a size 43 to 45 in China, although finding shirts larger than a size 41 (15 to 16inch collar) is very difficult, even in international cities (one would have to shop in specialty stores intended for foreigners, such as the Friendship Store). As for shoes, a size 9 in a man's shoe would be approximately a size 43 in China and a woman's 7½ in the United States would be roughly equivalent to a size 38 in China. However, readers living outside of first- and second-tier cities have reported difficulty finding shoes larger than a man's 9 or a woman's 7½ (Chinese sizes 43 and 38, respectively).

The reality is, Western women who are anything other than petite and small-breasted, and Western men who are tall by Chinese standards (over 5'10"), or considerably heavy for their height, will have moderate to considerable difficulty finding clothes "off the rack" that will fit them properly in China. For this reason, many foreigners—especially those who are plus-sized—will need to have their clothes tailor-made. However, the cost of custom-made clothes in China is typically much less than buying off the rack back home. For a fairly decent clothing size conversion table that will give you an approximate idea about what you can expect, you can navigate over to

Common Chinese Weights and Measurements for Shoppers

China used to have its own system of weights and measurements but now officially subscribes to the metric system, although many locals still use the older conventions especially in street markets.

The most common unit of measurement for weight in China is the jīn (roughly pronounced “jeen”), which is half a kilogram and approximately 1.1 Imperial pounds (U.S.). Although the word for kilogram is gōng jīn (goong jeen), most Chinese will simply say “2 jin" instead of one kilo. In fact, most Chinese will report their body weight in jin as well, i.e., 90 jin and not 45 kilos. American foreign teachers can simply substitute the word jin for pound when ordering anything by weight, and they’d be close enough. If you buy a bathroom scale in China, it will report the weight in kilograms only, but this a relatively simple conversion to make if you are accustomed to the Imperial system of weights and measurements.

Lengths, e.g., height and bedding sizes, etc. are measured in centimeters and meters. For foreign teachers other than Americans this will not be a problem. For another quick and dirty conversion, simply multiply any length reported in centimeters by 4 and move the decimal over to the left by one place. For example, 100cm x 4 = 400, then move decimal over one place to the left for 40 inches (the precise conversion is 39.37 as 1cm = .3937 inches). To convert inches to centimeters, simply multiply inches by 2.5 (1 inch = 2.54cm).

When hunting for apartments (or when asking about the size of the one that will be provided to you by the school), the area will be reported to you in square meters (1 square meter = 10.76 square feet). The Chinese word for square meter is píng fāng mǐ and sometimes you’ll hear píng mǐ for short. For anyone other than Americans, this will be familiar. American teachers, for a “quick and dirty” approximation, can simply multiply the area reported in square meters by 10. For example, an apartment that is 85 square meters would be approximately 850 square feet (precisely 914.93, but you’d be close enough in getting a reasonable idea of the size).

Liquid weights are measured in liters and just about everyone is accustomed to that. The Chinese word for liter is shēng (pronounced like "shung") and a liter is just slightly less in volume than a U.S. liquid quart (1 liter = 1.056 quarts). However, when buying gasoline for your motorbike or car, it is probably just a lot simpler to say "jiā mǎn yóu" which literally means "add gas to fill" or fill it up. When ordering drinking water for your apartment, you won't use volume measurements but, instead, will ask for a barrel or "tǒng" of water. Many locals believe it is safer to pay the extra three yuan by ordering a major brand name mineral water in China, which is Coconut Palm, instead of whatever generic plain or distilled water your local distributor is carrying. So you would simply ask for one barrel of Coconut Palm mineral water or yi tong yē shù kuàng quán shuǐ (ee tung kwang chew-en shway).

For an excellent online measurement system conversion website, you can visit and a summary table has been appended below for your convenience.

  Metric System Traditional Chinese Imperial
Units of Length 1 centimeter 3 fen 0.394 inches
  1 meter 3 chi 3.281 feet; 1.094 yards
  1 kilometer 2 li 0.621 miles
Units of Area 1 square meter 9 square chi 10.764 square feet
  1 square kilometer 4 square li 0.386 square mile
Units of Weight 50 grams 1 liang 0.110 pounds
  1 kilogram 2 jin 2.205 pounds
Units of Capacity 1 liter 1 sheng 1.056 quarts
  4.546 liter 4.546 sheng 1 gallon


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