Saturday, July 04, 2009

My Old Beijing Map

When we go to markets around town and around the country, I usually need to come up with a strategy for keeping myself busy and engaged for the full duration of our visit. A few months back, this kind of decision making led me to my unanticipated (and ongoing) fascination with walnuts.

This time, as we were wandering through a new (for us) marketplace in southwestern Beijing, it was an old map of the city that caught my eye. This map depicts a Beijing from a long time ago, a relatively small community that existed largely within the then still standing city wall. The characters on the map are not the simplified hanzi that has been used on the Mainland for half a century or so, but rather are written in the traditional style that pre-dates the founding of the People's Republic. These elements suggest that, maybe, just maybe, the map truly is an antique that was printed up many, many decades ago.

As I stood there, transfixed by this seemingly rare find, the owner of the small stall where it was hanging came over.

"Do you want this map?" he asked.

"How much is it?" was my question in reply.

San bai kuai, quickly came his answer.

RMB 300? "There's no way that's happening," I thought, as I started meandering on down the next aisle.

"What's your price?" he shouted out as I kept moving.

Wu shi kuai, I shouted back. This was a quick calculation I did in my head at that very moment. If he is asking for three hundred, which is clearly unreasonable, how low can I go without being unreasonable in the opposite direction? For whatever reason, I deemed fifty RMB to be that cut off point.

The stall owner haggled a bit for a moment or two, and then quickly agreed to my price.

"Dog!" I thought.

Given his rapid agreement, here's what I envision the seller walked around telling his fellow merchants as soon as I had left the scene...

"You're not going to believe this. You know that crinkly old map that I had taped to the front of my display case? Well, this waiguoren came by and actually paid fifty kuai to take it off my hands!"

No matter. In the end, I picked up what I think is truly the real deal, a one-of-a-kind piece that will keep our attention for many years to come. This score alone made it a great day to be out there on the streets of Beijing, even for a guy like me with a limited attention span when it comes to the marketplaces that bring so much sustained enjoyment to Desi, Julie, and Z.



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