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Guilin’s Wa Yao Market: The Place for Art Bargains

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Guilin’s artists, with their trademark ink painting of rocky outcrops, waterfalls and river scenery, have been at the heart of Chinese art for centuries. Since China’s opening up they’ve mixed traditional techniques with the contemporary, giving their work a new, more colourful, vibrant and immediate impact while remaining true to traditional structure and form. The more prestigious members of the Guilin Chinese Painting Academy have toured their work internationally to considerable acclaim.

Wa Yao Market.
Wa Yao Market.

The best place in Guilin to find emerging artists of the new movement and to purchase their work – as well as the traditionalists – is Wa Yao’s Tourist Commodities Wholesale City (旅游商品批发城). In spite of its uncompromisingly pragmatic name and its equally pragmatic re-organisation in recent years, (now more of a large shopping complex than a traditional market in appearance if not in function), for painting and other arts this is the place to go in search of a bargain. However, here as elsewhere, ‘bargain’ is the operative word. Don’t pay the price originally asked.

So if you want to get some art while you are in Guilin then head over to Wa Yao.

Getting to Wa Yao
Buses are the best and cheapest option to get to Wa Yao. You can catch the 99 bus (2 RMB) on Zhongshan Lu heading south or the number 28 (1 RMB) from Seven Stars Park. Get off at the stop, long-windedly named after the market itself then walk on past the (seemingly misplaced) Guangzhou Army District Guilao Male Hospital (广州军区桂疗男科医院). Take a right down the alley at the hospital’s end and already you’re amongst the jumble of art-oriented shops surrounding the four causeway-linked buildings at the heart of the Wa Yao complex. Though they don’t of themselves comprise all the extensive and sprawling market, they nonetheless take its name. Of the four buildings, the one with most of the art is building A so that is the best place to start exploring. At the end of the alley, turn left. When you reach the T-junction, building A is the last on your right.

The Central Complex-Building A
It makes for an unpromising entry as the whole first floor seems to be dominated by plastic beads and flowers with only a few artistic minded shops; but don’t worry all you have to do is head for the basement. Taking the stairs you find yourself in what appears to be a car park – it is – but worry not. Take a left turn and you’re taken to one of Guilin’s traditional arts: natural and carved rock. Split geodes with their crystalline interiors exposed; carved scenery; the unique ‘colourful stones’ (七彩宝石) of Taiwan.

Ping Chen Precious Stones Outlet.
Ping Chen Precious Stones Outlet.

Instead of going to the rocks in the basement you can hurriedly move past the plastic kitsch of the first floor, and make your way to the ones above. While the second floor has some plastic overspill it seems that plastic items thankfully get rarer the higher you go. On most floors above the first, you can find painters literally at work as their franchise outlets often double as their studios. There’s a pleasing chaos here, floors strewn with new artwork, the artists usually far too absorbed in their work to leap out and accost potential customers. Unfortunately they keep artists’ hours, and though the building itself may be open from 08.00 to 18:00 seven days a week, it’s pot luck who’s open for business.

The variety of work spans all styles, from the ancient and very traditional to the modern. Don’t be too put off if you find an artist apparently copying from a book; the history of Chinese art is one of new painters taking their inspiration from old masters and it’s very likely your chosen artist is building upon established ideas rather than carbon-copying. That said, copyists do abound so the open book will serve to tell you whether you’re looking at an original artist, or not, as you compare their work with the open page.

Artist Chen Yueshui at work
Artist Chen Yueshui at work.

Prices range – as you’d expect – from a few hundred Yuan for a small work to thousands if the work is larger or the artist more reputable. Either way, it’s a bargain. But in the end it is art, so it’s up to you. If you like the picture and the price then all you can do is take a chance and buy it.

The Wider Market-Beyond the Main Complex
Though you can find some credible art on the second floor of the D building, after following the advice above you’ve mostly exhausted what the central complex has to offer and it’s time to move out into the bewildering jumble of emporia beyond. The market beyond is extensive and very varied in what’s on offer. Most of the art shops are to be found close to the central complex including – strangely absent from the central complex itself – the art of wood. This often focuses upon the bole of a fallen tree where the trunk meets the roots in a bewildering but often evocative tangle. These, to a greater or lesser degree, may be carved to highlight something the shape evokes while not losing the original structure, the classic approach. Others may be shaped into furniture while again retaining the original structure overall. As with the stone art, wood art varies from ‘found’ pieces, pleasing as they are with just a little pruning and a coat of varnish, to delicately-carved and finely-detailed expanses of scenery. In the vicinity of the central complex you will also find other arts the main buildings have neglected, such as porcelain and cast-metal.

By now you are probably completely arted-out, but you should continue to explore the market as there are some great bargains for things other than art. The boxes of Guilin snacks, for example, are often on sale here for as little as half the price of those offered by the city centre outlets. You may also find some obscure Western-oriented goods such as coffee beans, though you should – as ever – shop around and bargain. Some of the more prestigious emporia sell the same but at a considerably higher price.

So if you are in Guilin and are looking for art, oddities or bargains in general then get on over to the Wa Yao market – it is definitely worth exploring. 

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Keywords: buying art in Guilin stone carvings Guilin best markets in Guilin bargain art Guilin

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