If you want to buy affordable Chinese books and products, then you should use Taobao (淘宝网), a popular online marketplace based in China. The big caveat is that you need to read Chinese fairly fluently in order to navigate the website. Though there are many online tutorials for people who can’t read Chinese, warnings about counterfeit products make me wary of using my credit card there. Therefore, for two years, I bought Chinese children’s books from US-based online retailers at extremely marked up prices. Then I found out about reputable online Taobao agents that coordinate Taobao transactions, shipping, and delivery. If you can’t read Chinese or if you have had problems with shopping from Taobao directly, an agent will be your best option!
According to howtotao.com, TaobaoRing is ideal for European and American shoppers, and parents in a helpful bilingual Facebook group raved about their experience. TaobaoRing also ships to numerous other countries (listed here). Those in Singapore, Malaysia, and other countries may refer to this post for reviews of additional Taobao agents (eg, EZBuy, TBfocus, Superbuy).
Now that I have shopped with TaobaoRing several times over the past year, I can recommend this agent for customers who read English and cannot read Chinese. In this post, I’ll give an overview of Taobao and my TaobaoRing experience as an American parent buying Chinese books and educational materials for my children. I will update this article if future shopping experiences change any of these opinions.
Please note that I have no personal or professional relationship with Taobao or TaobaoRing. The information in this post is based on my shopping experience as a nonfluent Chinese-American parent.
Taobao (淘宝网) versus Tmall – What is the difference?
Alilbaba, the world’s largest ecommerce company, owns 3 main websites: taobao.com, tmall.com, and alibaba.com. The company is headquartered in China. Taobao.com and tmall.com websites are entirely in Chinese while alibaba.com is in English. If you are a parent looking for Chinese books and resources for your kids, Taobao (淘宝网) and Tmall (天猫) have a very wide selection of educational options. On the other hand, Alibaba.com does not have many Chinese learning materials.
With millions of sellers and shops, Taobao operates on a consumer-to-consumer system. Anyone can be a seller on Taobao, so you have to be cautious about counterfeit sellers.
Tmall is an offshoot of Taobao with it’s own web domain, tmall.com. When searching for a product on Taobao, you may get results from Tmall that redirect to tmall.com. This is okay because they are related websites. The difference is that businesses can sell brand name goods directly to consumers (eg, business-to-consumer model). You may also prefer to shop at Tmall because they guarantee all products to be official and authentic. Tmall business sellers have certificates of quality and compliance.
What can I buy at Taobao and Tmall?
The vast majority of Taobao books are in simplified Chinese with and without Pinyin. Many English books are available but since the company is based in China, the traditional Chinese selection is limited. They also sell educational products (eg Montessori materials), toys, clothing, houseware, CDs, DVDs, and more!
Chinese books from Taobao are very inexpensive!! Most books are only a few dollars each, and you can get a complete series at low prices. The downside is that international shipping costs are high.
Here are some Chinese books that we received last month! For Chinese book reviews, please check this link for weekly updates.
What is a Taobao agent?
A Taobao agent is a web service that helps foreign shoppers buy merchandise from Taobao. Based on your order form, the agent buys the items from the Taobao seller(s), and they receive all of the products for you. Then they package everything and ship it to your home. In addition to the cost of the goods and shipping (both domestically in China and internationally to your address), you pay a commission fee. They earn income by taking commission from the sale and shipping costs. Commission varies per website; TaobaoRing charges 8%. You can compare different Taobao agents, pros, cons, and various fees on HowToTao.
How to use TaobaoRing
Below are the general steps for using TaobaoRing:
- Register for an account at taobaoring.com. Follow the instructions on the website for setting up the account.
- Open a new tab in your web browser for taobao.com. In the search bar, type the item name in Chinese or enter the ISBN.
- After finding the desired product, copy/paste the link of the product into order list on taobaoring.com.
- Submit order on taobaoring.com.
- Confirm the order and make first payment. This payment is for the products you have purchased.
- When TaobaoRing receives the items, they will send photos for you to approve.
- Confirm if you approve and make second payment.
Please refer to TaobaoRing’s website for further details and instructions. Below is a screenshot of the quick order screen.
After TaobaoRing receives my order at their office, they send several photos of the products for my review. The photos have been slightly dark and blurry, but each can be enlarged for a close-up look! Upon request, they can send additional photos for clarification.
The following screenshots show examples of conversations that I have had with the Taobao staff about books I have ordered. Note that the item description is translated in English. Email conversations are also all in English.
Tips for searching Taobao if you can’t read Chinese
In order to search for items on Taobao, you have to know either the Chinese title, author, or the ISBN. I typically include the ISBN in my book reviews. Please note that ISBN numbers will different depending on the language version (eg simplified vs traditional vs. English) because may be from different publishers. Since Taobao is based in Chinese, most of the Chinese books and educational resources will be in simplified Chinese (简体).
If you can’t read Chinese, you can look for books in the following ways:
- Search for Chinese books on an English-based website (eg, China Sprout, Little Monkey and Mouse) and look at the sample images and descriptions. When you find books of your liking, then translate the titles via Google Translate. Please note that these would be approximate translations. Then copy/paste the Chinese names in the Taobao search bar and look for matching cover images in the results. This is pretty labor intensive as I have personally experienced, but it gets faster over time.
- To find books with Pinyin, enter the book’s name followed by “拼音” in the search bar.
- To find traditional Chinese books, enter the author’s name in Chinese and 繁体 in the search bar and look for the cover image of the book. Since the same book may have different titles in simplified and traditional Chinese due to different publishers and translators, it is important to search by Chinese author.
If you want to shop for other educational Chinese products, other keywords I have used include:
- Montessori: 蒙特梭利
- Montessori sandpaper: 蒙特梭利砂纸
- 3-part cards: 三段卡或三部卡
You can also find a list of Montessori items on TaoBao from Crafty Academic.
What NOT to buy from Taobao
If you are shopping internationally, please be aware that wood products are heavy with extremely high overseas shipping costs. Shipping is weight-based and not a flat-rate, so the shipping costs for your order are not known until the Taobao agent receives the items.
I have also heard that Traditional Chinese books may also cost more than simplified Chinese books since books might be shipped from Taiwan to China and then to your final destination. Thus, shopping from books.com.tw or domestically might be more cost-effective.
HowToTao has a list of prohibited items that cannot be shipped internationally.
How to choose a Taobao seller
Most of my orders have been from reputable businesses on Tmall (天貓). After entering keywords in the search bar, you can narrow down the results by clicking the checkbox next to 天貓 in the menu bar (blue circle in the image below). Then I look to see which results seem to be most popular by looking for “人付款” which translates to “people pay.” Don’t worry if the number seems low though – I have bought many great books that may not be as popular as cartoons or Disney products. However, I try not to pick “0人付款” if I’ve never shopped from the seller before.
Regarding sellers, my two preferred bookstores are:
However, I have selected books from numerous other Tmall stores, and all of them arrived in excellent condition. So far, no complaints of the Tmall stores!
On Taobao, the vast majority of my books are from 三味童 书屋 (Sanwei Books) in excellent condition. So far, 林明子 Picture Books are the only that have been suboptimal quality. The binding of 2 paperback books fell apart after only a two weeks of reading. The 林明子 Picture Books were purchased from 赫赫有名书店, but the books had arrived in good condition.
I only buy books with clear sample photos, preferably with at least a few reviews of the item. You should scroll down each page to see if there are photos and customer reviews. Keep in mind that items with a price well below the average price may be poor quality or counterfeit. I also choose sellers that offer books as sets to save on cost.
TBFocus has detailed tips for how to choose a Taobao seller and understand the rating system.
TaobaoRing review of order costs
Since I don’t know what you are ordering, I can’t tell you what your order will cost! But for reference, I will give examples of recent orders that I have placed. Overall, I have experienced significant savings compared to shopping via a US retailer where I would have spent thousands of dollars. For example, a single book at China Sprout often costs about the same price as a whole set of books at Taobao! Also, for another order, TaobaoRing was going to use another shipping company but then realized Shunfeng was cheaper by $33. The Taobao agent emailed me to ask which if I had a preference and refunded me promptly!
Taobao order example A
- Weight: 27kg (60lb) total; 2 orders combined.
- The first order was place on 6/5 but I forgot to verify the photos for a few weeks and one book was not in stock until July.
- The second order was place on 6/27 and I also forgot to confirm that for a few days.
- I received the full package on 7/10.
- $279.82 items
- $66.84 freight
- $27.73 commission
- $137.48 international express via Shunfeng
Taobao order example B
- Weight: 32.5 kg (71.6 lb)
- Order placed on 8/27 and received on 9/12
- $950.52 ¥ / $154.93 items
- $290.00 ¥ / $47.27 freight
- $74.43 ¥ / $12.13 commission
- 1,848.00 ¥ / $301.22 international express via Shunfeng
Payment involves 2 steps:
- Item cost + domestic shipping + 8% agent fee
- International shipping fee based on weight, size, number of parcels, and shipment method
You can read more about the shipping, agent, and paypal fees on the Taobaoring website.
How much should I buy from Taobao to make shipping worthwhile?
Taobao review of delivery time
Here is a typical timeline of submitting, confirming, paying for, and receiving the order! Note that the timeline is in reverse chronological order with the most recent event at the top. As you can see, the whole process takes about 2 weeks if everything is in stock.
TaobaoRing review of Packaging
I have seen photos from people who have ordered from Taobao directly with tons of wasted plastic and damaged boxes. However, with TaobaoRing, every item has been protected carefully with bubble wrap and secured with tape. The was some wasted filler plastic in one of our boxes which I wish was replaced with paper. Overall, the boxes have been easy to open with a box cutter, and the contents took about fifteen minutes to unwrap. Here are pictures of the packaging and Taobao unboxing!
My kids are so excited when packages arrive!! Here is my son trying to lift a 60lb box of books. He kept saying “好重! 好重! Help me mama!”
In summary, if you cannot read Chinese, want to save cost on books, and not comfortable with shopping directly on Taobao, I recommend shopping with a Taobao agent like TaobaoRing. For more questions about ordering from Taobao via Taobaoring, please contact Taobaoring’s customer service. I have no affiliation with the company and am simply sharing a resource that has been helpful to me as a non-fluent family.
Therefore, please direct all inquiries to Taobaoring the most up-to-date information, policies, and rates.
Major online Chinese bookstores can be found in this post.
To see our favorite Chinese children’s books, please click this link!
If you prefer to shop from Taobao directly, detailed instructions can be found at How to Tao. How to Tao is an unbiased website that is focused purely on shopping at Taobao.
For tips and ideas on encouraging Chinese learning at home, check out the following posts
- How to Get Your Child to Speak the Minority Language
- Teach Your Child a Second Language at Home with 5 Key Steps
- Raising Multilingual Children as a Non-Fluent Parent: 7 Lessons Learned
- How to Find a Foreign Language Teacher for Your Child
- 10 Ways to Encourage Your Child to Read
- Fun & Educational Chinese Activities – A How-To Guide
If you’d like to learn more about our family’s language journey, I welcome you to these posts:
- A Letter to My Parents: Why I’m Teaching Your Grandchildren Chinese
- One Person, One Language: Our Family’s Trilingual Schedule 2017-2018
- How to Learn Chinese as a Busy Parent: 10+ Strategies
- Homeschool Tour