Shopping for Chinese books in the United States is wrought with challenges. But it’s a necessary nuisance if you want your child to learn Chinese and your local libraries don’t carry Chinese children’s books. Your main options for buying Chinese books are to:
- Order books from a US-based Chinese bookstore at prices significantly above retail costs.
- Ask friends and relatives to help them shop overseas (provided that you have connections in Asian countries like China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia) and then ship them to the United States. This comes with the downside of depending on other people.
- Buy books directly from online Chinese stores (eg, Taobao 淘宝网) and pay international shipping.
- Use an online agent who will coordinate your order from Chinese bookstores, communicate with sellers, consolidate the packaging, and charge you international +/- domestic shipping.
In this post, I will give an overview of Taobao and details of my experience with using an agent to buy Chinese books for my children. Please keep in mind that this is my individual experience as a Chinese-American parent. I am sharing this in hopes that it will shed light on book-buying options for other non-fluent families, but this it not meant to be a manual to Taobao shopping.
At the end of the post, I will also share other websites that have reviewed Taobao shopping experiences, but I recommend that you check all original sources for the most current information. The relevance of this article will depend on your Chinese language proficiency, your location, and your comfort with risks of shopping from China.
Note: I first wrote this post in August 2018 and, as promised, I have updated it to reflect my most recent experiences and opinions. Please note that I have no personal or professional relationship with Taobao or 42 Agent (TaobaoRing). Previously, I recommended this agent due to good shopping experience. However, as of December 2018, I cannot confidently recommend this agent due to unprofessional shopping experience and customer service with my last order. I will update this article if future shopping experiences change.
Simplified Chinese books from Taobao and Tmall
If you want to buy inexpensive simplified Chinese books, then you should consider Taobao (淘宝网), a popular online marketplace based in China. To compare numbers, a US-based online bookstore such as China Sprout may charge $69.95 + tax + shipping for a set of 6 paperback Madeline books. In contrast, the same set of Madeline books may be sold on Taobao ¥168 (~$25 USD depending on daily exchange rate) + shipping.
The big caveat is that the entire Taobao website is in Chinese, and you need to read and type Chinese in order to communicate with sellers. You can try using the Google Chrome translate extension, but I found it to be inconsistent and unreliable. Though there are many online tutorials for people who can’t read Chinese, warnings about counterfeit products and delivery problems have made me wary of shopping directly from Taobao. Due to this hesitation, I bought Chinese children’s books from US-based online retailers at extremely marked up prices for the past 2 years.
Then I found out about 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, you may want to consider a Taobao agent. Alternatively, you can try to order directly by following online tutorials.
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, similar to eBay. Anyone can be a seller on Taobao, so you have to be cautious about counterfeit products.
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 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, household goods, CDs, DVDs, and more! However, you have to consider the costs of ordering internationally versus domestically. Items like simplified Chinese books are relatively light (in contrast to wood products) that have low overall cost despite international shipping are worth buying.
What NOT to buy from Taobao
Avoid heavy products on Taobao
If you are shopping internationally, please be aware that wood products are heavy with extremely high overseas shipping costs. Shipping is weight & size-based and not a flat-rate. Thus, the shipping costs for your order are not known until the Taobao agent receives the items.
In addition, I have purchased a wood puzzle with terrible off-gassing. I have also heard of another family who received a wood product that was infested with termites!!!
HowToTao has a translated list of prohibited items that cannot be shipped internationally.
Avoid traditional Chinese books on Taobao
Traditional Chinese books may also cost more than simplified Chinese books due to higher retail costs and also shipping from Taiwan to China and then to your final destination. Thus, shopping from books.com.tw or domestically might be more cost-effective.
How to shop at Taobao and Tmall when you can’t read Chinese
The 2 ways to shop from Taobao are:
- Shop directly from the Taobao app or website (with the help of online tutorials if you are not fluent)
- Use a Taobao agent to coordinate the Taobao order and delivery
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 photograph, weigh, and package everything and arrange for shipment to your home. Commission varies per website.
You can compare different Taobao agents, pros, cons, and various fees on HowToTao, but please refer to the websites of the actual agents for the most up-to-date information.
Pros and cons of Taobao shopping for non-fluent parents:
Shopping directly from Taobao via tutorial
- Least expensive option (eg, no commission rate or other fees from a 3rd party agent)
- Taobao offers direct shipping and global consolidated shipping. Rates for international shipping fees may be less compared to that of an agent. As a large company, they may have large discounts with international shipping companies.
- If there is a problem with the order, you need to figure out how to communicate with the seller
- Families who have shopped directly have had complaints about poor packaging, missing items, tracking not being updated, shipping problems
Shopping at Taobao with an agent
- Ability to order from stores that typically do not ship internationally (eg, Amazon China)
- Coordinate orders from multiple Chinese stores (eg, Taobao, Amazon China, JD, Dangdang)
- Check items for defects and inaccuracies and takes photos prior to international shipping
- Merge and re-pack items received from different sellers to reduce international shipping costs
- Communicates with sellers for you (eg, negotiate returns)
- Pay commission fee
- +/- Domestic freight fee
- Inflated currency exchange rate
- Higher international shipping fees compared to shopping from Taobao directly
If you can read Chinese fluently, shopping directly from Taobao is the most cost-effective option.
Consider your Chinese literacy skills
If you cannot read Chinese at all, you will likely need a Taobao agent, unless you would rather shop elsewhere.
If your language skills are somewhere in between like me, then you have to weigh the pros and cons and consider your proficiency level and whether you have someone readily available to help.
Which Taobao agent is the best?
Since I have only shopped with one Taobao agent, I cannot answer this question. Based on recommendations from several parents in a bilingual Facebook group, I have shopped from Taobao via 42 Agent (formerly TaobaoRing).
42 agent ships Taobao products to the US and numerous other countries (listed here). Other popular Taobao agents include EZBuy, TBfocus, and Superbuy. I have not used these other agents, but you may explore this article for reviews.
Review of 42 Agent (Taobaoring)
Over the past year, I have had mostly good experiences with shopping at 42 Agent. I was able to order hundreds of Chinese children’s books that would have cost me much more had I not ventured outside of Chinese-American bookstores.
However, with my last order, I was very disappointed that 42 Agent failed to inform their customers that the least expensive international shipping option (Shunfeng) was not available during the month of November 2018. They have replied to my concerns which you can read in this article, and others have expressed similar concerns that I agree with.
Apparently, Shunfeng was temporarily canceled due to concerns about lost packages and they did not notify because a small percentage of their customers used ShunFeng. I heard from another parent that they refunded her the shipping difference, but they did not refund my order.
Another concern that has been expressed from other parents is that their international shipping costs are much higher than Taobao direct. However, to me, it makes sense that Taobao would have lower shipping rates because it’s a large company.
2 Agent rates are higher than Taobao direct but still lower than rates when you check the shipping companies directly. Otherwise, I’m disappointed with the way that they have corresponded with other concerns, and I’m not sure if this is due to the recent company change from Taobaoring to 42 Agent.
Therefore, I am not sure whether I will try using this agent again. However, I don’t know of any other agents, and I am extremely uncomfortable with shopping directly from Taobao. Even my friends who are fluent in Chinese have complained about shopping at Taobao directly.
To be honest, I’m not exactly sure where I will shop next, but I am planning on trying timesbook.com and will share my experience afterward.
For those who are curious about my past shopping experience, keep reading. Otherwise, please scroll to the end of the post where you can find tutorials on how to order from Taobao directly.
How to use 42 Agent (Taobaoring)
Below are the general steps for using 42 Agent:
- Register for an account at 42agent.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 42agent.com.
- Confirm the order and make first payment. This payment is for the products you have purchased, domestic freight charges, and commission fee (8% of the item cost and domestic freight charges).
- When 42 Agent receives the items, they will inspect and send photos for you to approve.
- Confirm if you approve and make second payment which includes international shipping, paypal fees, +/- credit card fees (note that banks will charge you if you use a non-international card to make the order).
Please refer to 42 Agent’s website for further details and instructions.
After 42 Agent 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.
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.
42 Agent order costs
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, 42 Agent 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
- +PayPal fees 4.4% + 0.3 USD
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 USD items
- $290.00 ¥ / $47.27 USD freight
- $74.43 ¥ / $12.13 USD commission
- 1,848.00 ¥ / $301.22 USD international express via Shunfeng
- +PayPal fees 4.4% + 0.3 USD
Taobao order example C
- Weight: 25.3kg
- Order placed on 11/11 and received on 11/28
- 1,177.10 ¥ / $191.87 USD items
- 165.00 ¥ / $26.90 USD freight
- 107.37 ¥ / $17.50 USD commission
- 2,209.34 ¥ / 360.12 USD international express via EMS
- +PayPal fees 4.4% + 0.3 USD
Payment involves 2 steps:
- Item cost + freight (domestic shipping) + commission
- International shipping fee based on weight, size, number of parcels, and shipment method
Please visit the agent’s website for the most current shipping, commission, and paypal fees. You can verify international shipping rates directly on the shipping companies’ website (eg, EMS, Shunfeng).
How much should I buy from Taobao to make shipping worthwhile?
When I asked 42 Agent this question, they explained that it is hard to say how many books or materials will reach the maximum parcel weight as different kind of books have different weights. The book may be only one or a set which includes 6pcs; some books are paperback while others are hardcover.
For reference, however, the maximum weight limit for common shippers such as EMS and SAL is 30kg (67lb), and Shunfeng will ship up to 70kg (154lb) in a parcel. 42 Agent advises against shipping very heavy parcels due to concern of product damage during shipping and delivery.
As for minimum, if one book weighs approximately 500g and is shipped via the cheapest option, shipping will cost 102 ¥ / $16.63 USD.
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 stoc
Review of Packaging from 42 Agent
I have seen photos from people who have ordered from Taobao directly with tons of wasted plastic and damaged boxes. However, with 42 Agent, every item has been protected carefully with bubble wrap and secured with tape in thick cardboard boxes. There has been some wasted filler plastic in our boxes which I wish was replaced with paper.
Overall, the boxes have been easy to open with a box cutter, and the contents take 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!”
Take-home points about Taobao shopping
In summary, if you cannot read Chinese, want to save cost on books, and not comfortable with shopping directly on Taobao, you may want to consider shopping with a Taobao agent.
However, the cost will be higher compared to shopping directly from Taobao, and you have to consider the pros and cons.
Given my language limitations and my extreme discomfort with the possibility of a problematic order, I do not feel ready to shop directly from Taobao. Should a problem arise, I do not want to bother my out-of-country relatives with communicating with sellers. Therefore, I do not mind paying extra for an agent.
Due to the unexpected change with ShunFeng shipping last month, I recommend double-checking the shipping options on the website or contacting the agent prior to ordering.
However, now I hesitate to endorse a specific agent. You can talk with other parents in our Facebook group to hear their experiences and brainstorm pros and cons together!
What about you? Have you shopped from Taobao directly or with an agent? Please share your shopping experience in the comments!
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, here are some tutorials:
- United States: How to buy Chinese books from Taobao (Hands-On Chinese Fun)
- Malaysia: How To Shop Online On Taobao Directly If You Can’t Read Chinese (iMoney.My Learning Centre)
- Hong Kong:
Please note that How to Tao has a wealth of information focused purely on shopping at Taobao, but their website does not appear current since the last blogpost was in 2017.
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
- When and How to Introduce Chinese Characters to Kids?
- 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