Fireflies, talismans and ‘pretend boyfriends’ on sale on Taobao

Taobao is the most vibrant trading environment imaginable. The Chinese sell anything here, from original brand products to knock-off and ‘grey market’ products. The new product addition – live fireflies sold in jars – offers proof of TaoBao’s extremely lively and creative offering. To some, selling fireflies that are bound to die in days also raises questions about the necessity of some kind of some kind of policing and supervision on the platform.

With around 800 million product listings as of March 2013, Taobao Marketplace is one of the world’s top 10 most visited websites. The combined gross merchandise volume (GMV) of TaoBao Marketplace and (where established brand owners sell directly to customers, also owned by Alibaba) is just under €134 billion per year.

People sell a lot of interesting products on this c-to-c platform. You can buy live scorpions – a dozen sell at around € 1.35 – and mother breast milk, from a saleswoman who posted a picture of herself holding her infant son together with pictures of small bars of soaps in heart or flower shapes.

A €20,000 Fu

There are also dozens of shops on TaoBao that offer ‘Fu’, the Taoist talisman said to possess special powers that can either bring the purchaser good luck or help prevent bad luck. Or simply help stop babies from crying. Most ‘Fu’s’ have Taoist symbols written on special paper that is then folded in a special pattern and sealed in a pouch. A Fu can come at any price, from less than 1 euro to over € 20,000 for particularly powerful ‘Fu’s’.

You can buy gaming credits on TaoBao, which can be handy if you are playing an online game and cannot seem to be able to reach a next level. One can even buy poems on TaoBao, at a shop with the name ‘The Sadness of a 50 Cent Poet’. The shop offers 45 short poems by four poets. The price tag says: “Our poems are free. If you think they are good, we would not mind a 50-cent donation.”

‘Pretend boyfriend’

A very popular item on TaoBao is the ‘pretend boyfriend’. In August, around the Chinese traditional Qixi Festival (also known as the 'Chinese Valentine's Day') and around Chinese New year many Chinese women face the problem of not being able to bring boyfriend to Qixi occasions and family gatherings. To avoid relatives asking questions about one’s single state, some turn to TaoBao to solve this matter quickly – at a price.

Right before the Chinese New Year, there was an explosion of listings of men offering their services as pretend boyfriends. Some vendors offered their companionship for 800 yuan (just over €100) per day for trips to other cities and ‘to visit family’. Lower rates apply for providing a make shopping escort or even “to help release negative energy by listening to complains or abuse.” The rate for this service is 50 yuan (€6,66) per 20 minutes.

50 live fireflies

A recent opinion article in the Shanghai Daily clearly put the question on the table: should traders be allowed to sell just about anything on China’s most popular online shopping website? Is a jar of 50 or more live fireflies (considered a very romantic gift at the occasion of Chinese Valentine’s Day) a proper gift, along the lines of chocolate and flowers? “Unlike crickets or grasshoppers, which are relatively easier to feed and keep alive, fireflies die easily. Removed from their habitats, they could die in a matter of days. The trade in live fireflies is thus a cruel business”, wrote Shanghai Daily’s blogger Ni Tao.

Fly business booming

The bugs are sold in groups of 50 or 99, costing 219 yuan (€30) and 399 yuan (€53) respectively. The firefly business is booming. One Hangzhou-based vendor had conducted more than 170,000 online firefly transactions via TaoBao on one single business day. In case some fireflies die before they reach the customer, the vendor often provides 20 percent more than the purchased amount for free. The vendor started his business as early as 2005 on a 500-square kilometre farm designed for the purpose of raising fireflies.

Capturing and selling fireflies large quantities, the blogger claims, has serious ecological consequences. “Fireflies feast on pests like river snails that destroy crops. They are also an essential part of the food chain and are themselves eaten by larger creatures. Decimation of their population could deal a huge blow to the ecological balance.” The blogger concludes in a relieved tone that the firefly business could be over soon, as NGO’s and authorities have aired their concerns. “The burgeoning sales of fireflies is an illustration of the poor ecological awareness of many people. It also highlights a dark side of China’s much-vaunted e-commerce industry.”

Images by Taobao and Quinn Dombrowski on Flickr

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