Unless you want to avoid paying import duties on a high-end smartphone (assuming you can find an unlocked phone at a lower price than on Taobao), you should probably just get one here. A cheap American phone probably isn't going to have Chinese character support.
Wow, I finally found someone who doesn't own a cellphone. Good stuff. Why should you change even if you will relocate in China? Keep your cellphone-free style, cuz it's unique and cool!
Hahahahaha ... other questions to ask:
--- if I bring my phone here, and it does not work, would I get it back if I bring it to a shop to fix?
--- if I buy a phone here, will it actually work, or it is just a box with colorful lights?
I think the cheapest new phones here are around 30 USD. You would need to get your US phone unlocked, which can sometimes be done just by calling your phone carrier and asking them nicely, and sometimes requires you to actually know how to use a computer and the internets. The latter knowledge would probably still be required to get an older phone to display Chinese. This is all a non-issue though, as you'll need to buy the newest cell phone model every six months or so to prove to your classmates that you don't come from a poor village.
I believe this is the video that DD was trying to show. http://v.ku6.com/show/qnery5Mb4t9Ag7WSU_vH8w...html
Hahahahaha ... Minger, that one should prove to be a great party trick :)
Do Chinese SIM cards work with American phones?
Most likely if you only want 2G, but you will need to check if you want 3G ...
There are three CDMA models in China for 3G, TD-SCDMA (this is run by China Mobile and is only found in China, so it probably wont work for your American phone), CDMA 2000 and WCDMA (these two are operated by China Unicom and China Telecom respectively, and I always confuse thw two, but both standards are found outside China) ... which one are you using in States?
Getting a phone in China is probably easier, and the phone I bought a few years was unlocked and worked fine in the UK,