The local charm and global link of Yiwu

By FAN LIZHU / 11-16-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

No 12, Xinma Road: from Yiwu to the World

Chinese civilization, with its long and storied history, entered the agricultural era earlier than most, thus endowing its society with a distinctive agrarian nature. Over the past century, rural society and its people have been deeply involved in China’s rapid changes from rural to modern society. In the past four decades since the reform and opening up, the miracle of China’s economic growth has been inseparable from the interaction with the countryside. This indigenous power has considerable sociological value.

No 12, Xinma Road: from Yiwu to the World, by Zhang Letian, a professor from the School of Social Development and Public Policy at Fudan University (FDU), zooms in on the lives of eight individuals to illustrate how ordinary people in Yiwu, Zhejiang Province, miraculously transformed their town from “nothing” into a global hub for small commodities.

Back then, sociologist Fei Xiaotong pointed out that the real problem in China’s rural areas is solving the hunger of its people. The desire to escape poverty and pursue a better life fueled the unremitting efforts of rural society amid reform and opening up. Similarly, the characters in the book, driven by these impulses, constitute a fundamental factor behind China’s development miracle. Thus, Zhang argues that the land of Yiwu holds the secret to unlocking the mystery of Chinese modernization.

Large batches of daily necessities from Yiwu find their way into the lives of people in other developing and less developed countries. As such, Yiwu and its people step into the forefront of Belt and Road construction, and are intertwined with the human community with a shared future via trade and personnel exchanges. This enables reflection upon the pattern of the world and the concepts of “periphery” and “center” that have been commonly used by political sociologists. The people of Yiwu are breaking the pattern of periphery with their business tentacles. They have played the role of assistant in achieving the linkage and slow recovery of the historically prosperous land and maritime Silk Roads, driving the vitality of countless local markets.

From the perspective of anthropology and sociology, the Yiwu miracle provides a case study by which to probe Chinese modernization from a primary level, and to review globalization by factors of culture and localization. The non-Western-dominated economic and trade exchanges built by Yiwu’s small commodity market aspire to create fresh opportunities for developing countries and bring improvements to people’s lives. Commodity trade is spawning new relationship models, heralding breakthroughs for populations and countries considered “periphery,” and uncovering new points for theoretical development.

Fan Lizhu is a professor from the School of Social Development and Public Policy at FDU.