The story of Yiwu Market: Part Two…origins of world’s largest wholesale market

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IN the first instalment, we traced how the village of Yiwu had, over the years, morphed to become the world’s largest wholesale market for small commodities, boasting more than 70 000 shop stalls under its tentacles.
And while today the city is revered for the status it has gained, it owes its success and existence to its rich history which dates back to 222 BC.
Initially named Wushang County during the Qin Dynasty, the former countryside village was renamed Yiwu County in 624 AD.
Yiwu is nestled in a mountainous region with barren lands, and as early as the 17th Century, its people had already carved a reputation for themselves in supplementing their measly produce through trading activities.
Poverty drove the peasants who had no option to ensure they had the next meal on the table, hence the decision to trade to eke a living.
Chinese peasants were known to never lack when it came to tact, and the people of Yiwu had discovered that chicken feathers were a superb raw material to make fertiliser in a bid to make their highly infertile land improve their grain yields.
As they sorted out the feathers, someone discovered that there was a potential market for feather dusters if they selected the highest quality rooster feathers, which they started producing in abundance and started exporting.
The most unfortunate thing was that the feathers were not available in Yiwu, they could only be sourced from neighbouring lands.
So what did they do?
Given that the Yiwu people had sugarcane at their disposal, which was one of the few crops that thrived on their land, they would process the sugar, cook it and mix it with ginger to make candy bars which they would cut into smaller pieces.
These candy chunks, which appealed to people of all ages, soon became popular, and they would trade the candy for feathers.
This practice was soon known as the ‘feather for candy’ story, and, according to yiwu-market-guide.com, “…feather for candy eventually became the soul of Yiwu Market.”
So in the early 1600s, the feather-for-candy trade was reportedly started by a group of soldiers working under a very famous general fighting back pirates who had invaded the inland.
After successfully beating back the pirates to the sea and virtually winning the battle, the soldiers went back home to their families in Yiwu.
“These soldiers were more used to travelling like an army than staying on poor farmlands as peasants,” reads a narrative on yiwu-market-guide.com.
During the not-so-busy months on the farming calendar, from October to April, they would venture into the nearby villages plying their trade.
These men soon earned the title ‘Feather-Candy-Man’ (FCM), and they were identified by carrying a shoulder-pole with bamboo baskets, traversing both nearby and faraway lands.
And to attract attention, they would use a rattle-drum, in much the same way our very own bottle traders use a bell while shouting ‘mabhodhoro’.
It was this first group of FCM who became the masters of the feather-for-candy trade.
Given that a good product creates demand for itself, when more and more FCM traders joined the bandwagon, some decided to stop travelling and set up shop in Yiwu, supplying the travelling FCM.
As more peasants abandoned their land in favour of FCM, which had turned into a lucrative trade, more and more FCM settled in Yiwu, and that was how Yiwu wholesale market began to take shape.
This business, which has its earliest wholesale markets dating back to the 1700s, went on and on for centuries until the birth of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949.
However, the PRC was grounded in communism, hence free trade was deemed illegal during the ‘planned economy’ era.
Suddenly, the trading business which had been considered lucrative for centuries was considered capitalist, hence the system treated the players with a heavy hand.
But the mountainous Yiwu was still mountainous, its barren land was still barren, its people still starved, and given that people had an obligation to put food on their tables, many FCMs continued business secretly.
As the years went by, trade in goods expanded to encompass other small products such as needles and buttons, whatever small ornaments the traders could get their hands on.
The FCM who got caught had their goods confiscated, and some were put behind bars. But as long as there were FCM, there was someone to supply them, and this cat-and-mouse game lasted 33 years only to be brought to an end in 1982 after an interesting incident had occurred.
Ms Feng, a young woman with five children struggling to make ends meet, was caught by the authorities engaging in trading, and she gathered the guts to confront the mayor of Yiwu, Xie Gao Hua.
When Ms Feng got to the mayor’s office, she confronted him and told him that she wanted to continue selling on the streets.
She got into a short intense argument with Xie and ended up slamming the door in his face.
After this altercation, the mayor decided not to be hasty in his response and instituted a several-month-long investigation of the traders in Yiwu.
Xie’s investigation concluded the traders had better living conditions than the peasants, and this motivated him to take a huge risk to lobby the authorities: ‘Why not just let the traders ply their trade if their living standards are better than what the Government would want to confine them to’.
Xie not only risked losing his job, but imprisonment for supporting capitalism, but what worked to his advantage was that China’s then president, Deng Xiaoping, was considering free trade at the time and had declared that: ‘Let some cities get rich first before others’.
In September 1982, Yiwu Government put cement boards over a stinky ditch nearby Huqingmen Street, and set up a market with 700 stalls, Hu Qing Men Market, marking the first free marketplace in the PRC’s history.
This was the birth of the first Yiwu Market, which has now grown to become the largest wholesale market of small commodities in the world, earning huge profits of billions of US dollars.
Despite now being widely recognised as the largest small commodities market in the world, the intriguing story of Yiwu is a shining example of how determination and willpower can transform a community relegated to the gallows of economic productivity can catapult itself to gain international recognition, with the right kind of support.

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