Yiwu and Transnational Traders: Intersections along Eurasia, Central, South and West Asia, by Diana Ibañez Tirado (University of Sussex)

If you are reading this blog in your office or at home, look around you. It is probable that you are surrounded by a myriad of objects of everyday use imported from China, even if the production process of the products themselves has been completed outside of China: pens, ink, memory sticks, mouse pads, brush and dustpan, safety pins, spoons, handbag, umbrella, the foil paper in your kitchen, your socks, your clothes’ buttons, zipper or bra’s underwire – and the list goes on. How were these items sourced? Who was responsible from bringing them to the shop where you finally purchased them? What type of exchanges, transactions, mobilities and circulations of people, knowledge, money, value, goods, ideas and emotions have been implicated in the trajectories of such goods?

These are the questions and processes that a team of nine scholars led by Professor Magnus Marsden (University of Sussex), are analysing in the project “Yiwu: Trust, Global Traders and Commodities in a Chinese International City” (TRODITIES). The project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

Display of samples of baking paper and kitchen foil in one of Yiwu’s wholesale shops, D. Ibañez Tirado 2016

Many of the objects surrounding us have been purchased in the city of Yiwu, located in China’s Zhejiang Province. Yiwu is one of the world’s most vibrant commercial hubs for the provisioning of what are officially referred to in China as ‘small-commodities’ or commodities or ‘everyday use’. The city is also home to approximately 14,000 foreign traders who run trading and cargo companies; 200,000 foreign traders visit the city every year to purchase wholesale products for their shops and business spread across the globe. Against the backdrop of grand-schemes such as China’s Belt and Road and the New Silk Road that have seen the launch of freight trains that connect Yiwu to Madrid or London in record time, Yiwu city and the so-called ‘cheap’ commodities sold there are popularly portrayed in the media as ‘invading’ and ‘corroding’ local economies because of their suspected mass production and low-quality.

As I write this blog, however, I see additional social, economic and geopolitical processes embedded in simple objects. Take, for example, my mobile phone case and the small wheeled suitcase that I use for short trips to attend conferences. Both objects were purchased in Yiwu by a UK-based Afghan trader who arranged their transport to a wholesale market in East London. From there, another Afghan trader based in the south of England obtained them on a credit basis to supply his shops in Brighton, the city in which I finally bought them. Additionally, the pirated super-hero hoodie that my five-year old son left on the floor this morning was bought as part of a wholesale purchase in Yiwu by an ethnically Uzbek trader from Tajikistan who jointly owns a shop with his Chinese wife in Dushanbe. I was given this hoodie as a gift while conducting fieldwork in Tajikistan for the project in 2017, after spending 7 previous months of research in Yiwu, China. Beyond debates in Central Asia about ‘knock-off’ commodities, and the moral and environmental issues surrounding the type of commodities sold in pound-shops in Brighton’s fashionable streets, in the TRODITIES project we enquire about the human stories that are embedded within such goods and objects, and examine what they reveal about the trajectories and experiences of traders and merchants from a wide variety of settings who operate in Yiwu.

Inside Yiwu’s ‘Futian Market’, the main wholesale market complex in the city, D. Ibañez Tirado 2016

Although the TRODITIES project focuses on networks of traders that connect Yiwu to other Asian settings including the Middle East or West Asia, our early findings show that many of these networks also operate in Europe, the Americas and Africa. Thus, the ways in which networks of traders in Yiwu and related commercial outpost function have forced the team members to theorise the connections and disconnections between world regions and ‘culture areas’ in Asia and beyond. We also question existing analytical models such as ‘globalisation from below’ and ‘methodological nationalism’, as well as the ongoing power of conventional temporal narratives and modes of periodisation. My investigations in Yiwu and the related commercial outpost in Central, West and Eurasia including Dushanbe and Khujand in Tajikistan; Istanbul in Turkey and Odessa in Ukraine, deal with the activities of Persian and/or Russian speaking transnational merchants mainly from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran. I am especially interested in understanding the interactions between intimacy, gender dynamics and Muslim subjectivities.

Grocery shop in one of Yiwu’s main streets, D. Ibañez Tirado 2013

A short walk around Yiwu’s main commercial streets, filled with the smell of grilled meat from the numerous international halal restaurants catering to foreigners, confirm that the majority of foreigners in the city are men from the Middle East and North Africa, but also from Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, India, Kurdistan (especially from Iran and Iraq), Pakistan and Central Asia – some of whom work and live in Europe and the USA. In Yiwu there is also a significant presence of Asian Muslim women working in business and related services especially from China itself, including Uyghurs, Hui and Kazakhs, as well as converted Han. Although I have also met a handful of women traders and owners of cargo companies from Turkey and Iran, the great majority of Muslim female traders hail from Central Asia and the Caucasus (e.g. Turkmen, Kazakh, Tajik, Uzbek, Azeri and Chechen). Some of these well-established female merchants trade between China and their home countries, as well as Istanbul, Russia’s main cities, and Ukraine’s great wholesale markets in Odessa and Kharkov. The nationalities and trading routes of these female merchants is not surprising, as scholars have documented how, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, millions of former Soviet citizens, especially women, turned to trade in order to make a living. In Russian such trade is referred to as chelnoki (shuttle), and a significant body of scholarship exists on ‘suitcase trading’ and ‘tourism trading’. In contrast to the generation of ‘shuttle traders’ from the 1990s and early 2000s, who are mostly depicted as using commerce as a ‘survival strategy’, my interlocutors in Yiwu and Central Asia, repeatedly emphasise their enthusiasm for conducting trading activities, saying it allows them to lead autonomous lives brimming with skill and understanding of the worlds they inhabit. The analysis of this type of historical connexions and discontinuities concerning trading practices in and through Central and West Asia, Eurasia and the Caucasus is one of the many shared interest amongst team members in the TRODITIES project.

Bridal shop in Dushanbe with products imported from Yiwu and Suzhou, D. Ibañez Tirado 2017

For example, Professor Caroline Humphrey (University of Cambridge) has continued her long-standing research on trading practices in Odessa, Ukraine, and has made innovative contributions to theorising the activities of Chinese traders working across the north-eastern border with Russia. Along the Chinese border with Kazakhstan, another TRODITIES team member, Saheira Haliel (University of Sussex), has been investigating the networks formed between ethically Kazakh traders from China and from Kazakhstan, exploring how ethnicity, identity and language play a role in their commercial activities along the China-Kazakh border. In addition, Haliel has also followed these Kazakh border-traders to Yiwu in order to investigate how such networks play out once they have become embedded in new settings. Parallel to this line of research, Haliel has been investigating the everyday interactions between Hui women working in Yiwu, with foreign Muslim traders especially those hailing from the Middle East and South Asia. Over the last decades, the majority of such associations have taken the form of employment and shared businesses, and to a lesser degree, yet still salient in Yiwu, diverse forms of intimate relations and transnational marriages. Vera Skvirskaja (University of Copenhagen) has also combined her previous expertise on trading practices in the port-city of Odessa, Ukraine, with new fieldwork in Georgia where networks of merchants who purchase in Yiwu are salient. Skvirskaja has also conducted research on the Russian traders’ presence in Yiwu and examined their specific culture of commerce and organisational innovation in the form of new corporate structures that attempt to secure growth and exclusivity of design by producing maximum social and spatial distance from the Chinese society and other communities of international merchants present in Yiwu.

Advertisement for a Russian cargo company in Yiwu, D. Ibañez Tirado 2016

The port city of Odessa is one of the most important outposts to which Yiwu is connected through different networks of traders that include not only Russian and Ukrainian wholesalers, but also Azeri, Chechen, Afghan and Vietnamese merchants. Marina Marouda (University of Sussex) has been carrying out ethnographic research on Vietnamese trade diasporas in Eastern Europe, documenting the ways in which they facilitate the circulation of Chinese-made goods purchased in Yiwu into markets around the world. Marouda’s fieldwork sites include Yiwu, Poland (Warsaw) and Ukraine (Odessa) where she has worked with Vietnamese commodity traders and small-scale financiers, looking into not only Vietnamese migratory paths and diasporic connections, but also the integral role such traders play in facilitating the flow of Chinese-made commodities into national, regional and EU markets. Marouda’s central aim is to understand the lives of a significant population of diasporic Vietnamese who have made parts of Eastern Europe their home and are mainly involved in trade. These Vietnamese communities occupy a peripheral position in Poland and the Ukraine, yet they also constitute an evolving influence in the circulation of Chinese commodities, and the institution of the market in Eastern Europe today.

Alongside the Vietnamese trading diaspora studied by Marouda, another network of international traders salient in Odessa are made-up by traders from Afghanistan. Indeed, merchants of Afghan background also constitute one of the most significant networks of global traders in Yiwu. They identify themselves as being Tajik, Pashtun, Uzbek, Turkmen, and Hazara, though small but influential communities of Hindu and Sikh Afghans are also important to this commerce. These traders are connected to further communities in the Gulf, Europe and the USA. Besides running transport offices and trade-related business, there are several Afghan restaurants and supermarkets in Yiwu. The Afghans based permanently in Yiwu (approx. 1000 in number) are joined in the city by a much larger transient population that frequently visit the city in order to purchase goods to send to the countries in which they live and work. Magnus Marsden has been conducting research about the activities of these traders in the city of Yiwu, as well as in the trading outposts to which they facilitate the shipment of commodities purchased in Yiwu and elsewhere in China. In order to better understand this trade, Marsden has also visited the key markets for Yiwu goods that Afghans play a role in supplying, including those in Ukraine, Russia, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Pakistan, as well as in towns and cities in Germany and the UK. Analytically, Mardsen is interested in the historical experiences that inform these people’s modes of doing trade, their responsiveness to geopolitical shifts, the forms of trust that connect them to one another, and the geographical distribution of their commercial networks.

‘Pamir’, a restaurant ran by an ethnically Uzbek Afghan trader based in Odessa, D. Ibañez Tirado 2016

Besides Afghans, other historically significant trading networks in Yiwu are those formed by Yemenis, Syrians and traders from India who move goods throughout Asia and the Middle East, as well as beyond. Paul Anderson (University of Cambridge) has conducted fieldwork among Syrian and Yemeni merchants visiting and residing in Yiwu. He is exploring the history of trading connections between East and West Asia; the effect of the Syrian conflict on trade routes and on merchants in Yiwu; and the ways in which trans-Asian commerce interacts with political, familial and ideological processes. Similarly, Filippo Osella is researching the working of commercial/trading networks between China and India, focusing in particular on the everyday practices of Indian “export agents” settled and working in Yiwu.  Moving between China, south India and Dubai, he is tracing the means through which agents mediate relationships with and between (Chinese) suppliers and (Indian) buyers though a careful politics of trust and mistrust, secrecy and forthrightness.

One of the numerous Syrian restaurants in Yiwu, D. Ibañez Tirado 2016

Finally, the research of Professor Huaichuan Rui (Royal Holloway, University of London) focuses on the type of policies (Chinese and international) that impact on Yiwu’s development, and addresses the over-arching question of how Yiwu has been able to become such a vibrant commercial force in the intricate processes of capitalist expansion and globalisation. In order to address such processes, Dr Rui has examined the Chinese government’s contribution to Yiwu’s status as the world’s node for the low-grade commodity trade. Based on fieldwork, interviews and a consideration of rich archival data of business activities before and after 1949, Rui has analysed the extent to which government policies promote or restrain Yiwu’s evolution in its marketisation, industrialisation, urbanisation, internationalisation and digitalisation. In addition, Rui’s work also addresses the role of Chinese entrepreneurs to Yiwu’s development and transformation.

Chinese porter filling a container in Yiwu’s inland ‘port’, D. Ibañez Tirado 2016

The methodological challenges of conducting multi-sited fieldwork, together with ethnographic work in Yiwu itself, collectively address the nodes and trading practices that have been important for interactions between Eurasian, Central Asian, West-East Asian, and Indian Ocean merchants. As a scholar who began my career with a regional focus on ‘Central Asia’, the TRODITIES project has forced me to think about this region in the light of historical and contemporary transregional flows and disjunctions, networks and circulations that are actively operating in the interstices between so-called ‘culture areas’ and geographical spaces, including ‘Eurasia’. This calls for the development of new perspectives, case-studies, and methodologies, as well as interdisciplinary and collaborative research that brings together diverse traditions, historiographies and forms of multi-sited research. As Ghazal suggests in his analysis of Ibadi mobile networks: “what we need, perhaps, is not so much new spatial reconfigurations but methodologies and tools that enable us to trace those connections that tend to confound conventional metageographies” (2014:583).[i]

Published works and work in progress by TRODITIES team members:

Anderson, Paul. (under review for History and Anthropology) “Aleppo in Asia: Mercantile Networks between Syria, China and the Post-Socialist Ecumene since 1970”.

Humphrey, Caroline (ed.) (forthcoming) Trust and Mistrust in the Economies of the China-Russia Borderlands. Amsterdam University Press.

Humphrey, Caroline (forthcoming) ‘To smile and not to smile: mythic gesture at the Russia-China border’, Social Analysis.

Ibañez Tirado, Diana. (under review for History and Anthropology) “Hierarchies of trade in China and Tajikistan: Uzbek merchants in Yiwu and Dushanbe”.

Marouda, Marina (2017) ‘Clinical trials and venture tribulations: stem cell research and the making of Vietnamese bio-entrepreneurs’. Critique of Anthropology (First Online).

Marsden, Magnus (2018) Islamic cosmopolitanism out of Muslim Asia: Hindu-Muslim business co-operation between Odessa and Yiwu, History and Anthropology 29 (1), 1-19.

Marsden, Magnus (2017) Actually existing Silk Roads. Journal of Eurasian Studies 8 (1), 22-30.

Marsden, Magnus (2016) Trading worlds: Afghan merchants across modern frontiers. London: Hurst and Company and Oxford University Press.

Marsden, Magnus, and Diana Ibañez Tirado (2015) Repertoires of Family Life and the Anchoring of Afghan Trading Networks in Ukraine, History and Anthropology 26 (2), 145-164.

Osella, Filippo and D. Rudnyckyj (eds.) (2017) Religion and the Morality of the Market.  Cambridge University Press.

Rui, Huaichuan (under review for History and Anthropology) “The government role in promoting Yiwu’s development”.

Skvirskaja, Vera (under review for History and Anthropology) ‘The Russian merchant’ innovation in contemporary China: culture(s) of mistrust, moral economy and economic success’.

[i] Ghazal, A. N. 2014. Transcending Area Studies: Piecing Together the Cross-Regional Networks of Ibadi Islam, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 34 (3), 556-564.