PhD student Man Xu's new article: 'The Sky-High Dreams of Yiwu’s Grassroots Cosmopolitans' on Sixth Tone

February 12, 2021 by Jeremy Nichols

PhD student Man Xu’s new article The Sky-High Dreams of Yiwu’s Grassroots Cosmopolitans is featured in Sixth Tone, an online publication that provides content on contemporary China.  Man’s blog examines how Yiwu is redefining cosmopolitanism, moving away from an exclusive lifestyle meant only for the societal elite to a culture created in a thriving global city accessible to those with the entrepreneurial drive to improve their socio-economic standing.

Those that migrate to Yiwu in search of better employment opportunities provided by its strong international commercial sector are required to be fluent in several languages and often travel abroad to learn the languages and seek out business opportunities.  Furthermore, strong informal relationships with international clients require an in-depth understanding of various cultures and societies. Their transnational lives coupled with the informal and formal relationships with the global community has naturally developed a cosmopolitan lifestyle for the working class within Yiwu.  Man highlights the experiences of individuals in Yiwu that have come from modest socio-economic backgrounds.  Despite the cosmopolitan lifestyle now afforded to those of modest backgrounds, the author notes how Covid-19 exposes the precariousness of employment in Yiwu that still remains.

Man Xu is a PhD student in her sixth year in the PhD program at the University of Toronto focusing on migration, transnationalism and Chinese Muslim traders.  She is currently working on her dissertation, examining practices of small-commodity trade businesses between China and the Middle East with the guidance of supervisors Prof. Patricia Landolt and Prof. Ping-Chun Hsiung.

We've included an excerpt of the article below. Read the full article on the Sixth Tone website here.

The Sky-High Dreams of Yiwu’s Grassroots Cosmopolitans

Cosmopolitanism is usually associated with the elite. In Yiwu, migrants are forging their own kind of globalized society.

Last winter, I spent an afternoon drinking tea and catching up with a contact of mine, surnamed Li, and a group of locally based interpreters at his small commodity trading firm’s new office in the eastern city of Yiwu. Unsurprisingly, given the setting, our conversation ranged widely, from local affairs to the Middle East. Suddenly the topic shifted to Canada, the country in which I’m studying for my Ph.D. and a place they knew little about.

“How do people shop in Canada?” Li asked. “How popular is online shopping there?” After I gave a brief and not particularly professional introduction to the country, someone responded cheerfully: “It seems like a promising market! Would you be interested in a partnership with us?” He then spontaneously outlined a plan for the pair of us to export Chinese products to Canada.

It’s the kind of thing you get used to in Yiwu, an international commercial hub that’s been nicknamed “the world’s supermarket.” Business owners and interpreters in the city are capable of switching smoothly between languages as varied as Arabic, English, and Chinese — a necessity, given their frequent interactions with international merchants — and they’re constantly on the lookout for new opportunities around the world. Over the past five years, Li alone has travelled to Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, and Lebanon to meet customers and explore new market opportunities.

Indeed, although it may not be the first term anyone would associate with this group of migrants from poor family and educational backgrounds, Yiwu traders live extremely cosmopolitan lives. Cosmopolitanism is most often exclusively associated with elites: people with the good degrees and wealth needed to enjoy mobile lifestyles and sophisticated cultural taste. In the Chinese context, it is often connected with Chinese international students in Western universities or with corporate professionals in major urban areas.

In Yiwu, however, cosmopolitanism is defined by a very different kind of existence. The city’s interpreters have none of the cultural and economic resources of their jet-setting elite counterparts. Instead, they’re what the influential cultural theorist Stuart Hall would have termed “cosmopolitans from below,” people who lead transnational lives primarily due to economic pressure, which pushes them to work collaboratively with people from around the globe to survive and thrive.