Modern ‘Silk Road’ town diversifies China’s image abroad

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-08-17

A businessman arranges hand clappers at his export stall in the Yiwu International Trade Mart. Photo: CFP

Yiwu, a county-level city in east China’s Zhejiang Province, known as the world’s small commodity capital, attracts more than 500,000 merchants from abroad every year. More than 15,000 foreign businessmen from more than 100 countries and regions reside permanently in the city, and more than 1.8 million kinds of small commodities are sold to more than 210 countries and regions all over the world through the cross-border labor division and cooperation network of the “Yiwu Business Area.”

As such, Yiwu has been deeply involved in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In particular, the Yiwu-Xinjiang-Europe cargo train has expanded markets for Belt and Road countries and served as an international trade fulcrum along the BRI routes. By virtue of its edge in international trade, Yiwu has established extensive connections with many countries along the Belt and Road in terms of material supplies, culture, capital, information, and so forth, laying a solid foundation for cultural communication between the Chinese city and other countries. 

In Yiwu, prosperous trade and harmonious social ambience have made the city an experimental field for the growth of diverse cultures, a real example of a modern “Silk Road” city. From the perspective of people-to-people bonds under the BRI framework, Yiwu excels in cultural exchanges, communication, and integration between China and foreign nations. As a hub for local interactions, the city seamlessly integrate into the global dialogue, promoting China’s national image effectively as a powerful non-governmental force.

Yiwu’s international communication practices shape an information landscape involving foreign businessmen, small commodities, and the city as medium elements. It is also a semiotic ecosystem for the generation, circulation, and spread of China’s image locally. 

Foreign merchants’ role

National image is a product of transnational interactions. On the micro level, it is an impression mutually embedded amid international people-to-people exchanges. In Yiwu, perceptions of China through a foreign lens were made through strategic communications between residing or visiting foreign businessmen and Chinese people in economic and trade activities.

The nation’s image resides in individualized “Silk Road stories” happening in Yiwu. Stories are a basic element of all human cultures and a basic means by which we organize and share common experiences and give them meaning. “Silk Road stories,” told by foreign merchants in Yiwu, are individual interpretations of what they see, hear, and feel in the city. 

Whether opening a restaurant, engaging in foreign trade, or doing charity work, they are micro, diverse narratives in each individual life trajectory. These narratives contain rich connotations, with experiences that include real people, real incidents, and tangible objects. Each story demonstrates keen insights and fresh, lively vibes that distinguish them from traditional media’s grand narratives. The stories deliver a down-to-earth image of China, which is more easily understood by international audiences.

Survey data shows that businessmen from Asian and African countries along the Belt and Road know about Yiwu and China through networks of acquaintances, as there often isn’t related information online in their own countries. In addition, foreigners experience language barriers when they try to navigate Chinese websites, and individuals often lack travel and cultural experiences in China. Thus, their knowledge and experience of China stems from contacts within government branches in Yiwu, their Chinese counterparts, and ordinary Chinese people. 

Service platforms like the Yiwu International Trade Service Center, the “Home of World’s Businessmen,” the Foreign Service Center of the Yiwu Bureau of Commerce, and the Multilingual Telephone Interpretation Center have forged a scenario- and life-oriented communication ecosystem for trade, culture, and public welfare. Centering around trade of small commodities, foreign businessmen in Yiwu are bonded in either strong or weak relations, engaging in increasingly mutually beneficial cooperation and competition.

China’s image, as built by foreign merchants, consists of their experiences in the country at different levels, with different attributes, and in different fields. It is multi-dimensional, challenging the monotonous national image fostered by media institutions. This more personal image is usually amiable and appealing, without distance or communication restrictions from news agencies. From the angle of communication relations, acquaintance networks can enhance the trust in communications, and make the external communication of China’s image more targeted and segmented. 

Objects’ communication potential

Anthropological research on the “life course” of commodity production, circulation, and consumption reveals that objects have social attributes and initiative — just like humans, instead of simply relying on humans. The symbolic significance of cultural values and social orders apply to objects and, in turn, has a bearing on human society. Yet the social meaning of commodities changes continuously. When used, items gain new meaning or are given some new meaning.

Yiwu primarily exports traditional labor-intensive products, like toys, and everyday electromechanical items such as hardware parts. Usually we pay attention to the items’ usage or operability, overlooking the novel operational model in which culture is objectified or objects are mediatized in the context of booming global cultural industry. This means once objects turn into mediums, they will not only have use value and exchange value, but are also culturally valuable. 

Today, culture, which used to be representational, is now a part of economic and daily life. For example, music serves as the background in shopping malls and hotels, and cartoon characters adorn sportswear. In everyday life, cultural mediums and manufactured goods are fused together. A series of cultural images or symbols have been lifted from representational narrative texts, such as films and novels, and now appear on daily necessities like key chains, fridge magnets, toothbrushes, accessories, T-shirts, and backpacks. Through international trade, they are re-embedded into the time and space of other nations.

When objects turn into mediums, we not only enter a world of operable instruments, but also start to notice their meaning. In the era of thriving global cultural industry, small commodities from Yiwu have the potential of mediatization. As people yearn for a better life, the trend of aesthetizing everyday life has prevailed. Small commodities’ intensions, extensions, and functions are becoming increasingly fashionable, brand-oriented, and personalized. 

By injecting more fashion, creative, and cultural elements into products, Yiwu’s advantage in promoting people-to-people exchanges amid BRI construction is translated into a research, development, and design advantage that considers both Chinese and Western cultural traditions and consumption habits. Thus, small commodities become new carriers which export Chinese cultural symbols.

As a result, Chinese culture is spread all over the world in the forms of leisure services, office supplies, food, clothing, shoes, and the like. Chinese symbols are implanted into everyday life overseas, attached to useful tools and becoming ordinary “partners” for local people. Infiltrating into foreign countries’ economic foundation, Chinese culture exerts a subtle influence on their economy and daily life. 

City as a medium

If the mediatization of small commodities signifies the universalization of culture, the medium-oriented social construction of Yiwu means that the city’s material environment, including plazas, buildings, monuments, and streets, have also become cultural mediums. This is a logic of dialectical transformation: cultural imageries turn into substances while substances become cultural imageries. In other words, mediums turn into objects while objects become mediums. The city itself is now a medium.

From the perspective of disseminating China’s image, Yiwu is a unique medium in that foreign businessmen from diverse cultural backgrounds are immersed in the everyday life dominated by Chinese culture, making contact with Chinese people everywhere, and taking the initiative to create representational spaces in this city. 

These private, concrete, and personal daily spaces are substantive spaces for foreign merchants to accommodate themselves and construct community identities, as well as nodes for them to connect with society, the locality, and the world.

Commercial activities in Yiwu are Chinese-foreign economic and trade exchanges per se, and also processes in which Chinese and foreign cultural values clash and integrate. They are vehicles by which “Silk Road stories” are constructed and communicated through a few role groups such as local governments, corporate employees, community residents, and incoming foreign businessmen. 

In its distinctive international communication practices, the city of Yiwu proactively aligns itself with national demands and China’s overall national strategy, materializing Silk Road stories through local narratives. This connects the external communication of China’s image with specific local communities, social organizations, and even individual lives and personal emotions. In other words, it gives play to the initiative of non-governmental communication subjects and leverages the international communication potential of local authorities, media organizations, markets, and individuals to represent China’s national spirit to the world using local narratives.

For example, the Yiwu Business Newspaper launched an English edition with a special column titled “Buying Global, Selling Global,” which is dedicated to interviewing foreign businessmen in Yiwu. The paper also cooperated with Chinese media outlets operating abroad to introduce a special edition on Yiwu in the United States, Canada, France, Brazil, and Thailand, respectively. Each year there are more than 1,600 pages published overseas, continuing to spread the image of Yiwu to the outside world. 

Yiwu’s local narratives create a uniquely indigenous urban environment and transform the city into a representational space where foreign businessmen are engaged in local life, thereby spreading China’s image of “being in Yiwu.” Compared with the national image of China, shaped by representational symbols like texts and videos, the image with the city as a medium is concrete and direct, highlighting the sensory experience of being immersed in the city’s atmosphere.

As one of the top 10 cities that hold most trade fairs in China, Yiwu offers events such as: international commodities fair, cultural and tourism products trade fair, and international forest products fair, on an annual basis. With the city as a medium, they invite institutions from Belt and Road countries like Russia, Iran, and The Czech Republic, which are stationed in China, to jointly stage business salons, cultural trade seminars, and so on. In so doing, platforms for cultural interaction between China and Belt and Road countries are built. Reports by international participants and then global media outlets further enhance the exposure and reputation of Yiwu, and by extension, Chinese culture. 


Zhang Kaibin is from the Institute of Silk Road Culture and International Sinology at Zhejiang Normal University.






Editor:Yu Hui

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