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But Wenzhou had the priceless capital of native instinct. Families opened tiny workshops, often with fewer than a dozen workers, and they produced simple goods. Over time, workshops blossomed into full-scale factories, and Wenzhou came to dominate certain low-tech industries. Today, one-quarter of all shoes bought in China come from Wenzhou. The city makes 70 percent of the world's cigarette lighters. Over 90 percent of Wenzhou's economy is private.

The Wenzhou Model, as it became known, spread throughout southern Zhejiang Province. Although nearly 80 percent of all Zhejiang entrepreneurs have a formal education of only eight years or less, the province has become the richest in China by most measures. The per capita incomes for both rural and urban residents are the highest of any Chinese province (this excludes specially administered cities such as Shanghai and Beijing). Zhejiang reflects China's economic miracle: a poor, overwhelmingly rural nation that has somehow become the world's most vibrant factory center.

Over the course of a year, I traveled repeatedly to Zhejiang, every time renting a car in Wenzhou and driving into the province. In the same way that a pilgrim treks across Spain, stopping at the shrines of obscure saints, I passed the birthplaces of products that are usually taken for granted. From the airport, driving south along the coast, I started with hinges—a stretch of road where the vast majority of billboards advertised every possible variation of the piece of metal used to swing a door. A mile later, the ads shifted to electric plugs and adapters. Then I reached a neighborhood of electric switches, followed by fluorescent lightbulbs, then faucets.

Deeper in the province, the shrines became more elaborate. At Qiaotou, I stopped to admire the 20-foot-high (six meters) silver statue of a button with wings that had been erected by the town elders. Qiaotou's population is only 64,000, but 380 local factories produce more than 70 percent of the buttons for clothes made in China. In Wuyi, I asked some bystanders what the local product was. A man reached into his pocket and pulled out three playing cards—queens, all of them. The city manufactures more than one billion decks a year. Datang township makes one-third of the world's socks. Songxia produces 350 million umbrellas every year. Table tennis paddles come from Shangguan; Fenshui turns out pens; Xiaxie does jungle gyms. Forty percent of the world's neckties are made in Shengzhou.

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