The Fascinating Origin of ‘Fair Trade’

A commercial scale.

Historically, 'fair trade' has been cast on a steelyard's sliding weight for weighing steel. (Image: Jill Lehmann via Dreamstime)

Historically, fair trade has been cast on a steelyard’s sliding weights for weighing steel. Today, business people also consider it a principle to abide by in trading. But not many people know the fascinating origin of the term “fair trade.”

Fair seeks Trade

According to legend, a person named Fair conducted a retail business. Fair was equally honest, even with children and the aged. Then, one day, after packing up his stall and returning home, his foot tripped over something in his front yard.

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When he looked closely to see what it was, it turned out to be half of a shining silver ingot exposed in the ground. After considering it, he dug it out with a shovel and discovered that it weighed as much as ten taels. However, he also noticed the words “Equal for Fair and Trade” engraved on it.

He thought Heaven bestowed the silver ingot to Trade and himself, so he couldn’t keep it all for himself without sharing it equally with Trade. So Fair decided to look for Trade while doing business.

The next day, Fair set out on his usual business route, tirelessly pedaling and searching for Trade as he went. Typically, Fair could sell his goods and eat daily with other small businesses. But after months of focusing his efforts on searching for Trade, he found himself penniless, with only the silver ingot remaining.

Despite this, Fair determined that he would rather curl up under a house corner and sleep on the street than spend the ten taels of silver. As the weather turned colder and his stomach growled with hunger, he still did not let his hardships shake his determination to find Trade. 

The origin of fair trade came from a silver ingot.
After months of focusing his efforts on searching for Trade, he found himself penniless, with only the silver ingot remaining. (Image: via Public Domain)

One evening, as he arrived in a small town far from home, he collapsed in front of a small hotel from exhaustion. Yet, even in his delirium, he remained determined and kept murmuring: “Where is Mr. Trade?” As it turned out, the owner of the hotel was Trade. Upon hearing someone call the boss’s name, the hotel clerk immediately came to see who it was, only to find a ragged person lying before the hotel entrance.

The clerk immediately rushed to tell his boss, and after hearing it, Trade instantly went out and helped Fair into the hotel. Then, while asking the clerk to make a fire and serve tea for Fair, Trade asked Fair the reason for his coming.

After learning that Fair had traveled far and wide to divide his found silver equally with Trade, Trade was deeply touched and said: “It’s nothing but one silver ingot, and it brought so much trouble to you. So why didn’t you keep it for yourself? What’s more, you’re the one who found it!” 

Fair said: “With such clear instructions on the silver, how could I pocket it all for myself?” Trade saw that Fair was so righteous that he respected Fair deeply in his heart. So trade said excitedly: “I think I can get by in life without it, so I give the other half of the silver to you!”

Not realizing who he was, Fair asked: “Who are you?” 

“I am Trade, the person you have been looking for day and night!” he replied.

“Alas! Thank goodness. Finally, I have found you!” 

The ingot splits in two

Fair forgot his tiredness in his excitement and asked Trade to bring a knife to split the ingot immediately. After declining Fair’s request to break the ingot several times, Trade finally agreed and asked his clerk to fetch a hatchet. Fair put the silver ingot on a granite stone in the yard and raised the hatchet to chop it.

With a loud “bang,” the ingot split in two, and half the nugget fell into a crevice in the stone. Fair reached his hand into the crack to fetch it but failed to get it out. He tried to retrieve it to the point that his hand was injured and bleeding.

Trade saw that the half ingot on the granite had the word “Fair.” So he said: “Fair, let it be. Don’t try to pick the other half up anymore. Your half is here.” 

Fair replied: “How can I let it be, and you get nothing? I will not possess it alone.” Trade found Fair was “fair,” so he went to get an iron bar to pry the granite apart.

As he and Fair worked together, to their surprise, beneath the granite, nine earthen jars of gold and eighteen silver ingots were revealed in the ground. The words “Equal for Fair and Trade” were on each.

With a loud 'bang,' the ingot split in two, and half the nugget fell into a crevice in the stone.
With a loud ‘bang,’ the ingot split in two, and half the nugget fell into a crevice in the stone. (Image: via Public Domain)

Before long, the story spread widely across the town. People did not commend Fair and Trade’s good fortune, but rather their lofty moral standards.

Later, to learn the honest spirit of Fair and Trade, their names were engraved on the steelyard weight as a reminder to all business people to trade with a conscience.

The virtues of fair trade

The exciting and touching story of Fair and Trade praises the virtues of fair trade. However, Heaven also left a guideline for business people: Only fair trade can benefit buyers and sellers, which sets an excellent standard for the business culture. It is also why the traditional Chinese economy prospered for thousands of years, despite the alteration of various dynasties. 

History has left us with many valuable lessons. But unfortunately, in modern times, business standards have fallen, and some do not conduct themselves with honesty and integrity. Therefore, it would do us all well to remember and honor the virtues of Fair and Trade. Only by following these standards can societies and individuals exist as they are meant to. 

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