Purpose – The paper aims to examine Karl Polanyi's view of market evolution in the context of the emergence of a national grain market in China's transition economy. Design/methodology/approach – The dataset used includes information about inter-provincial grain trade on China's grain market from November 1999 to October 2000. A priori blockmodelling method is used for hypothesis testing. Findings – This paper finds that a partially integrated national grain market had emerged at the beginning of the twenty-first century in China in spite of local protectionism. Additionally, the emergence of this market is found to be partly a result of the reform-oriented state's attempt to create national wholesale grain markets. Originality/value – The findings of the paper might have implications for market development in both China and other transition economies.