Understanding the Chinese City


Li Shiqiao

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  • Theory, Culture & Society

    Theory, Culture & Society caters for the resurgence of interest in culture within contemporary social science and the humanities. Building on the heritage of classical social theory, the book series examines ways in which this tradition has been reshaped by a new generation of theorists. It also publishes theoretically informed analyses of everyday life, popular culture, and new social and intellectual movements.

    EDITOR: Mike Featherstone, Goldsmiths College, University of London


    Roy Boyne, University of Durham

    Nicholas Gane, University of Warwick

    Scott Lash, Goldsmiths College, University of London

    Couze Venn, Goldsmiths College, University of London

    The Theory, Culture & Society book series, the journals Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society, and related conference, seminar and postgraduate programmes now operate from the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths College, University of London. For further details of the TCS Centre's activities please contact:

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    List of Figures


    If we must recast all inspiration, motivation, kindness, help, and love surrounding a book project as debt, my first debt is to places and people that grounded this book. To Singapore and Hong Kong, I am indebted to the fearless, resilient, and resourceful spirit of their inhabitants when all cultural traditions and ecological resources are placed under tremendous stress in their attempt to integrate with alien and dominating powers in the world. They first confused me, and then they showed me the way. To Esther, I am indebted to her love, aesthetic and intellectual companionship; many of the ideas in the book came up during our conversations, and many others emerged as we live through different conceptions of urban life together with endless fascination. To Esther's family, Anna, Peter, Florian, Martin, I am indebted to the mental and physical space they have given me so generously, sympathetically, and carefully, so that I have the privilege to be at home in dislocation. To Lauren, I am indebted to her love, joy, and optimism that give me the peace of mind to work that can never be attained in any other way. To my parents, sisters, and brother, I am indebted to their unconditional support, particularly when the experiences of life continue to drift us further apart following different courses; there is perhaps an important layer of materially embedded life that foregrounds all intellectualization. These make up a material and mental framework within which this book was conceived and written, and which, unlike debt, I will be unable to repay.

    This book to describe the Chinese city prospered from friendship with two groups of inspiring people: first, in Singapore, Ryan Bishop and John Phillips, two fellow nomads, influenced the initial ambition of the book in a fundamental way. For us, life, design, and writing in Singapore, for many years, had been delightfully interlinked, and the extremities of our academic disciplines expanded the scope of the book from one of architectural design to one of city-making. With Ryan and John there is the larger framework of the Theory, Culture & Society Centre directed by Mike Featherstone and Couze Venn, who brought together – with great insight and energy – many stimulating and exciting ways of dealing with this complex topic of the city. The journals Theory, Culture and Society & Cultural Politics serve as headquarters of a global network of scholars; in many gatherings to discuss the city, I tested my first ideas of the book – in Singapore, Tokyo, Johannesburg, Hong Kong, and Beijing – benefiting enormously from these occasions. I have had the fortune to come to know scholars such as Chua Beng Huat, Andrew Benjamin, Eyal Weizman, AbdouMaliq Simone, and Wang Hui, whose works demonstrate courage and determination. For many years Michael Keith and Scott Lash shared with me, in various ways and in different places, their infectious enthusiasm for new ideas of urbanism, and their well-contextualized notion of a Chinese economic life; I value and treasure this privilege highly.

    Second, in Melbourne, Leon van Schaik nurtured, for over thirty years, an extraordinary institution at the RMIT University; the School of Architecture and Design has been at the forefront of thinking and practice in architecture through a highly innovative formulation of higher degrees in design research. To research in the medium of design, and to evidence research through design, have been the foundations for this extraordinary endeavour; in the context of world circulation of generic design trends, the RMIT model has stood its ground in spatial intelligence. Through the experience of examining research degrees, I have come to know the inspiring people who made the RMIT model a reality: Richard Blythe, Peter Downton, Sand Helsel, Jon Tarry, Martyn Hook, Sue Anne Ware, Johan Verbeke, Nikos Papastergiadis, Jan van Schaik, Gretchen Wilkins, and many others. Associated with this institution in Melbourne there is a global network of outstanding people: the provocative Ranulph Glanville, the pensive Iain Low, and the fearless William Lim. Lim's intellectual rallies in Singapore calling for a theory of Asian architecture not only influenced generations of young Asian designers and theorists, but also offered several important opportunities for me to put some of the content of the book in front of critical juries.

    Initially conceived in Singapore, this book was largely written in two places: Hong Kong and Charlottesville, perhaps two ends of what cities can be. I have relied on the generosity and kindness of many in these two places. At the Chinese University of Hong Kong, I am grateful to Director of the School of Architecture Puay-peng Ho, to Dean of Social Sciences Paul Lee, and to Head of Chung Chi College Leung Yuen-sang for their friendship and support. The endless wisdom of Nelson Chen and Christopher Law nurtured the School and my teaching. Over countless lunches and teas, Andrew Li teased much content out of me through his interrogations; I owe deep gratitude and pleasure to his clarity of thought and quickness of wit. My other colleagues at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hendrik Tieben, Gu Daqing, Zhu Jingxiang, Bruce Lonnman, Bernard Lim, and many others, sustained an extraordinary level of productive energy and spirit of inquiry. In Hong Kong, I delighted in unforgettable friendship with many: Eymen Homsi and Sari Airola, Frank Vigneron and Chan Sin Man, Peter Gorer and Leng Woo, Saskia Witteborn and Tim Gruenewald, Joshua Bolchover and Jessica Pyman, Wang Weijen, Joseph Wong, Charlie Xue, Wong Suk-ying, Leo Ou-fan Lee, and Connie Kwong. By extraordinary coincidence, and in a most delightful and inspiring way, Jenny Lovell and Chris Fannin have become my links of friendship between Hong Kong and Charlottesville. At the School of Architecture, University of Virginia, I am deeply grateful for the generosity given to me by Dean Kim Tanzer, Chair of the Department of Architectural History Richard Wilson, and Chair of the Department of Architecture Iñaki Alday, allowing me to continue writing during a few demanding semesters. The energizing minds of Nana Last and Daniel Bluestone have given me great pleasure in responding to their comments on my writings; in an awe-inspiring intellectual environment anchored by great thinkers/doers such as Peter Waldman, Robin Dripps and Lucia Phinney, Edward Ford, and W. G. Clark, nourished by the extraordinary insights of Thomas Jefferson, animated by the productive minds at the School of Architecture, and challenged by the cross-cultural thinking at the East Asian Centre, I cannot ask for a larger mental space and a richer environment to work in. There are of course other cities: in Los Angeles, Dell Upton showed me the urban highlights in the midst of a continuing conversation on world history of architecture; in London, Iain Borden and Jonathan Hill at the Bartlett gave me an early chance to speak of figuration as a form of Chinese modernity; in Sheffield, Bryan Lawson, Kang Jian, and Peter Blundell Jones gave me great insights into the research and design of the architectural school; in Nanjing, I was thrilled to share a podium with Mark Cousins to speak on the figure as home; in Melbourne, Tom Kvan, Paul Walker, Zhu Jianfei, Anoma Pieris, and Lu Duanfang generously invited me to participate in their research events; in Brisbane, John Macarthur gave me a rewarding experience at Queensland University; in New Delhi, Anand Bhatt, seemingly nonchalantly, conceptualized cities of the world as well as New Delhi at the tea table; in Ahmedabad, Snehal Shah and K. B. Jain of the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT) indulged me, for a week and only delightfully interrupted by wedding banquets, to discuss with students on the fragile idea of Asian modernity.

    I would like to thank the University Grants Committee of the Government of Hong Kong for a generous research fund to study the state-owned architectural design institutes in China; this research, and the larger research of the book, was conducted with the insights and generous help from many long-standing colleagues and friends in design institutes and universities in China. At the design institutes, Chen Yifeng, Huang Wei, Zhang Hua, and many others kindly responded to my interview requests and provided me with important research data; at universities in China and elsewhere, professors Liu Erming, Wu Jiang, Ding Wowo, Zhao Chen, Lu Yongyi, Chen Wei, Jeffrey Cody, Li Xiangning, Ge Ming, Li Hua, Lai Delin, Zhang Tianjie, Lu Andong, Liu Songfu, Xu Subin, Stanislaus Fung, and many others provided platforms of exchange and exploration that generated and substantiated many ideas. The Chinese city is both ancient and contemporary; in this sense, the pioneering works of contemporary Chinese architects outside the design institute system, such as Liu Xiaodu, Meng Yan, Wang Hui (Urbanus), Zhang Ke (Standardarchitecture), Eunice Seng, Koon Wee, Darren Zhou (Skew Collaborative), Doreen Lui Heng (NODE), Li Xiaodong, and Liu Yuyang, test the limits of Chinese architecture. I delighted, over many years and in a personal capacity, in the privilege to be at the scene of their explorations in research and design; their daily practice of architecture led me to many others who, like them, forge tirelessly a frontier of Chinese architecture that enlarges our understanding of an ancient tradition of city building.

    Learning environment has been important to the book, from the germinating setting of Royston Landau and Micha Bandini at the AA School of Architecture, to the exploratory forums at various other universities. Jin Xiaomin at Nanjing University, Wang Ying, Mo Kar Him, and Jiang Boyuan at the Chinese University of Hong Kong have helped me obtain research data, prepare related classes, document interview recordings, photograph buildings and streets, and develop graphic illustrations; they have also assisted me, often beyond the call of duty, in solving perplexing problems in my life. At the University of Virginia, I am profoundly grateful to my first class, Bradley Allen, Kirstin Rouke, Justin Greving, Gu Lingyi, Jason Layel, and Zhan Haojun, who inspired me with their own delightful enquiries as we embarked on an unfamiliar journey in the Chinese city. I owe a deep gratitude to the students of my other classes – Architecture and Asia Trade, World Contemporary Architecture, and Summer in China Program – who have been endlessly resourceful and ingenuous as we find platforms for a redistributed understanding of world architecture. If the seasoned intellects of sinologists furnished the book its content, the vigorous minds of students gave the book its voice.


    The city as an object of knowledge not only stubbornly stakes its own category, but also cunningly undermines it through its sheer complexity. The physical and spatial city has a much slower metabolism compared with political and economic events taking place in it, appearing as layers of sedimentation – Freud used it as a metaphor to describe the unconscious – that often frustrate the attempts to understand it. Next to the enormously diligent and insightful accounts of cities, such as The City in History by Lewis Mumford and Cities in Civilization by Peter Hall, scholarship on the city builds up through dividing the city into a long list of smaller categories. There are cities of architects, politicians, planners, activists, historians, economists, philosophers, engineers, theorists, ecologists, biologists, feminists, geographers – the list is potentially without end. The notion of ‘the Chinese city’, even if it is sustained temporarily, gives us a chance to speculate on a distributed account of cities; this book seeks an equitable distribution of theory in the study of cities by tracing a set of key ideas – simultaneously ancient and contemporary – that appear to be deliberate choices made in relation to cities. The main contention here would be classificational: What if the Western categories of knowledge – well-rehearsed in the Greek thought and systematically practised in Western academia mapping the mental faculties constructed in a specific cultural context and language – were not primary in the formation of a large number of cities in the world?

    This book outlines three imperatives in the formation of Chinese cities – there are doubtless more – that do not seem to have been derived from those in the West, although it is immensely illuminating when they are brought in relief against Western formulations, dislocated temporarily from the Chinese writing system in which they were first conceived. The first imperative concerns the ideal number of things and people in cities; in Chinese cities, there seems to be a moral and aesthetic demand for abundance and for it to be appropriately displayed. What determines the right number of things in cities? In Timaeus, Plato legislates a range of absolute quantities through the notion of proportion as the master key of all other quantities; the distributions of numbers, sizes, and distances are judged with strong connections to master keys like those found in mathematics, geometry, and music. While Plato regards some numbers to have higher intellectual status in the determination of quantities in cities, Shao Yong (1011–77), one of most accomplished scholars of the Book of Changes, allows each number to acquire significance in its own right. ‘There is a thing of one thing. There is a thing of ten things. There is a thing of a hundred things. There is a thing of thousand things. There is a thing of ten-thousand things. There is a thing of a one hundred million things. There is a thing of a billion things.’1 In his scheme of things, Shao Yong considers the human being as the ‘thing of a billion things’, an enormously complex amalgamation; if the Western ideal of an understanding of the human being lies in the genome map as the master key, then the Chinese ideal would be grounded in an acceptance of this immense entity of ever-changing flows of quantities. This part of the book characterizes Chinese cities as amalgamations of quantities that acquire their significance in their own rights; instead of being framed as having a corresponding relationship with a set of master quantities – a utopia that holds the key to all urban quantities, Chinese cities result from quantity control schemes that tend to accept the legitimacy of a wide range of quantities. More is more, and less is less; this foregrounds the moral and aesthetic foundations of the city of maximum quantities, and its accompanying city of labour.

    The second imperative stems from the notion of prudence and its resultant corporeal and urban forms. The Chinese way of life, morally and aesthetically codified in the teachings of Confucius from the early stages of its formation, has often been described as ‘sedentary’. Perhaps no one embodied this idea more deeply than the Ming emperor Hongwu (reigned 1368–98), whose vision of a contented peasant empire dedicated to the cultivation of land influenced all his imperial policies that relied heavily on strict hierarchical regulations. As a local official of the late Ming dynasty, Zhang Tao, described in detail, the ideal Ming life was one that ‘every family was self-sufficient, with a house to live in, land to cultivate, hills from which to cut firewood, and gardens in which to grow vegetables’.2 The prosperity, stability, and happiness of the Chinese empire would be ensured by this dedication to the cultivation of land. The persistent anxiety of the Chinese government is chaos (luan), and much of that anxiety came from the incessant assaults by the nomadic tribes on the steppe to the north and west of China, with the mounted archer as their most powerful weapon. This idealized Ming life can be seen as perhaps an epitome of Bertrand Russell's description of the prudent life rooted in the inherent demands of agriculture, complete with its emphasis on delayed gratification and endless endurance of toil.3 Against this picture of safely guarded ideal life of prudence, the Greek conception of danger – as both an inevitability in life and a formative moral and aesthetic force – frames a dramatically different outlook: if the city can be seen to mediate between the body and danger, then the conception of danger gives rise to distinct mental and physical constructs in the city. This part of the book takes on the notion of the body in safety and danger by describing the resultant interior and exterior ‘territories’ constructed in response to real and imagined dangers. The body in safety in the Chinese cultural context can be seen to be actively engaged in pursuit of a large range of preservation regimens, demarcating boundaries around the conserved body, the protected home, and the walled village, defining spaces of intensive and regular care, and formulating dangerous and filthy spaces of non-recognition through the notion of jianghu. In the contemporary bacterially- and virally-challenged environment, this traditional scheme of spatial imagination is producing an intriguing layer of spaces that seem to have taken the hospital, and unwittingly the extraordinary achievements in hospital design and management as well as the corresponding writings of Florence Nightingale on hospitals, as its archetypal space analogous to the protected home and the walled village. As William McNeill shows in Plagues and Peoples, microparasites shape urban history powerfully;4 in Chinese cities, they also shape it distinctively.

    The third imperative concerns the way in which the Chinese writing system – through the strategy of mapping meaning with morphemic figures instead of phonetic alphabets – works as an archetype of human thought, both as a crystallization of the past and as a prophecy for the future. The alphabet-based Western languages function effectively as systems of representations rather than images of the ‘external reality’; in its crucial formulations of syntax and semantics, the signifier and the signified, and the linguistic inside and the realistic outside in the defining works such as those of Ferdinand de Saussure, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, the study of the alphabet-based language has served as an extraordinary model for immensely rich intellectual inquiries into meaning in the Western cultural context. It certainly gave rise to a ‘linguistic imagination of the city’ such as those of Kevin Lynch, Christopher Alexander, and Bill Hillier and Julienne Hanson; a city can be understood as having a set of parallel syntactic and semantic properties which can serve as the key to understanding. What would be the intellectual impact of the Chinese writing system – in which the signifier and the signified can be seen as one and the same, semantic content far outweighs syntactic rules, and the inside is far more important than the outside – on mental and physical constructs? If speech is sacrificed to writing – the aesthetic construction of the square words and the high incidents of homophones are certainly evidence for this sacrifice – then what does writing do to cities in this supremely dominant position? To think with Pablo Picasso and Xu Bing, do the Chinese write their cities? In three chapters, this part of the book first characterizes the world of writing in China – against that of speech – as a world of figuration, an endless procession of figures not only as representations but, more crucially, as themselves. The figure, like truth, says Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, has ‘an ontological status’ of its own.5 This ontologically constructed ‘empire of figures’ projects a tremendous plastic force to everything in the city; ‘memory without location’ is one of the most intriguing results of the nature of the figure, influencing in crucial ways the use and maintenance of the built heritage in Chinese cities. The protected home, private gardens, enclosed institutions, and encircled land all become colonies of this plastic power, appearing in their figurated forms to advance the interests of the empire of figures.

    The nine chapters of the book depict indigenous intellectual frameworks in the Chinese city with regard to how to gather and keep things to sustain life, how to protect the body from danger, and how to articulate moral and aesthetic judgements on things in cities. All these, if we consider them carefully, possess their distinct features which are constructed differently from those of the Western city; they are the means through which we are granted access to an understanding of Chinese cities. However, the immensely complex city seems to haunt an enterprise like this; for more than 100 years, the Chinese city has been re-imagined and reconstructed to accommodate many features of the Western city resulting from a ‘modernization’ process. Across its vast territory and long history, the Chinese city responded to the rise and falls of intellectual trends, absorbed influences from the northern steppe and central and south Asia, and incorporated climatic conditions into the architectural and urban forms. It certainly cannot be taken for granted that there is formal and intellectual coherence in the notion of ‘the Chinese city’. This vast body of seemingly loose amalgamations of Chinese cities is perhaps best held together by two important features: Confucianism and the Chinese writing system. For all the influences of Buddhism, Manichaeism, Nestorianism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity in the history of China, Confucianism and the Chinese writing system transformed them into something closer to the intellectual conceptions of the Chinese culture. The Xianbeis, the Mongols, the Manchus, desiring as they were to sustain their non-Chinese steppe cultures, all to more or less extent accepted Confucianism and the Chinese writing system – and most of the resultant cultural and institutional structures primed for agriculture – as the most effective way to govern this vast empire. The Chinese city, in this sense, is not a racial, religious, and territorial definition, but one that can perhaps be understood as an intellectual construct. Confucianism and the Chinese writing system, despite the differences between the teachings of Confucius, the Han dynasty Confucian revival, the neo-Confucianism in the Song dynasty (960–1279), as well as complex semantic changes to the non-phonetic square words, can be seen as possessing a set of basic and distinctive features; they survived the great upheavals in the twentieth century, even though at moments – the iconoclasm of the May Fourth Movement, the delirious righteousness of the Cultural Revolution, and the proposal to abolish the Chinese writing system – the enthusiasm for change threatened their fundamental legitimacy. Like the English monarchy emerging much reformed from a crisis during the Civil War and the Commonwealth of Cromwell, Confucianism and the Chinese writing system came out of the radical changes during the May Fourth Movement and the Cultural Revolution with more accommodating features. They did not disappear under stress; they have been reconstituted for much changed political, social, and economic realities. Although the traditional rituals of Confucianism are much less important in today's China, the demand for hierarchical mental and physical constructs are highlighted by new functions and new rituals; the written Chinese today may have been changed extensively compared with that used in imperial China, but the square words survive despite modifications of form. It is questionable, as David Hall and Roger Ames remind us, to think that ‘Karl Marx is more important than Confucius’ in twentieth-century China;6 it is important to regard twentieth-century China, despite all the dramatic changes that had taken place in the course of 100 years, as having maintained ‘the order of the past’ as Karl Jaspers observed. These chapters acknowledge a culture in rapid transformation as well as the endless ways in which the order of the past shapes the city.

    The Western civilization seems to have considered the city as perhaps its single greatest achievement; this pride in the city, still quite visible in popular writings on cities by authors such as Joel Kotkin and Edward Glaeser, often moves authors to extoll the virtues of the Western city as universally desired.7 Lewis Mumford speaks of the rise of the city above agriculture, the ‘artificial creation of scarcity in the midst of increasing natural abundance’ and ‘an economy profoundly contrary to the mores of the village’, as a historical certainty.8 This does not seem to be the case with regard to Chinese cities. If the Western city is the triumph of its ‘unnatural constructs’ – public space, modernity, danger, and philosophy – with their artificiality vigorously defended, the Chinese city is necessary but subservient to the pursuit of the ‘natural state of things’ in family, abundance, safety, and figuration. Instead of the city, the Chinese civilization is more likely to point to its achievements in the Chinese writing system, calligraphy, painting, literature, and garden as having equal, if not greater, significance. This is perhaps why these areas are the traditional strengths of sinology, and why traditional representations of the city were difficult to find in China.9 The imperial administrative structure indicated a broad conception: among the six ministries of the imperial administration – those of Personnel, Revenue, Rites, Works, Punishment, War – the Ministry of Works responsible for construction and cities ranked perhaps the lowest. From the founding era of the Chinese culture during the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), Confucian rites have been central to Chinese governance; this ‘imperial Confuciansim’10 monopolized the aesthetic realm in Chinese life, making it the physical manifestations of rites. It was the Ministry of Rites that masterminded the core moral and aesthetic values through its defining role in the formulation of Confucian rituals and the examination system. The Song dynasty (960–1279) brought an enormously important development to this imperial Confucianism through extensive re-establishment of ancient rites; the building document of the Ministry of Works of this era, the Yingzao fashi compiled by Li Jie in 1103, can be seen as a culmination of the materiality of rites; the eight ranks of structural timber usage determined material and spatial ritual orders in close parallel to the hierarchical ritual orders determined at the Ministry of Rites.11 In the eighteenth-century imperial collection Siku quanshu, the Yingzao fashi as well as other building-related books were classified under the ‘governance’ (zhengshulei) section of the branch of ‘histories’ (shibu).12 The Song dynasty assertion of Confucian rites through building was part of a much larger attempt to expel the mixing of Chinese culture with those of the steppe tribes; the love of riding-based games such as polo and hunting in the Tang era gave way to that of sedentary and contemplative learning.13 It was perhaps an attempt to restore urban order when the traditional and strictly regulated ‘ward and market’ city was overwhelmed by the rapid growth of commerce that resulted in spontaneous construction of streets.14 The knowledge of building construction never entered the curriculum of the highly developed education system of the Song era, with its specializations beyond Confucianism focusing on laws, medicine, the art of war, numerology, calligraphy, painting, and Daoist canons;15 this absence of technical education remained a key feature in Chinese education until the fall of the Qing dynasty in the early twentieth century.16 Song Yingxing, author of The Exploitation of the Works of Nature (Tiangong kaiwu, 1637), an amazing compendium of Ming technical achievements, began with an apology for elaborating on an ‘insignificant’ topic rather than one that is based on literary canons.17 Liang Qichao (1873–1929), one of the liveliest intellects who wished to reform Chinese culture, was intrigued by the Western idea of the city and attempted to write a history of Chinese cities in 1927; in researching on this history, he was struck by the lack of verifiable facts and sites of Chinese cities, while the traditional attention seemed to him to have been paid largely to literary descriptions.18 Although our knowledge of Chinese cities is much more advanced today, the study of the Chinese city has always been unsettled by this cultural conception. Connected with the condition of buildings as material rites is the equally perplexing problem of documenting the designers and builders; although biographies of architects working in early twentieth-century China have become more detailed, those working in the previous two millennia remain either mythical, such as that of Lu Ban, or sketchy, such as that of Li Jie. This cultural condition was at the start of twentieth-century research on Chinese buildings and cities at the research institute founded by Zhu Qiqian (1872–1964), as he embarked on an ambitious project of compiling biographies of ‘philosophical craftsmen’ (zhejiang) in China's past.19 The exquisite building templates of the Lei family (Yangshi Lei) created in the late nineteenth century are a treasure trove of nineteenth-century designs of Chinese imperial palaces, but they speak dimly about the Leis as creators of personalized and creative knowledge of architecture.

    The endeavours of the pioneering scholars of Chinese architecture in the twentieth century, to a large extent, were focused on retrofitting a realm of ‘architecture’ in this rites-based Chinese building tradition to match that of the Western conception of architecture. This seems to be the primary goal of the works of Osvald Sirén (1879–1966), Ito Chuta (1867–1954), Ernst Boerschmann (1873–1949), as well as those of the first generation of Chinese architects and scholars trained in the Western architectural tradition such as Liang Sicheng (1901–72), Lin Huiyin (1904–55), and Liu Dunzhen (1897–1968). As a result, social and political histories of Chinese architecture tend to concentrate on the twentieth century. One may argue that this ‘history of architecture’ gained tremendous momentum as a project of intellectual reform in twentieth-century China;20 its accomplishment is remarkable. China's Building Industry Press, between 1999 and 2003, brought the achievement in the history of Chinese architecture to a great height by publishing a five-volume history of ancient Chinese architecture, all edited by eminent architectural historians in China, that gathered the research achievements of the twentieth century in China.21 In parallel, Yale University Press brought out a volume written by the same set of Chinese scholars in 2002; in her introduction, Nancy Steinhardt calls for an ‘expansive definition of architecture’ – a possible revision of the Western notion of architecture – to guide the study of Chinese buildings and cities.22 Steinhardt's call for rethinking, at the end of a century's effort to research in Chinese architecture, perhaps indicated that it is propitious to reposition the scholarship of Chinese buildings and cities. In reclassifying the Chinese material rites under the Western notion of architecture, a significant part of the scholarship in Chinese architecture in the twentieth century placed the Chinese building tradition in the context of the project of modern history inextricably linked to the rise of nation-states in Europe. This framework dislocates Chinese buildings from their own immanent political, social, and intellectual concerns that gave rise to their physical appearances. As Chinese buildings seem to misfit the framework of architecture, literati gardens appear to escape the notion of landscape; a blend of Marxist historical framework and a classification system inspired by typology in Western architecture dominated the writing of architectural history in twentieth-century China, and influenced crucially Chinese garden histories such as History of Classical Chinese Gardens written by Zhou Weiquan in 1990.23 As if to anticipate this fate, Tong Jun's Record of Gardens in Jiangnan, written in 1937 and first published in 1963, passionately defended the literati garden from its fate of annexation into standard histories of linear progress and typological classifications. Tong Jun's work has now rightfully become a rallying point for young scholars to seek more illuminating ways to theorize the Chinese literati garden, although Tong Jun's retreat to traditional literary terms without a universal framework reduced the impact of his work significantly, and through his influence, those who rally around him. Neither the state function of Chinese buildings as material rites, nor the cultural function of Chinese gardens as an intellectual enterprise grounded in the Chinese writing system, could find their legitimate place in twentieth-century histories of Chinese architecture.

    It is the overwhelming expansion of Chinese cities today and the viable economic life they accommodate that brought a pressing need for theory. The unexpected but compelling development of Chinese cities since the 1980s have aroused tremendous attention from the West outside the relative confines of sinology; there is a genuine sense that what is taking place in China could indeed become a common but unfamiliar future.24 Rem Koolhaas and his colleagues presented selective features of the Chinese city as irreverent dismissals of long-cherished moral and aesthetical conventions in the West, sparking a long string of publications in similar veins.25 Next to sinology, this new type of interest in Chinese cities seems to have a sustained critical potency in contemporary architectural thinking worldwide. Beyond the initial wonderment, groundbreaking contributions to the understanding of Chinese cities come from two unexpected, but logical, directions. The first is the government funded ‘new urbanization’ strategies contained in China's New Urbanization Reports of the Chinese Academy of Sciences since 2009,26 and the Annual Report on Urban Competitiveness of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.27 This economic policy research integrated countryside, cities, and economies in a single framework, and provided an economy of cities which grounds the Chinese city in one of its most solid foundations, linking the Chinese city to much wider urban and economic developments worldwide. The Chinese city seems to take shape in ‘geography of money’ – and the politics that both resulted from and shaped the geography – as we examine the economy of the Chinese city.28 This line of investigation connected to a vast field of research on cities and economies; the far-reaching research enterprises of the London School of Economics on cities and the world economy bring us to enormously large scales of examinations.29 However, in this larger field of research on cities and economies, there seems to be an abstraction of money and information in the works of such as Saskia Sassen and Manuel Castells – like the abstraction of labour in the works of Karl Marx – that illuminates and obscures in equal measures. The key issues here are not so much those of labour, money, and information, but their use. If Hannah Arendt staked a claim on the differences between different kinds of use of labour,30 this book is framed within a set of distinctions in the use of labour, money, and information in the Chinese city. One of these distinctions is explained by Giovanni Arrighi in his argument that the use of money in China – a Chinese market economy rather than a capitalist one – has been conceived very differently from that of the West, resulting in a series of defining structural features in the Chinese economy which manifest in today's world.31 The second contribution arises from a school of thought perhaps best captured by the works of Marcel Granet, David Hall and Roger Ames, François Jullien, and Wang Hui. Granet, Hall and Ames, and Jullien insist on seeing China on its own terms in order to understand it at all; too often the interpretive schemes of Western scholars reconstituted Chinese thoughts away from their situations and intentions.32 Wang Hui took on the enormously demanding task of rethinking China's revolutions in the twentieth century by recontextualizing them in much longer stretches of intellectual, social, and political developments in China that fundamentally shared very little with those in the West.33 Here, the China specialist converged with the Chinese public intellectual; both rejected simplistic accounts of Chinese thought as derived from a modernity rooted in the formation of nation-state in nineteenth-century Europe. In this sense, the student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 perhaps had a similar and profound impact on Chinese intellectuals as that on the French intellectuals following the 1968 student protests. Michael Keith, Scott Lash, Jakob Arnoldi, and Tyler Rooker return to the indigenous Chinese cultural framework – the Confucian rites (and rights) of economic life – in order to articulate the Chinese use of money and its impact on Chinese cities.34 These insights into Chinese cities and economies bring contemporary Chinese cities to an illuminating context within which historians such as Timothy Brook and Craig Clunas have been tracing the links between Chinese cultural life and the structure of its economy in the Ming dynasty, a time when the size of China's economy was the largest in the world.35

    The Chinese city appears to be a paradox; it seems to be simultaneously urban and anti-urban. In creating some of the largest amalgamations of buildings and people – in ancient capitals of Chang'an (Xi'an), Bianliang (Kaifeng), Lin'an (Hangzhou), Nanjing, Beijing – the Chinese city necessitated exchange; in walling all important social, cultural, and political institutions away from the scenes of exchange, the Chinese city turned its back on the scenes of exchange as the most profound sites for culture. In the thirty years between 1978 and 2008, the urbanization rate in China rose from 18 per cent to 45 per cent; this meant that 357 million farmers either moved to cities or transformed their villages into towns. The number of cities in China, over these thirty years, increased from 193 to 655.36 The strategic future plan prepared by the Chinese Academy of Sciences suggests an urbanization rate of 70 per cent in the next forty years (2050), slightly lower than the current urbanization rate of developed countries, but a figure that is better calibrated for the cultural, geographical and economic conditions of China.37 This would mean another 330 million farmers migrating from rural areas to emerging new cities and expanding existing cities. By any measure, these numbers are unprecedented in the history of human settlement; they underscore the importance of an understanding of the Chinese city. Like in the Song and Ming dynasties, the rise of Chinese cities today – resulting from the necessity of production and commerce – did not seem to have resulted in fundamental changes to deeply-rooted conceptions of the city; in today's Chinese cities, important political and economic decisions are made in hierarchical spaces – those of degrees of care – that are isolated and protected in the city. The Citizens’ Centre in Shenzhen and Tiananmen Square in Beijing, as centrally important city spaces, seem to be contemporary reconstitutions of spaces of rites; their super-human scale and their deliberate avoidance of everyday use set them apart from the much smaller public squares in Western cities populated by cafes and restaurants, but they are in line with the enormous and ordered imperial spaces seen in the palatial and tomb projects. Everyday spaces in Chinese cities are much more of a consequence of functions even in those with strong Western influences, in the forms of shop-lined avenues and quick and easy street food. In Chinese cities today, drinking and eating alfresco may be seen to be fashionable, but they have never acquired a high social status; similarly, open spaces in Chinese cities may be interesting and useful, but they have not been conferred with features of empowerment rooted in everyday life.

    The Chinese city imposes different orders of things from those in the West; this book outlines a set of important Chinese orders. Cities like Venice, Amsterdam, London, and New York serve as dominant centres both for money and politics, while cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, and Guangzhou tend to fabricate enormous city-regions around them, as if to highlight their much more distributed importance. Like the Hongwu Emperor, Mao Zedong regarded the countryside rather than the city as a more sustainable base for economic life; the city, left to its own devices, is perverse to the goals of life promotion: its wish for fertility slipped into pornography, its need for surplus food ballooned into gratuitous consumption, its pursuit of intelligence is accompanied by a culture of neurosis and suicide, and its instinct for security amplified into excessive machines of warfare. The city Mumford speaks of is a deliberate cultural construct; in the Western tradition, it has been constructed as the battleground of life with irresistible pleasures and excruciating pains. Chinese cities are prudent in their ideals; large and vibrant though they are, they are deeply committed to spinning safety zones which double up as social structures. The Chinese city is in some important measures the creation of what may be described as the agro-intellectual tradition which embraced a form of literacy focused on private writing and calligraphy instead of public speech, within the safety zone of the protected home instead of dangerous public spaces, weaving a spatial-social web of relational circles of immense complexity. Perhaps China's urbanization never contained Mumford's intellectual change; the Chinese city, instead of turning the world of the peasant upside down with syntactical ideals and capitalistic abstractions, perhaps always embraced the primary mode of production in agriculture and its inherent moral and aesthetic demands. Instead of seeing the Song dynasty as ‘proto-capitalist’ and the late Ming dynasty China as having narrowly missed a ‘capitalist revolution’ regularly recounted by economic historians, we should probably understand the Song and the late Ming as having resisted the alienation of the capital in its pursuit of what Adam Smith called a ‘natural economy’. The Chinese city can certainly adapt to the necessities of international commerce and urban culture for its own continuous existence, but in each successive wave of adaptations with ever-expanding scopes – the Song with the steppe tribes, the Ming and Qing with European trade demands, the twentieth century with America-centred geopolitical strategies – the Chinese city seems to have always come back insisting on its indigenous intellectual and spatial conceptions. As Wang Hui observed, the Chinese order of things as formulated in the Song Confucianism (tianli, ‘the heavenly principle’) and the Western order of things (gongli, ‘common reason’), instead of replacing each other in the long and complex Chinese twentieth century, have existed side by side with legitimate specific moral and political projects, both conservative and revolutionary.38 The following chapters are interested in describing these aspects of the Chinese city as they appear both in the past and today, while being fully cognizant of new transformations appearing continuously as a result of unavoidable changes through time.


    1 Shao Yong, Huangji Jingshi Shu (Book of Supreme Ordering Principles), annotated by Wei Shaosheng (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe, 2007), p.489.

    2 Timothy Brook, The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1998), p.17.

    3 Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1946/2000), pp.36–37.

    4 William McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (New York: Anchor Press, 1976).

    5 Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, ‘Oedipus as Figure’, Radical Philosophy 118 (March/April 2003), pp.7–17.

    6 David L. Hall and Roger T. Ames, Anticipating China: Thinking Through the Narratives of Chinese and Western Culture (New York: State University of New York Press, 1995), p.xv.

    7 Joel Kotkin, The City: A Global History (New York: The Modern Library, 2005); Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2012).

    8 Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects (New York and London: Harcourt Inc., 1961), p.36.

    9 Susan Naquin, Peking: Temples and City Life, 1400–1900 (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2000), p.xxiii.

    10 John King Fairbank and Merle Goldman, China: A New History (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), p.62.

    11 Li Shiqiao, ‘Reconstituting Chinese Building Tradition: The Yingzao fashi in the Early Twentieth Century’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 62:4 (2003), pp.470–89; earlier Song dynasty documents, such as Sanlitu by Nie Chongyi in 962 and the chapters in the Song encyclopedia Taiping yulan compiled in 983, convey an overarching concern for the restoration of rites – see Jiren Feng, Chinese Architecture and Metaphor: Song Culture in the Yingzao Fashi Building Manual (Honolulu and Hong Kong: University of Hawai'i Press, 2012).

    12 Xu Subin, Jindai Zhongguo jinazhuxue de dansheng (The Beginning of Chinese Modern Architecture) (Tianjin: Tianjin daxue chubanshe, 2010), p.15.

    13 Jacque Gernet, A History of Chinese Civilization, trans. J. R. Foster (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p.331.

    14 Guo Daiheng, ed., Zhongguo gudai jianzhu shi (History of Ancient Chinese Architecture), volume 3 (Beijing: Zhongguo jianzhu gongye chubanshe, 2003), pp.16–59.

    15 Yang Weisheng, Liang Song wenhua shi (History of Northern and Southern Song Dynasties) (Hangzhou: Zhejiang daxue chubanshe, 2008), p.387.

    16 Xu Shubin, Jindai Zhongguo jinazhuxue de dansheng (The Beginning of Chinese Modern Architecture) (Tianjin: Tianjin daxue chubanshe, 2010).

    17 Song Yingxing, Tiangong kaiwu (The Exploitation of the Works of Nature, 1637). Brook, The Confusions of Pleasure, p.168.

    18 Liang Qichao, Liang Qichao guanji (The Complete Works of Liang Qichao) (Beijing: Beijing chubanshe, 1999), Zhongguo wenhua shi (History of Chinese Culture) Vol. 9, chapter on history of Chinese cities, p.5109.

    19 The compilations of Zhu Qiqian and his colleagues were recently published, with additions added by Liu Dunzhen and Yang Yongsheng, as: Yang Yongsheng, ed., Zhejiang Lu (Record of Philosophical Craftsmen) (Beijing: Zhongguo jianzhu gongye chubanshe, 2004). For a general background of Zhu Qiqian, see Li Shiqiao, ‘Reconstituting Chinese Building Tradition’.

    20 Li Shiqiao, ‘Writing a Modern Chinese Architectural History: Liang Sicheng and Liang Qichao’, Journal of Architectural Education 56 (2002), pp.35–45.

    21 Zhongguo gudai jianzhu shi (History of Ancient Chinese Architecture), in 5 volumes, eds Liu Xujie (v.1), Fu Xinian (v.2), Guo Daiheng (v.3), Pan Guxi (v.4), Sun Dazhang (v.5) (Zhongguo jiangong chubanshe, 1999–2003).

    22 Fu Xinian, Guo Daiheng, Liu Xujie, Pan Guxi and Sun Dazhang, Chinese Architecture (Beijing, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002), English text edited and expanded by Nancy Steinhardt.

    23 Zhou Weiquan, Zhongguo gudian yuanli shi (History of Classical Chinese Gardens) (Beijing: Qinghua daxue chubanshe, 1990).

    24 Thomas J. Campanella, The Concrete Dragon: China's Urban Revolution and What It Means for the World (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2008); John Friedmann, China's Urban Transition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005).

    25 Rem Koolhaas et al., Mutations (Barcelona: Actar, 2001) and Rem Koolhaas et al., The Great Leap Forward (Cologne: Taschen, 2002).

    26 Niu Wenyuan, ed., China's New Urbanization Report 2009, 2010, 2011 (Beijing: Science Press, 2009, 2010, 2011).

    27 Ni Pengfei, ed., Annual Report of Urban Competitiveness (Beijing: Social Sciences Academic Press, since 2003).

    28 You-tien Hsing, The Great Urban Transformation: Politics of Land & Property in China (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

    29 Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic, eds, The Endless City (London: Phaidon, 2007); Ilka and Andreas Ruby, eds, Urban Transformation (Berlin: Ruby Press, 2008).

    30 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1958)

    31 Giovanni Arrighi, Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-first Century (London and New York: Verso, 2007).

    32 Marcel Granet, Chinese Civilization (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1930), La Pensée chinoise (Paris: La Renasissance du livre, 1934); David L. Hall and Roger Ames, Thinking Through Confucius (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1987), Anticipating China (New York: State University of New York Press, 1995); François Jullien, Detour and Access: Strategies of Meaning in China and Greece (New York: Zone Books, 2004), The Propensity of Things: Towards a History of Efficacy in China (New York: Zone Books, 1999).

    33 Wang Hui, Xiandai Zhongguo sixiang de xingqi (The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought), second edition (Beijing: SDX Joint Publishing Company, 2008).

    34 Michael Keith, Scott Lash, Jakob Arnoldi and Tyler Rooker, China Constructing Capitalism: Economic Life and Urban Change (London and New York: Routledge, 2013).

    35 Timothy Brook, The Confusions of Pleasure; Craig Clunas, Empire of Great Brightness: Visual and Material Cultures of Ming China, 1368–1644 (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2007).

    36 Niu Wenyuan (ed.) China's New Urbanization Report 2009, pp.6–7.

    37 Ibid., p.10.

    38 Wang Hui, Xiandai Zhongguo sixiang de xingqi, pp.40–50.

  • Conclusion

    Trade overlays a surface of common urban practices and spaces on all cities; exchange requires standardization of labour, value, currency, measurements, time, and this has always been a feature of cities since the long and complex history of cultural exchanges along the Silk Road. This common layer of urban practices and spaces has had an amazing impact on cities since the late twentieth century. The combined influences of the collapse of the Soviet bloc, neoliberalism, and digitally enabled international finance since the late twentieth century amplified this surface of common urban practices and spaces, and distracted efforts to describe cities of different kinds. We seem to live in a world of similar transportation systems, media exposure, talk and talent shows, branded goods and services, culture and fashion trends, digital platforms, and holiday experiences; on this basis, we seem to construct similar conceptions of worth, love, value in relation to life. There is a world of contemporary architecture that parallels various other financially driven ‘world developments’ through standardization (normative designs) and market visibility (iconic designs). All these constitute a form of ‘geoculture’ that primes human activities to serve large and speedy financial operations.1 This contemporary condition certainly places the very discipline of architecture under enormous stress, as architecture today often plays a role in international finance that is far removed from those of traditional concerns for structure, function, tectonics, and intellectualization. However, beneath this common surface – the seemingly ‘One World, One Dream’ condition – there lie radically different ideals for the city. These ideals are both ancient and contemporary; ‘the Chinese city, despite all analogies differed decisively from that of the Occident’, Max Weber states without ambiguity in The Religion of China in which the Chinese city features prominently in his attempt to explain the absence of capitalism in China;2 the Chinese city, Weber concluded, lacked the oath-bound political associations, armed citizenry, craft and merchant guilds, city leagues, and above all, political autonomy to be capitalist.3 In China, the city seems to have fewer freedoms than the village and the county, and this is certainly a consequence of the strict grading systems of the state that imposed severe limits on the freedom of cities. In the tradition of the state function of architecture, the Chinese city never seems to have declared its freedom from slavery and from kingship; the Chinese city internalized labour and hierarchy, and integrated itself into the material mechanisms of the state.

    Perhaps China had always had access to a different economic life that is not capitalist and that is now constructing capitalism in a new way;4 this book attempts to put substance to this claim. Chinese cities in the Song dynasty and late Ming dynasty participated actively in creating and sustaining economies that were the largest in the world. This extraordinary history of Chinese economic life supplies a useful context for the urban realities in China today. By the end of the first decade in the twenty-first century, Chinese cities take the form of about 655 concentrated areas of buildings and people, covering about 24,000 square kilometres of urban area with an addition of 38,600 square kilometres of ‘development zones’, accommodating about 600 million people. Each year, about 15 million people move to cities in China, resulting in about 2 billion square metres of floor area to be constructed and perhaps an unquantifiable amount of land and space altered. About 57 per cent of the economic production takes place on the east coast, where about 10 per cent of the people gather around three large areas: the Beijing–Tianjin–Tangshan axis, the Yangtze River Delta, and the Pearl River Delta.5 All of these, both achievements and problems, are far from incidental or practical consequences; throughout a continuous cultural development for over two millennia, the Chinese city had both adhered to an ancient idea of the city encapsulated by the Zhou diagram of a walled compound with three gates on each side, and transformed to respond to a viable economic life exemplified by Song dynasty and late Ming dynasty cities. The formulation of Chinese cities has been grounded in a civilization that, in Granet's words, ‘recorded a large proportion of the sum of human experience. No other has, for so many years, served as a bond between so many of the human race.’6 The 300 million or so people who are projected to move to cities in the next decades would probably not reverse this powerful and long-lasting cultural force, although they may challenge it to formulate new strategies. The rise of the Chinese city in the past three decades is not a story about China alone, but one about the current world system of finance, labour, and consumption; the growing prominence of Chinese cities in the world system forces us to consider them in the intellectual context of urban/rural ideals that have resulted in both unimaginable gains and unfathomable environmental problems today.

    The discourse of the Western city – its public spaces and architecture – has been rooted in the cultural traditions of the West; this has been a foundational assumption in urban theory. This cultural assumption of the city often results in misconceived frameworks for studies on the Chinese city and in misguided reports of empirical data from China. This Western ‘city of civic virtue’, with all its concerns with the cultivation of the combatant body, divisions of labour, differentiations of class, and establishment of manners and tastes, elevates the status of the community outside the family. It creates a psychic disturbance towards homeliness, and sustains a scientific distrust of figurative thoughts. It is, in this sense, both a cause and an effect of the abstract alphabetic languages that position speech before writing, meaning before image; the Western intellectual enterprise of structuralism is simultaneously concerned with structures of language, intellect, society, and architecture. In China, we encounter the ‘city of corporeal defence’, where endless reproductions of physical and intellectual protection against all possible real and imagined dangers flourish. It is a social and spatial form that is grounded in personalized connections (guanxi) – derivatives of the family archetype – that create networks of safety both in space and in business opportunities. The Chinese writing system imposes a perpetual homelike condition onto the intellect, reconstituting a complete realm of moral values of differentiated care, and an aesthetic pleasure in figuration. For more than a century, Chinese intellectuals considered these features as having been the obstacles of change, which was urgently needed at the end of the nineteenth century as China struggled against Western powers on the geopolitical stage at the time. However, the aspirations of China's new century as imagined by the renowned reformer Liang Qichao at the start of the twentieth century – a new constitution, legal system, knowledge structure, historical framework, and city – did not constitute a break with the past; he upheld Confucianism as the central tenet of Chinese culture, very unlike radical revolutionaries in China who wished for nothing short of an eradication of tradition. In this sense, Liang Qichao maintained the ancient preference for Confucianism over legalism, except in his case, he worked towards a new balance of the two, with late nineteenth-century Western constitutional frameworks replacing indigenous Chinese thoughts in legalism. At the same time, the Chinese revolutionaries did not manage to turn the Chinese city into the Western city; nationalist reconstruction of the ‘indigenous Chinese culture’, Mao's distrust of the city and remake of it in the image of the productive village, and Deng's harvest of the productive potentials of the family all seem to have reformulated the Chinese city in line with some aspects of its most ancient archetype. Throughout this book, we have seen this ancient archetype of the Chinese city in several guises: in its hoarding function as the city of numerical schemes, maximum quantities, and their associated conditions of labour; in its protective function as the city of safety, degrees of care, and antiseptic barriers; in its aesthetic function as empire of figures, figurative memories without location, and colonies of figurative beauty and violence. After 100 years of ceaseless reforms, it appears that it is not the features of the traditional Chinese city that were the obstacles of change; it takes time for them to reformulate themselves into effective strategies under radically different geopolitical conditions.

    The Chinese city, in its insistence on its intellectual conceptions despite dramatic changes, offers not an alternative future, but a thinking space for new strategies of urban renovation. The city of civic virtue, the city of corporeal defence, and their distinct ways of engaging with finance, make available a triangulated area where future cities can perhaps be reformulated. As the greatest artefacts constructed in the interest of human life, cities also harbour neurotic and destructive behaviours; it is as if all the little rational and smart decisions made in daily life and in political strategizing come together to form giant amalgamations of irrationality. The Western city turns the peasant world upside down and cultivates a denigration of labour; it creates ‘quarantines of life and matter’7 of the human and the nonhuman and transforms every desire for humans to a desire for things. The Chinese city maintains a closer intellectual link with labour and things, but does not legislate numerical limits, and creates a world of jianghu instead of public space through spatial degrees of care that can be, and often has been, highly destructive to the environment. These would not have really mattered had it not been for our increasing capacity to pursue ‘good life’ – made up almost entirely of components of a system of objects whose production and consumption exhaust resources and pollute the environment beyond repair – and our determination to expand and perpetuate this way of life, often described as a ‘dream’ as if to highlight its enormous distance from fundamental biological and intellectual needs. The city has been at the centre of both the cultivation of desire and the consumption of goods, as Max Weber and Fernand Braudel detailed in their analyses of the relationship between the rise of the city and capitalism in the West.8 The city has perverted the goodness of ‘natural forms of life’ to produce endless delights in ‘unnatural pleasures’, as Adam Smith and Lewis Mumford observed critically.9 At the end of the fourteenth century, Florence represented the start of an urban age for Europe when the European Renaissance began to take its first steps; it was the city and its financial innovations that promoted the rise of Renaissance culture. At the same time, the Hongwu Emperor in China imposed a strict regime of control to guarantee an empire of contented peasant families who were all to be ideally self-sufficient; Hongwu's China turned its back on the city and forcefully pursued a form of life much closer to its biological rhythm. These are perhaps two iconic moments in history; two dramatically different ideals of life that influenced almost all subsequent developments of human settlements as trade between Europe and China flourished in the era of navigation and colonization. These are also two useful polarities of thought which contribute towards a renovation of much larger conceptions of the city; in an age of climate change and permanent environmental modification, a deep and far-reaching renovation of the city is crucial. The combined forces of our cities – in concocting absurd dreams of good life and in fulfilling them – are enormous, and enormously destructive if they remain anthropocentric; in Chinese cities, the dream of good life has often been undermined by dirty streets, polluted air and water, never-ending traffic jams, poisonous food, endless greed, and indifference to the environment. In the world system of international finance and the single world division of labour, any notion of good life is intertwined with those in the Chinese city. It is unfortunate that such powerful forces accumulate with great effectiveness at the moment when we know the least what to do with them: we have lost our fear of the supernatural, gained confidence in science and technology, and seen our endeavour to moderate the power of capital fail. Between the city of civic virtue, the city of corporeal defence, and international finance, there is a thinking space for cities to legislate beyond the protection of interests of nations and rights of humans; all cities must legislate not only with all other cities, but with all things. It will not only be transnational oil pipelines, global shipping lanes and airspaces, and the polar icecaps that make up the materiality of world politics; it will also be the knowledge of the city – with its amalgamations of quantities, defences of territories, and schemes of beauty – that supplies the materiality of world politics. The intellectual foundations of the Chinese city will have an important role to play in the reformulation of the conception of good life in the context of a renewed understanding of the freedoms and the rights of humans and things.


    1 Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-system I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-economy in the Sixteenth Century (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011).

    2 Max Weber, The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism (New York: The Free Press, 1951), p.13.

    3 Ibid., pp.14–15.

    4 Giovanni Arrighi, Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-first Century (London and New York: Verso, 2007); Michael Keith, Scott Lash, Jakob Arnoldi and Tyler Rooker, China Constructing Capitalism: Economic Life and Urban Change (London and New York: Routledge, 2013).

    5 Niu Wenyuan, ed., China's New Urbanization Report 2009, 2010, 2011 (Beijing: Science Press), pp.6–7; Qiu Baoxing, Duiying jiyu yu tiaozhan (Response, Opportunity and Challenge) (Beijing: Zhongguo jiangong chubanshe, 2009); Gu Chaolin, Zhongguo chengshi tixi, lishi, xianzhuang, zhanwang (The System of Chinese Cities and Towns, History, Current Conditions and Prospects) (Beijing: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1992).

    6 Marcel Granet, Chinese Civilization (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1930), p.1.

    7 Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010), p.vii.

    8 Weber, The Religion of China; Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, 15th to 18th Centuries, in 3 volumes (New York: Harper & Row, 1984).

    9 Adam Smith, An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, in 2 volumes (London: Methuen, 1961); Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects (San Diego, New York and London: Harvest Books, 1961).


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