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The essence of Chinese urbanism: A macro-historical interpretation . Laurence J. C. Ma 马润潮 Department of Geography and Planning Akron, Ohio 44325 USA International Conference on China’s Urban Land and Housing in the 21 st Century, Hong Kong Baptist University, December 13-15, 2007.

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the essence of chinese urbanism a macro historical interpretation

The essence of Chinese urbanism: A macro-historical interpretation

Laurence J. C. Ma马润潮

Department of Geography and Planning

Akron, Ohio 44325 USA

International Conference on China’s Urban Land and Housing in the 21st Century, Hong Kong Baptist University, December 13-15, 2007

looking back for a better understanding of the future
Looking back for a better understanding of the future:

“In our attempt to achieve a better insight into the present state of the city, we must peer over the edge of the historic horizon, to detect the dim traces of still earlier structures and more primitive functions. This is our first task” —

Lewis Mumford, The City in History (1961), p. 4.

presentation o utline
Presentation outline:
  • 1. Diverse meanings of urbanism
  • 2. Operational definition of urbanism
  • 3. Early urban centers and incipient urbanism (the Shang

and the early Zhou)

  • 4. Administrative and commercial urbanisms in

traditional China (from the Zhou to the late Qing)

  • 5. Modernist urbanism (1840-1949)
  • 6. Socialist urbanism (1949-1978)
  • 7. Neoliberal urbanism, Chinese style (1978-present)
  • 8. Conclusion
diverse meanings of urbanism
Diverse meanings of urbanism:
  • Sociological views:

L. Wirth’s determinist theory (1938):“Urbanism as a way of life”:Size, density, heterogeneity of urban population in central city; urbanism affects social organization and results in social differentiation, anomie and disorder.

Herbert Gans’ suburbanism (1968): Class, life-cycle stage, ethnicity and culture are more important factors affecting neighborhood choices and social life than population size, density and heterogeneity.

diverse meanings of urbanism cont d
Diverse meanings of urbanism:(cont’d)
  • Planners’ views on urbanism:

“New urbanism” in urban planning: A postmodern anti-sprawl urban planning movement since the early 1980s aiming at the creation of more people-oriented and walkable communities with conventionally designed compact town centers that are easily accessible, mixed land use and different housing types.

diverse meanings of urbanism cont d1
Diverse meanings of urbanism:(cont’d)
  • Geographers’ views on urbanism:

“Postmodern urbanism” Michael Dear and

Steven Flusty’s (1998): Based on Los Angeles,

characterized by a dispersed polycentric and

polyglot metropolitan urban form with diverse

ethnic, residential, cultural and economic spaces

and strong global-local connection and social


defining urbanism historically
Defining urbanism historically:

Paul Wheatley (1972): “characterize[s] the concept of urbanism as compounded of a series of sets of ideal-type social, political, economic and other institutions which have combined in different ways in [the cities of] different cultures and at different times. It is not unlikely that the only feature which such congeries of institutions will ultimately prove to have in common is the fact of their aggregation.”

defining the essence of urbanism
Defining the essence of urbanism:界定城市的主体性

The essence of urbanism is operationallydefined as:

“the basic function and the attendant nature

of the most fundamental, important and

dominant features – social, economic

and spatial – of the cities in a particular

nation or region in a specific period of



urbanism in chinese history
Urbanism in Chinese history:

Basic thesis:

It is argued that city and state are intimately intertwined, mutually constituted and coevolve over time. As dynamic centers of change in China’s long history, the evolution of cities has not really been limited by China’s major historical traditions as assumed in the paradigm of “change within tradition.”The essence of Chinese urbanism has undergone fundamental changes over time with qualitative differences. However, as the Chinese state has always been stronger than the city and society, the essence of Chinese urbanism has been strongly impacted by the developmental agenda set by the state.

stages of state formation
Stages of state formation:

Local states

(bangguo 邦国; wanguo 万国; Longshan period)

(Longshan cultures: ca 3000 – 2000 B.C.)

Territorial states or kingdoms

(wangguo 王国; Xia, Shang and Zhou)

(Xia: 2070 – 1600 B.C.; Shang: 1600 – 1046 B.C.; Zhou: 11th century B.C. – 221 B.C.)

Imperial states

(diguo 帝国; Qin to Qing)

(221 B.C. – 1911 A.D.)

evolutionary sequence of settlements from un walled villages to un walled towns to cities
Evolutionary sequence of settlements:From (un)walled villages to (un)walled towns to cities

Prehistoric (un)walled villages

(Defensive; Middle Neolithicca. 6500 B.C.-5000 B.C.)

Prehistoric (un)walled towns

(Defensive; Longshanca. 3000 B. C. – 2000 B.C.)

Early urban centers

(Administrative, religious and defensive.

Xia 2070 B.C.-1600 B.C.and Shang1600 B.C.-1046 B.C.)

Cities(Western Zhou11th century B.C.-771 B.C.)

(Administrative,religious, defensive)

Cities(Post-Chunqiu, after770 B.C.)

(Administrative, commercial and defensive)

early urban centers and incipient urbanism
Early urban centers and incipient urbanism
  • Early Chinese towns evolved from Neolithic villages found in different parts of China. Many but not alllarge Middle Neolithic (ca. 6500-5000 B.C.) villages were surrounded with circular ditches and walls constructed with the hangtu(tamped earth 夯土) technique.

[Site at Lingjiatan, 凌家滩, 含山县, 巢湖市, 安徽 is a late Neolithic, 3300-3500 B.C., unwalled early town with a large raised ceremonial platform and numerous high-quality jade objects. A ceremonial and jade production center.]

prehistoric walled towns
Prehistoric walled towns:
  • China’s first walled towns (chengbao 城堡)emerged during the Longshan period (3000-2000 B.C.) in the Central Plain, the mid-Yangzi valley, Shandong and Inner Mongolia. The walls were largely squarish or roughly rectangular in shape, while others were circular and oval. [Were they capitals of local states during the recorded wanguo (万国)era?] They were defense-oriented centers but not yet cities. Archaeological remains of raised ceremonial platforms, large buildings, cemeteries and a large number of clay figurines of animals and humans, jade objects and copper smelting slags suggest that they were political,religious and production centers where social stratification was clearly evident. No archaeological evidence of town markets has been found.

More than 50 found. 郑州西山仰韶晚期古城, 5200-5300 BC 始建, 4800 BC 废弃; 山西襄汾陶寺龙山城城址, 2600-2200 B.C.; 河南淮阳平粮台, 4355±175; 山东章丘城子崖, 2035±115 B.C. 至2405±170 B. C.; 河南登封王城岗, 4000±65 B. P.; 河南安阳后岗, 2155±120 B. C. to 2590±135 B. C.; 河南新密新砦遗址, 4000-5000 B.P.; 河南郾城郝家台; 河南辉县孟庄;

urban revolution in the tigris euphrates the nile and the indus valleys
“Urban Revolution” in the Tigris-Euphrates, the Nile and the Indus valleys
  • V. Gordon Childe’s (1950) ten major features distinguishing ancient cities from villages:

1. More dense population and larger size

2. Most citizens were peasants. Full-time craftsmen, merchants, officials and priests supported by the

surplus produced by the peasants

3. Concentration of surplus through tax or tithe

4. Monumental public buildings: temples, pyramids, royal graneries

5. The ruling class—priests, military leaders and officials—absorbed the bulk of the concentrated surplus

6. Writing system

7. Predictive sciences—arithmetic, geometry and astronomy

8. Artistic expression

9. Long-distance trade

10. Tiny ruling class controlled population groups by controlling temples, shrines and state organization

What was the essence of ancient cities elsewhere? Economic factors dominant, i.e., cities were mainly economic centers.

early urban centers in china
Early urban centers in China:

Types of early urban centers: [Chengbao城堡]; yi, du and duyi邑, 都, 都邑; [chengshi 城市].

Culturally descending from Longshan and emerging in the late Xia and early Shang when territorial states appeared, China’s largest early duyi were created with clear administrative, military, religious but limited economic functions. (Xia: 2070 B. C.-1600 B.C. 据断代工程) and the early Shang (Shang: 1600 B.C. – 1046 B.C.同上).

  • Erlitou二里头 (Dispersed; no wall) Major features of early cities:

(Ca. 1900 B.C.-1500 B.C.; peaked ca. 1700-1600 B.C.)

  • Yanshi Shang City偃师商城 (walled)

(Ca. 1600 B.C. – 1300 B.C.)1. Large palace/temple buildings; many houses

2. Ceremonial platforms and/or burial sites

  • Zhengzhou Shang City 郑州商城(Walled) 3. Defense ditches and city walls built with hangtu 夯土

(Ca. 1600 B.C. – 1300 B.C.) 4. Specialized workshops producing weapons and ritual

vessels for the elite and tools for others; no evidence

of urban markets (shi).

  • Huanbei Shang City 洹北商城 (Walled) 5. Writing found at Yinxu only.

(1300 B.C. – 1046 B.C.)6. Chang Kwang-chih: Ancient Chinese cities were

tools and symbol of political power. (1985)

  • Anyang Yinxu 安阳殷墟 (Dispersed, no wall)

(1300 B.C. -1046 B.C.)

the nature of yi
The nature of yi 邑:
  • Oracle bone inscriptions have repeated references to divinations about “the making of towns” (zuoyi, 作邑), indicating that towns were deliberately created with a plan during the Shang.
  • “Oracle bone records indicate that many officials of the Shang court, as well as some princes and royal consorts, had their own walled towns outside the capital, from which they presumably derived some their own wealth.” (Chang, 1980, Shang Civilization, p. 161). It was the members of the tzu 族lineagegroups that formed the social units of the people of a walled town.” (ibid., p. 165) “All tsu …were military as well as social-political units” (p. 195).

Duyi 都邑: Urban centers during the Shang (16th – l lth century B.C.)and the Zhou (Western Zhou, 11th century B.C.- 771 B.C.; Chunqiu, 770 – 476 B.C.; Zhanguo, 475 – 221 B.C.)

  • During the Shang: “Most if not all of the court officials, including the king’s consorts and princes, appear to have been granted land with income from harvests and walled towns for their tsu people…Each of the lords represented his tsu, his walled town, and his land of whatever size, with the man himself, his tsu, and the town all known by the same name…[there are] more than two hundred such names…” (p. 193). “Shang’s basic social unit, the tsu, is regarded by many scholars as a military unit. In a small walled town…, the tsu inhabiting it performed military functions…and the tsu chief was a military leader. In the royal capital, this military aspect of the tsu simply was enlarged and stratified…” (p. 195).
  • During the Western Zhou: The term yi referred to settlements in general, including villages, towns and cities. “When a yi has an ancestral hall, it is a du 都 [capital]; when a yi does not have one, it is a yi.” (左传 莊公28年: “凡邑有宗庙先君之主曰都, 無曰邑”).Du were administrative, religious and military centers and normally larger than yi.
  • Ceremonial function (Wheatley’s thesis) of China’s ancient cities can be viewed as a subset of their political function. Kings and lords used their privilege to communicate with the spiritual world to legitimize and enhance their political power. (Chang, 19 ). “Early Chinese cities were not a product of economic take-off but a tool in the political realm.”(Chang, 1985 paper).
The persistence of administrative and commercial urbanism (Western Zhou to late Qing 11th century B.C. to 1840):
  • Urban centers before the Western Zhou were limited in number and centered in the Zhongyuan region. With the establishment of feudal fiefs by the Zhou, the number of urban centers increased (estimated to be about 100 in W. Zhou). These urban places were mostly walled fief seats, garrison posts and cult centers for the nobility. (Wheatley, pp. 162-165)
  • The number of duyi increased to several hundred during the early Spring and Autumn (Chunqiu, 770-476 B.C.) as the number of feudal states increased −a period of rapid urban growth(Wheatley; Hsu). These were mostly small centers (战国策, 卷20, 1, 赵惠文王三十年: “…古者…城虽大无过三百丈者,人虽众无过三千家者….千丈之城、万家之邑相望也”) .
chunqiu 770 476 b c and zhanguo 475 221 b c periods
Chunqiu (770 - 476 B.C.)and Zhanguo (475 – 221 B.C.)periods:
  • The rise of independent merchants and artisans as an urban class and the appearance of commercial urbanism in late Chunqiu (论语: 百工居肆), due in part to (1) the disintegration of the institution of gongshang shiguan工商食官(国语. 晋语四:“庶人食力, 工商食官”;Artisans must work in state-owned workshops from March to August) ; (2) the increase in farm productivity and general wealth; (3) the wide use of money; and (4) during the Zhanguo period, private land ownership appeared. The rise of commercial urbanism added a highly important dimension to Chinese urbanism, rendering the cities much more complete in function than before. Since then, strong urban administrative and commercial functions have persisted.
  • The introduction of the “prefecture and county system” (junxianzhi 郡县制) during the Chunqiu period to facilitate direct state territorial control marked the beginning of persistently strong administrative urbanism in China.

Heterogeneization of the urban population and the beginning of commercial urbanism during the Chunqiu and Zhanguo periods (8th century B.C. through 3rd century A.D.):

  • Cities had aristocratic rulers, large numbers of officials, their attendants and servants, scholars, shi 士, independent and attached artisans and merchants, street hoodlums and ruffians, rural migrants, soldiers and farmers.
  • The appearance of a distinctly urban way of life that differed fundamentally from rural living as well as from the life in earlier urban centers where the majority of the people appeared to be farmers.
  • The appearance of full-time private, independent and separate artisans and merchants in the cities. None in earlier times.
  • Massive accumulation of personal wealth by urban merchants.
  • Bustling but strictly regulated urban markets (shi市; si 肆), including specialized markets during Chunqiu and Zhanguo. Most if not all Zhanguo county seats had a market.
Sustained urbanism in imperial China: Cities as centers of administration and trade:(The Qin to the late Qing)
  • Administrative hierarchies of the cities and the spatial expansion of urbanization (continuing today).
  • Cities as seats of territorial administration: City wall as a sharp spatial marker separating urban and rural areas (no longer present today) and the geographic centrality of the yamen衙门 (still true today).
  • The reduction of imperial urban (but not suburban) space over time and thegrowth of private space (process unclear), suggesting increasing importance of the ordinary urbanites (城市空间平民化?).
  • After the 9th century, the collapse of the urban ward (fangshi 坊市)system and the rise of people’s markets and popular culture for the urban masses (城市文化平民化).
Cities of the

Chunqiu and

Zhanguo periods:

1. Yan Xiadu

2. Zhao Handan

3. Wei Anyi

4. Zhou Wangcheng

5. Zheng, Han city

6. Chu Ji’nancheng


A street scene in Kaifeng, early 12th century. Resketched from Zhang Zeduan’s original painting “Along the river [Bian] on the day of Qingming” [April 5 or 6].

Street scene:

Hangzhou tavern,

late 19th century

Title: “They love drinking as if it was their life.”

modernist urbanism 1840 1949
Modernist urbanism, 1840-1949:
  • Two urban sectors and dual urbanism in treaty ports: Western and indigenous landscapes.
  • Treaty ports and the Western sector as centers of change.
  • Cities acquired legal status for the first time in the 1920s.
  • Modernization and the quest for modernity as the driving force of urbanization and urbanism—The initiation of modernist urban projects in city administration (shizheng) and planning, public health, transportation, banking, etc.
socialist urbanism 1949 1978
Socialist urbanism, 1949-1978:
  • Socialist industrialization as the driving force of urbanization and urbanism.
  • Lackluster but closely monitored urban life, low income and low urban consumption (“nonproductive”) to economize the cost of urbanization.
  • Relative social and economic equality.
  • Socialist urban landscape.
  • Low levels of urbanization.
  • Cities were merely spatial containers of socialist industries lacking self-generating economic capability of their own.
  • Urban planning was part of economic planning.
neoliberal urbanism post fordist
Neoliberal urbanism (post-Fordist):
  • Neoliberalism -- Theoretical principles:

Let the efficient free market do its work with minimum

state interference;

Deregulation to encourage competition;

Privatization, trade liberalization and fiscal

discipline through the reduction of public spending;

Property rights and individualism valued;

  • Neoliberalization -- The actual practice of implementing neoliberal projects on the ground which vary from country to country. It is the dominant form of China’s statecraft in the reform era.
neoliberalization as statecraft in china
Neoliberalization as statecraft in China:

Characteristics of neoliberalization in China:

(1) Political: Paying no attention to democracy and

liberty that underlie neoliberalism;

(2) Economic: Embracing its economic strategies

and spatial outcome;

(3) Social: Ignoring the social and environmental

consequences of neoliberalization.

neoliberal urbanism in china 1978 present
Neoliberal urbanism in China (1978-present):
  • Unprecedented speed and scale of urban change.
  • Forces shaping post-socialist Chinese cities:

Exogenous: (1) Neoliberalization; and simultaneously

(2) Globalization of production;

Endogenous: (1) The policy of “reform and openness”;

(2) Marketization;

(3) Deregulation and devolution of

fiscal and administrative power; and

(4) Commodification of urban land use

rights and housing privatization.

new spatialities of neoliberal urbanism
New spatialities of neoliberal urbanism:
  • Cities are foregrounded by the state to lead national economic growth through spatial restructuring of administration. Cities are no longer simple spatial containers appended to the regime of socialist state production.
  • Reform-era Chinese cities are autonomous centers for production and capital accumulation where projects of land and housing commodification has been rolled out, and new neoliberal urban spaces have been created through projects of marketization, globalization, privatization and devolution.
  • Both the urban center and suburbs have been reconstituted through property-led projects for housing, commercial and industrial developments. There are now spaces for global production, elitist consumption, migrant settlement, gentrified neighborhoods, luxurious houses in gated communities, and newly emerging foreign enclaves.
social and economic consequences of neoliberal urbanism
Social and economic consequences of neoliberal urbanism:
  • Increasing economic polarization and income gap among urban residents;
  • Increasing social segregation and inequality has widened social cleavages and sharpened class conflicts ;
  • The lack of the “right to the city” and full citizenship for certain urban groups;
  • Forced relocation of urban residents and the breakdown of old urban communities;
  • Unemployment and the loss of social benefits on the part of laid-off state workers;
  • Land loss on the part of suburban farmers.
key actors and processes in china s neoliberal urbanism
Key actors and processes in China’s neoliberal urbanism:
  • Officials (power) and developers (money) as key city-makers in collaborative patron-client relationships;
  • Nouveau riche and the newly emerged urban middle class;
  • Officials’ quest for administrative achievements (zhengji) and spatial modernity to enhance their career advancement -- a strong driving force for urban change; and
  • State and quasi-state agencies pursuing capital accumulation.
conclusions stages of chinese urbanism
Conclusions: Stages of Chinese urbanism

Incipient urbanism, essentially ceremonial and administrative

Administrative urbanism

Administrative and commercial urbanism

Modernist urbanism

Socialist urbanism

Neoliberal urbanism

  • Viewed through the lens of macro-history, the essence of Chinese urbanism has undergone at least six distinct phases of change over time, each with a set of salient characteristics developed as the state and city coevolved. Each succeeding stage adds a new dimension of urbanism to the previous one, rendering urbanism increasingly complex, and yet each phase stands out with its own essence.
conclusions cont d
Conclusions: (Cont’d)
  • Commercial urbanism is an important part of traditional Chinese urbanism, which has not received sufficient scholarly attention.

3. Since antiquity, the state has persisted as the most powerful agent shaping the nature of Chinese urbanism.


Beyond empiricism toward more relevance:

Move from urban social spatiality to social justice through academic activism aiming at policy change.