Chinese Cities since 1900: Revolutionary Discipline and Exuberance

February 5, 2018

The story of China’s last century has been one of growth, of strife, of soul-searching and transformation. Cities are both the engines and the manifestations of China’s ongoing metamorphosis, representing a vision for the nation’s future. Professor Kristin Stapleton has explored the continuity in Chinese urban landscapes across historical periods, and she shared her findings at a January 25th talk at the MacMillan Center, sponsored by the Council on East Asian Studies. She was introduced by Assistant Professor of History Denise Ho.

A professor of history at the University at Buffalo, SUNY, Stapleton has conducted research and published on subjects ranging from literary representations of urban spaces to the history of Chinese family life. Her work on urban planning and development, which she showcased in her talk, has its origins in her early years abroad at schools in Taipei and Chengdu. 

Stapleton presented the qualities of discipline and exuberance as complementary – and sometimes competing – forces in the reinvention of Chinese cities from the early 20th century to the present day. She framed the relationship in terms familiar to anyone interested in civic engagement.

“Exuberance is what you identify with, creating your personal identity. Discipline is about achieving your goals. Cities are about both of those things.”

Chengdu is a useful case study in the navigation of those poles over the last century. Stapleton discussed the Chinese Communist Party’s enlistment of Chengdu’s native son, the celebrated novelist Li Jieren, to mediate and lend an air of local legitimacy to its urban development directives. Li’s exuberance for the revitalization of his hometown soon clashed with the discipline of party doctrine and his role in city administration was greatly diminished. Stapleton highlighted the episode as an example of tradition and identity as a perceived stumbling block to the achievement of a socialist society. 

Among the ideas that Stapleton puts forth in her work is that Chinese administrative structures and processes are more complex than prominent theories suggest. Rather than a top-down model of centralized control, Stapleton points to a more variegated environment of public and private interests that compete and compromise between administrative levels. She cited current policies of reterritorialization, which draw from centuries of tradition, to illustrate how government is mobilizing corporations and private planners to settle communities with homogenous levels of density. Stapleton also spoke at length about the urbanization model pioneered by the city of Daqing, which sprang up around an oil field and was designed to support its burgeoning extractive industries. 

The lessons outlined in Stapleton’s talk are of particular salience as the model of Chinese urbanism gains adherents in Africa and Southeast Asia. During a lively Q&A session with Yale faculty and students in attendance, Stapleton addressed some of the questions and concerns that remain for the influence that Chinese urbanism will have at home and abroad. 

Professor of Sociology Deborah Davis raised a question about the outlook for China’s cities as environmental collapse looms, noting that poor quality construction means that buildings are torn down soon after they are built, leading to mountains of waste concrete. In response, Stapleton expressed considerable confidence in the creativity and enterprise of Chinese scientists and planners.

“The environmental issues are huge. Someone’s going to deal with concrete, and I’m not as sure about air quality and water quality.” But, she continued, “I’m optimistic.”