Urban Change and Modernity

Kristin Stapleton

in Chinese Studies

ISBN: 9780199920082
Published online April 2013 | | DOI:
Urban Change and Modernity

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  • East Asian Studies
  • Asian History
  • East Asian Philosophy
  • East Asian Religions



China has a long and rich urban tradition. At many periods in human history, Chinese cities were the world’s largest. However, beginning in the 19th century western European and American cities began to be seen as model modern cities, because they seemed to promote industrial development, advanced transportation technology and utilities, democratic governance, and an atmosphere of cultural creativity and cosmopolitanism. Compared with London and New York, a city like Suzhou, which had once been the most populous in the world, then seemed economically, technologically, politically, and culturally “backward.” Since that time the study of Chinese cities has evolved from approaches that tended to confirm that verdict of backwardness and to analyze the reasons for it (the classic study is the sociologist Max Weber’s Die Stadt [The city], originally published posthumously in 1921); see Theoretical Perspectives) to approaches that explore Chinese urban development on its own terms. In the late 19th century Chinese cities started to be affected by the new technologies, administrative systems, and urban culture that had been developed in western Europe and the United States (and adopted or adapted enthusiastically in nearby Japan). Research on the period between the 1890s and 1940s generally focuses on the transformation of Chinese cities in the absence of a strong central government but with a relatively free economy and flow of information and goods from abroad. The victory of the Maoist revolution in 1949 caused a radical shift in urban development, closing the cities off from most international influences. Scholarship on that period examines, among other topics, the attempts to shift industry to rural areas and the increasing but uneven regimentation of urban life. After Mao’s death in 1976, the new leadership under Deng Xiaoping opened up the country and encouraged the rapid development of industries and cities, resulting in the most spectacular urban boom in human history. Major topics of study in this period include the place of municipalities and cities in the political system, the politics concerning control over urban land and development, the vast “floating population” of migrants who lack residency rights in the cities, and the growth of a lively consumer culture. Over the whole range of scholarship on Chinese urbanism, the question of how Chinese cities have shaped and are shaping what “modernity” means is often raised but has not by any means been answered satisfactorily.

Article.  13994 words. 

Subjects: East Asian Studies ; Asian History ; East Asian Philosophy ; East Asian Religions

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