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The City in Late Imperial China

January 29, 2010

G.W. Skinner, ed. The City in Late Imperial China. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1977.

Christian Hess (2003)

The City in Late Imperial China is the last of a three-book series of edited volumes covering Chinese urban history from the late imperial period to the PRC. All of the books contain papers presented in two conferences held in 1968-1969 devoted to the study of cities in China. This collection and the approaches it represents set the foundation for the field of Chinese urban history, and this final volume in particular has been extremely influential since its publication nearly twenty-five years ago. The scope of the present volume is large. It is organized into three sections dealing with cities in historical context, in spatial context, and finally as social systems. The chapters range from studies of individual cities to more general themes like urban morphology and late imperial city planning. Although the book contains several wonderfully researched case studies by Mark Elvin, Yoshinobu Shina, and F.W. Mote, it is the five pieces by Skinner that have been most influential and have received the most attention from scholars.

Skinner’s regional systems model, as applied here for the first time to China’s late imperial urban centers, challenged prior Weberian notions of Chinese urbanity and gave researchers a tool with which to view Chinese cities in their own unique and diverse contexts. Breaking China into eight geographically bounded macroregions, Skinner sees each macroregion as having its own hierarchical pattern of urban centers. Some of these cities and central places were more administrative in function, and others more economic. “These findings effectively dispose the notion that cities in China were but microcosms of empire, more or less uniform creations of an omnipotent state” (345). By locating cities as the top rung of an economic system as embedded in geographically bounded trade networks extending down to village markets, he also effectively displaces the idea of a dichotomy between city and countryside.

This concept of an urban-rural continuum continues to shape our understanding of late imperial cities and of Chinese social systems. Subsequent work on this time period, particularly William Rowe’s books on Hankow and Linda Cooke Johnson’s edited volume on cities in Jiangnan, build upon the foundations laid by Skinner. Moreover, Skinner’s work has given researchers the historical context and frame of reference with which to view the subsequent breakdown of the continuum and the growing gulf between city and countryside that characterized Republican cities.

Although highly influential and intricate in its conceptualizations, the book is not without its faults. The chapters laid out by the other contributors at times do not seem to mesh with the framework Skinner has laid out. This is not to say that they weaken his model, but they do not seem to engage with it. Exceptions are chapters by Yoshinobu Shiba and Mark Elvin in Part Two that provide poignant case studies for Skinner’s urban-rural continuum. Gilbert Rozman’s review of the book explained why this seems to be the case. Skinner’s portions of the book were written after the conference papers, “reflecting a different state of knowledge in the field as a whole” (Pacific Affairs, 50,4:668-672). There was indeed an eight-year gap between conference and publication. More problematic for reviewers was Skinner’s presentation of the data. In fact, reading his dense analysis, one feels at times that he is asking the reader to take the evidence for his model on faith. Marwyn Samuels (Journal of Asian Studies, 37,4:713-723) noted that more than the appendix provided by Skinner is necessary in order to more clearly present the data used in constructing the model the book provides (Samuels, 719). Although Samuels recognized the significance of Skinner’s model for its potential future impact on the field, he questioned some of its fundamental assumptions. Under attack are claims made by central place theory in general, namely that cities are the “source and goal of social relations” in which “the city prevails as the aim of development.” Samuels criticized Skinner’s use of this assumption, as he sees it as a model derived from in the context of American and European frontier development (720-1). Despite such criticism, both reviewers welcomed the work and as an enormous contribution for the field as a whole and to urban specialists in particular. This work continues today to be an often-cited source for its groundbreaking contribution to our understanding of late imperial centers and the regional nature of development within empires.

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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