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Remaking the Chinese City

March 22, 2010

Joseph W. Esherick, ed., Remaking the Chinese City: Modernity and National Identity, 1900-1950. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000.

Sharon Chen (2003)

As Joseph Esherick puts it, this collection of essays serves to illustrate the “attempt to construct cities that would be both modern and Chinese” (p.1). Historically, the West has been the undisputed producer of all things modern, and China’s attempts at achieving a uniquely Chinese modernity have been problematic. This volume of essays both highlights the successes in creating urban spaces that are Chinese and modern, as well as underscores the difficulties of such an endeavor.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part is entitled “The Modernist City” and it examines the ways that people perceived modernity and implemented “modern measures” in their cities. The deconstruction of city walls was a common and concrete way that many cities used to modernize. Another common theme running through the essays of part one is that in reordering the city along more modern lines, the government often became more intrusive in peoples’ lives. This intrusiveness surfaced in the government’s quest for weisheng (or “hygienic modernity”) seen through its regulation of defecation in Tianjin (chapter 3), or in Yang Sen’s dictatorial policies in Chengdu (chapter 6). At times, the government even sought to mold its citizens’ thinking, as in Canton, when a person’s mentality was just as important to the search for modernity as the newly constructed public space that would prescribe this modern-directed thinking (chapter 2). At the same time, however, certain citizens, such as bankers, gained a distinctly modern autonomy as they became more cosmopolitan in their travels from city to city; the traditional native-place identity, so strong in imperial China, had been effectively broken down by institutions such as the modern bank (chapter 4). “Tradition and Modernity,” the second part of the book, points to the cities that were both “modern” and “Chinese.” Whereas the cities of part one were often heavily influenced by Western (or Japanese) approaches, the cities of part two were completely Chinese because they capitalized on their own formidable cultural traditions. Using their “cultural capital,” cities such as Hangzhou and Beijing after 1928 reinvented traditions and engaged in the commercialization of culture as they became commodified “tourist cities.” These tourist cities illustrate “multiple paths to modernity” and found a place for China’s ancient past in the modern world (120). Similarly, the remodeling of Nanjing was an attempt to modernize by fusing traditional Chinese architecture with modern elements, as well as an attempt “to impress upon the people of China that the [GMD] was the best (and only) vehicle to bring the country into the modern age” (155). Again, the prominence of the government in constructing modernity seen in part one is evident.

The third part of the book, “City and Nation,” looks at China’s wartime capitals, Wuhan and Chongqing. These essays emphasize cultivating a Chinese spirit or mentality as a purveyor of modernity. The Wuhan spirit “signified the kind of open, patriotic political culture a modern Chinese capital ought to project,” while Chongqing’s divisions between “native” and “downriver” people created a microcosm of China and “helped to establish a dichotomous relationship between ‘modernizing and westernizing'” (172,190).

This series of essays dealing with attempts to create distinctively Chinese and distinctively modern cities is provocative and challenging. Each essay offers its own view on what it meant to be Chinese and modern, and how this objective was accomplished. This is a complex and daunting task, and some essays are a little confusing in their discussion of what it meant to be modern and Chinese. For example, David D. Buck’s treatment of Changchun focuses almost solely on the Japanese approaches to constructing a modern city, and regrettably, very little mention of Chinese reaction to Japanese plans was mentioned. Similarly, Rogaski’s study of weisheng prioritizes European and Japanese influences. It is somewhat difficult to see what the Chinese thought of weisheng and its modernizing implications for Tianjin. These small problems seem to contradict the aim of the book, the goal of examining what it meant to create modern Chinese cities. At the same time, the problems also point out the massive difficulties in defining the modern.

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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