Chinese cities

From the FP Cities issue, two opposing views of Chinese cities:

1) They’re all the same, says Isaac Stone Fish in “Unlivable Cities”:

Why are Chinese cities so monolithic? The answer lies in the country’s fractured history. In the 1930s, China was a failed state: Warlords controlled large swaths of territory, and the Japanese had colonized the northeast. Shanghai was a foreign pleasure den, but life expectancy hovered around 30. Tibetans, Uighurs, and other minorities largely governed themselves. When Mao Zedong unified China in 1949, much of the country was in ruins, and his Communist Party rebuilt it under a unifying theme. Besides promulgating a single language and national laws, they subscribed to the Soviet idea of what a city should be like: wide boulevards, oppressively squat, functional buildings, dormitory-style housing. Cities weren’t conceived of as places to live, but as building blocks needed to build a strong and prosperous nation; in other words, they were constructed for the benefit of the party and the country, not the people.

Even today, most Chinese cities feel like they were cobbled together from a Soviet-era engineering textbook. China’s fabled post-Mao liberal reforms meant that the country’s cities grew wealthier, but not that much more distinct from each other. Beijing has changed almost beyond recognition since Deng Xiaoping took power in 1978, but to see what Beijing looked like in the past, visit a less developed part of China: Malls in Xian, a regional hub in central China famous for its row upon row of grimacing terracotta warriors, look like the shabby pink structures that used to dot western Beijing. Yes, China’s cities are booming, but there’s a depressing sameness to what you find in even the newest of new boomtowns. Consider the checklist of “hot” new urban features itemized in a 2007 article in the Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, including obligatory new “development zones” (sprawling corporate parks set up to attract foreign direct investment), public squares, “villa” developments for the nouveau riche, large overlapping highways, and, of course, a new golf course or two for the bosses. The cookie-cutter approach is such that even someone like Zhou Deci, former director of the Chinese Academy of Urban Planning and Design, told the paper he has difficulty telling Chinese cities apart.

2) They might look the same, but they’re distinguished by their geography and culture, says Christina Larson in “The Souls of Chinese Cities”:

China’s fast-growing megacities — 43 cities of one-million-plus today, and a projected 221 by 2025 — may at first blush look homogenous and interchangeable, but of course a metropolis is more than a collection of buildings, and foundations aren’t only poured in concrete. With few exceptions, China’s most significant modern metropolises have varied, lengthy, and winding histories. At a recent literary event in Beijing, the author and New Yorker contributor Zha Jianying was asked to explain if and how “history and modernity coexist” in China. Zha, who publishes in both Mandarin and English and is one of today’s most insightful writers in explaining China to the West, and vice-versa, mused: “It depends on what history you care about. People care about living history — the language, the cuisine. But architecture?” She paused. “Every new dynasty would burn the old palace and build anew. It’s very different in that sense than Europe … There’s a long venerable history of destroying the old.”

Beijing is an extraordinary and dynamic city, and my current home, but it’s perhaps overrated — at least as a prism for understanding China. For unlike many countries that at one time or another in history have laid some claim to being or becoming the new center of the universe, China has never long or truly been a nation dominated by one metropolis. Beijing is not like London, Paris, Rome, Madrid, Constantinople, Cairo in the sense of having been the constant seat of empire (China has hadsix historic capitals), or even as a bellwether for a civilization’s fortunes. It has long been China’s administrative capital, but not its central marketplace, site of religious pilgrimage, industrial hub, or even popular tastemaker. In France, a common saying sums up the centrifugal force of the capital: One is said to be either “from Paris or from the provinces” – from the nation’s political and cultural center of gravity, or from the sticks. But in China, an old truism carries nearly the opposite meaning: “Heaven is high, and the emperor is far away.” In other words, the center doesn’t know about, or can’t fully control, what happens throughout China’s vast territory.

I think I fall into the first camp. Stone gives great descriptions of what a typical — and they are all typical — Chinese city is like: dreary Soviet-style buildings, pollution, traffic, etc. However, I’d also add that it’s not just that the big cities all look like big cities, or that the smaller cities look like the big cities but with fewer skyscrapers and ring roads; but that even the “historic”, “ethnic” or “AAAAA National Site” attractions all look the same. Caves lit up with green, pink and blue neon lights and advertisements. Pagodas and temples with a green pond and arched stone bridges and brick-layed paths. Public parks with pedal boats and people. “Ancient” villages that were built in the last few years. There may be subtle architectural or biological differences, but they are very, very subtle.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that China doesn’t have a vast array of geographical landscapes; it’s roughly the same size as the U.S., but it has a far more diverse geography. From the desert oases of the West to the water towns of the Lower Yangtze, from the chilly Tibetan Plateau to southern China’s karst hills and caves — China’s offers unique, truly breathtaking scenery in almost every region. And of course, geography influences a city’s atmosphere. Coastal cities feel more laid back; smaller towns seem to move at a slower pace; Shanghai and Beijing seem much more cosmopolitan than any other city in China.

The thing about China, though, is that there was and is a lot of experimentation going on; however, once people find something that moderately works, they all adopt it and innovation stops. Scenic areas, cultural relics and scenes of ethnic minority life — people love this stuff! Traffic congestion, pollution — no one’s figured out how to alleviate these problems, so for now they remain. Spitting, squatting, talking loudly on cell phones — these are traits that exist in 99% of the Chinese gene pool, by my own estimates.

But there is hope that, as Larson points out, the growing competition between cities will push them to find their inner selves. Indeed, Beijing and Shanghai are nothing alike, as any Beijinger and Shanghainese will tell you. That means, theoretically, as China urbanizes, we should be able to look for its cities to develop souls. I reckon they will be easier to see once I get past all that sameness stuff.

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