What if Western methods of knowledge categorization, were not primary in the formation of a large number of cities in the world?
Unfortunately, contemporary concepts of urban and architectural discourse mostly stem from Western educational models.
A more holistic, overarching concept of understanding the Chinese city is required. A concept that does not try to understand the Chinese city by dissecting its various components according to Western methods of knowledge categorization, or by comparing it to Western modes of city development.
In this proposed holistic alternative, historic cultural concepts related to urban structures, or ways of living, and a cognitive conception of the urban environment, are transposed over time into their contemporary contexts.
This article provides an alternative in the prevailing mode of urban conception, based upon a recent book that discusses exactly this approach. A conceptual framework for understanding the Chinese city that captures at once its contemporary hypermodernity and its 2500 years of specific social cultural history.
Instead of trying to describe the forming of the concept of the Chinese city as something created during the recent rapid urbanization process, following the late 20th century opening up and reform period, or from the start of modern city planning, it offers a broader perspective. As such, the book reveals continuities between ancient concepts of Chinese city formations and current urban organizations, where others see only rupture and chaos.
In this post I’ll introduce the background and context of Understanding the Chinese City (2014), by prof. Li Shiqiao, as well as its main structure, highlights and a conclusion. Not because I have any affiliation with the writer or the rights to the book. But rather, because I think the author makes a compelling argument that is worth sharing.
Since China’s rapid urbanization, the concept of ‘the Chinese City’ has become a topic of academic interest around the world. Following this interest, both Chinese and international scholars have tried to give an understanding of the concepts that drive this distinct typology and to explain the processes that shape and have shaped our understanding of the Chinese city.
Li Shiqiao however, believes that, instead of trying to understand the Chinese city by dissecting its various components, or comparing it to foreign modes of development, a more holistic, overarching concept of understanding the Chinese city is required. In this holistic conception, ‘historic cultural concepts’ related to urban structures, or ways of living, and a cognitive conception of the urban environment, are transposed over time into their contemporary contexts.
He also asks whether, since contemporary concepts of urban and architectural discourse mostly stem from Western educational models, what if Western methods of knowledge categorization, or conception, were not primary in the formation of a large number of cities in the world? In this case implying that Chinese cities would perhaps be better understood from a different categorization or conceptual framework.
Chinese cities would perhaps be better understood from a different categorization or conceptual framework.
Understanding the Chinese City has a main body that is divided into three parts, following the author’s three main imperatives of a different understanding of the Chinese city. Each part is then again divided into three sub-chapters, thus making a series of nine chapters in three parts.
In this way the author claims to establish an intellectual framework for understanding the Chinese city, following three main conceptual topics. Within the parts, these topics are explained by starting with a comprehensive comparison to Western counterparts, showing how the author claims that the prevailing method of categorization does not apply correctly to the conceptual framework of the contemporary Chinese city. Each chapter then builds on a few examples in which the proposed new imperative is used to analyze quite specific phenomena occurring in certain Chinese cities. Following the three main imperatives, these topic firstly regard the gathering and keeping of things to sustain life, secondly the protection of the body from danger, and thirdly the articulation of moral and aesthetic judgements on things in cities.
Before starting the main body, the author offers an introduction to start his hypothesis. The introduction provides a compelling argument that states the underlying motivation for a different approach to understanding the contemporary Chinese city. The author here argues that certain fundaments underlying the conceptual conditions for cities vary widely between Western and Eastern conceptions, based on the social historical context they developed from. For example regarding the ‘right number of things’ in a city, and the way they form a related urban entity. The author states that Plato, as the Western fundament, legislates a range of absolute quantities, through the notion of proportion as the master key of all other quantities. The author characterizes the Chinese city instead as an amalgamations of quantities. Quantities that acquire their significance in their own rights, resulting in a city of ‘maximum quantities’ without the relevance of an overlying proportional ordering system.
And this difference in fundamental conception of city development, structures the rest of the book, in three imperatives, out of perhaps more, in the formation of a concept on understanding Chinese cities that, the author argues, seem not to have been derived from the West.
PART 1: Abundance
The first part, ‘Abundance’ takes the concept of a ‘city of maximum quantities’ as its main topic, concerning the ideal number of things and people in the city.
This section starts with an explanation of the impossibility of controllable quantities in modern cities; migrants, sprawl, slums, etc. And then introduces different modes of conceptual quantitative regulations. It claims that, rather than being shaped by an invisible force of proportionality, such as grid-iron New York or Renaissance Venice, an idea of maximum quantity is a regulatory principle in shaping the Chinese city.
Claiming that, in the Chinese order of things, abundance seems to be grounded in ‘the fertility principle’. Fertility as the ultimate source of unlimited additional quantities. This is then further explored with the city of Hong Kong as its main case study, ‘a city of a billion things’ as ‘encapsulating the notion of abundance in all aspects’. And thirdly, transposing this to the structuring and the meanings of labour, making this city of abundance, and the resultant numerical and financial hierarchies.
The author ends the third chapter in this part with an interesting comparison that describes the difference between some of these invisible, culturally embedded orderly principles and their abundant counterpart of the Chinese city. Saying that ‘if the Islamic city is symbolized acoustically by regular calls to prayers and the Christian city by the church bells dictating the ordered day;
the Chinese city is distinguished by its perpetual amalgamations of cacophonic fluidity’.
PART 2: Prudence
The second part, titled ‘Prudence’, stems from the notion of prudence and its resultant corporeal and urban forms. The author starts this part by introducing a statement by a late Ming Dynasty official Zhang Tao. While describing the ideal family life, he wrote that ‘every family was self-sufficient, with a house to live in, land to cultivate, hills from which to cut firewood and gardens in which to grow vegetables’.
Here the author emphasizes that the Chinese aimed to create an in itself stable entity as its starting point, a ‘safely guarded ideal life of prudence’. He continues by saying that instead of following the Greek notion of danger, in which the concept of danger is treated as both inevitable and formative, the notion of prudence in the Chinese cultural context can then be seen to enact a more preservative notion of safe-keeping stability. This part of the book takes on the notion of the body in safety and danger by describing the resultant interior and exterior ‘territories’ constructed in response to real and imagined dangers. For instance in the way dangerous and filthy spaces are conceptualized together, through the notion of ‘jianghu’, analyzing the continuing importance of the family and its barriers of protection against real and imagined dangers.
The author then transposes this conception of the importance of the care within the family unit to the degrees of care in public space as well, in which the concept of care in public space in the Chinese city is based on ‘ranked care’. Different from having a public space based upon universal care, such as the Greek concept of the polis, in which loyalty to all citizens goes above that to the family. And different from the Christian concept caritas which tells to provide care for all, creating an inseparable conception of care of public space in western cities.
The ranked care in public spaces in the Chinese concept originates from the ranks of care in familial bonds; most easily seen in the difference in the use of walls in cities.
In the Western city an entire city body was protected by a city wall, providing a relatively open city, with various public spaces and universal care for all inside. The traditional Chinese city however, not only has a wall around the city, walls are also extensively build within the city walls, around gardens, private houses, institutions, palaces, etc., delineating degrees of care within the overall urban body.
This concept can still be seen in the planning of the contemporary Chinese city today, with its tendency towards large plots of gated high-rise communities, and also on the level of the family unit, by utilizing fenced bay-windows on each apartment window of the twenty plus story towers inside the community.
PART 3: Figuration
The third part, titled ‘Figuration’, examines the way in which the Chinese writing system works as an archetype for human thought, both as a crystallization of the past and a prophet for the future. And thus examines how:
the cognitive understanding of the Chinese city has also been shaped by the figuration principle embedded in the writing system.
The author claims that, though the concepts of Abundance and Prudence are organizing principles as well, they impose relatively loose degrees of selection in the concepts related to city planning. The concept of Figuration seems to emerge as the supreme ordering force in the Chinese city, through which the allowable, following from the desire of abundance, and the accumulated, the degrees of care, quantities, are transformed into their physical form. This follows the linguistic perception of the character-based Chinese language, in which a process of blending form and meaning lies at the inception of its writing system.
The first chapter in this part is therefore called ‘the Empire of Figures’, based on a comparison with the Chinese square word in its way of writing places with form, before meaning. This can also be transposed to the importance of meaning of form in certain parts of city planning, such as the complementing characters of the Olympic National Stadium and the National Swimming Centre in Beijing. Representing a bird’s nest and heavenly circle and a water cube and earthly square respectively.
Secondly, the author in this third part states that the second principle of figuration lies in that:
function follows figure.
Thus making that relationships between form and use, form and materials or form and structural are not always causal. For instance in the way that, unlike Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence that follows structural causality and thus efficiently withstands the forces of gravity, the timber columns forming the base for major Chinese structures, such as the Hall of Supreme Harmony in Beijing’s Forbidden City, are disguised behind systems of timber brackets, dougong 斗拱.
Not resulting from structural causality, or material properties, in which diagonals would have been the easiest way to achieve structural stability. Instead, the author traces this back to the concept of ‘uprightness’ in the Chinese character zheng 正, representing a moral concept underlying the figurative meaning of the character in which adding diagonals would have created the ‘unstraight’ character wai 歪, representing moral degradation.
Thirdly, the author in this part argues that for instance ‘memory without location’, is one of the most intriguing results of the nature of the figure, influencing in crucial ways the use and maintenance of the built heritage in Chinese cities.
HOW ABOUT OTHER BOOKS?
Given the wide interest of various scholars into topics related to understanding the conceptual framework of the Chinese city, there are of course many other books available now. However, when comparing Understanding the Chinese City to other recent works on cities, it has been rather unfortunate to note that, following the sheer complexity of cities, most scholarship on cities has divided the city into a long list of smaller sub-categories, often focused on specific sub-disciplines (planners, architects, sociologist, economists, etc). As stated in Li’s introduction, only few books, such as Mumford’s The City in History or Hall’s Cities in Civilization provide a comprehensive overview of conceptually understanding the city as a complex, layered entity.
Other contemporary books in this field, that aim to make us understand the conceptual framework behind the Chinese city, available to an international audience in English, include T. Campanella’s 2008 The Concrete Dragon, which compares China’s recent urbanization to earlier Western/ American episodes. Or books like Zhu Jianfei’s 2004 Chinese Spatial Strategies: Imperial Beijing and Wang Yi’s 2013 A Century of Change, which focus on a specific city, Beijing, in both cases, in a recent time frame and specific typology (the imperial palace in the first, housing in the 20th century in the second).
Li Shiqiao however, takes a very different approach. Not trying to understand the Chinese city by dissecting its various components, or comparing it to foreign modes of development. Instead his book makes a case for the need of a more holistic, overarching concept of understanding the Chinese city.
If, as Wittgenstein stated, “the limits of my language set the limits of my world”, what difference, does it make to conceptualize things in a different kind of word and to give an alternative significance to numbers?
Well, Li Shiqiao argues in this book that this kind of linguistic difference lies in the figuration of Chinese characters, creating different cognitive patterns in understanding, reading and conceptualizing the spatial environment. In this sense:
ideas taken for granted in the West and built into our scientific world-view are by no means universal,
but stem instead from a particular social historical context, and are therefore not readily applicable to understanding the Chinese city. Instead, in the main part of the book, the goal of the author is to take us through this hypothesis of a different conceptual understanding of the Chinese City, by following his argument step by step, and hereby teaching us to read the contemporary Chinese city from this outset of a difference in cognitive framing.
It was very refreshing to read Li Shiqiao’s version on the understanding of the principles behind the Chinese City. Through his ingenious linking of wide-ranging concepts of both historic cultural principles with contemporary cases and urban mechanisms, he crafts a new theory of conceptualizing the Chinese city and understanding the dynamics of its urbanization.
He is also able to convincingly argue for a renewed understanding of cities outside the Chinese context, based on a holistic interpretation of their regional culture, meaning a powerful stance against prevailing models of categorization.
In each part of the book he shows a great understanding of both Western and Eastern thoughts and historic development, in which the reader is able to understand that rather than becoming obstacles to change, ancient practices have become effective strategies of adaptation under radically new terms.
A must read for anyone working on the development of Chinese cities, or in the context of Chinese urbanization, or to anyone with an interest in understanding the link between historic cultural concepts and the modern Chinese city.
The author eventually aims to conclude that, rather than looking at obvious, and indeed powerful, forces that seem to be understood as a scientific system of city influencers, the intellectual foundations of the Chinese city will have an important role in the future development of China’s urban environments. ‘Especially in the reformulation of the conception of good life in the context of a renewed understanding of the freedoms and the rights of humans and things.’ (Li)
All images taken by Martijn de Geus, displaying characteristics of Chinese cities, in order of appearance:
– Beijing, the Palace Museum/ Forbidden City
– Beijing, Guomao district
– Hong Kong, Victoria Peak
– Village in Hangzhou
– Dougong in Pingyao
– Beijing Hutong
NB; this post is a modified version of my peer-reviewed article as published in ‘China City Planning Review 2015, vol. 24, no. 3’ with ISSN 1002-8447.Asia, China, cities, planning, urban