In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Urban Change and Modernity

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Statistics
  • Collections of Source Materials
  • Journals
  • Cities in the Maoist Period (1949–1976)

Chinese Studies Urban Change and Modernity
Kristin Stapleton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0031


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.

General Overviews

“Chinese urbanism and modernity” is a vast and rather amorphous topic. The works in this section offer different sorts of overviews. Sit 2010 was designed as a textbook to accompany courses in Chinese urban history; it is mostly concerned with geography, demography, politics, and economics. Wu and Gaubatz 2012, which is more concise and which concentrates on the contemporary period, also adopts a social science approach. Wu, et al. 2010 offers a huge amount of quantitative data and draws on Chinese scholarship more fully than the other works. Although Xu 2000; Li, et al. 2007; and Jinnai, et al. 1998 focus on only one city each, their long time frames and multifaceted analyses provide good, overarching accounts of Chinese urban development that highlight continuity. Ma 2006 is a useful, short introduction to the range of studies undertaken since the late 20th century on Chinese urbanism and modernity.

  • Jinnai Hidenobu 陣内秀信, Shu Jiken 朱自煊, and Takamura Masahiko 高村雅彦, eds. Pekin: Toshi kūkan o yomu (北京: 都市空間を読む). Tokyo: Kajima, 1998.

    A long durée (long-term) study of Beijing’s urban spatial development with a useful bibliography of Japanese works on the city.

  • Li, Lillian M., Alison J. Dray-Novey, and Haili Kong. Beijing: From Imperial Capital to Olympic City. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

    This comprehensive history of Beijing covers the period from 1400 to the early 21st century. Timed to appear before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it addresses a general audience but is based on the latest research.

  • Ma, Laurence J. C. “The State of the Field of Urban China: A Critical Multidisciplinary Overview of the Literature.” In Special Issue: Urban China. Edited by Laurence J. C. Ma. China Information 20.3 (2006): 363–389.

    DOI: 10.1177/0920203X06070031

    Short introduction to a special issue on urban China covering history, geography, political economy, and other approaches. Ma is a senior scholar in the field with an extensive publication record. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Sit, Victor F. S. Chinese City and Urbanism: Evolution and Development. Hackensack, NJ: World Scientific, 2010.

    Chronologically arranged, this textbook is strongest on ancient history and contemporary cities. Argues that Chinese cities have been shaped by Confucian values and thus are fundamentally different from cities in other parts of the world.

  • Wu Renshu 巫仁恕, Kang Bao 康豹, and Lin Meili 林美莉, eds. Cong chengshi kan Zhongguo de xiandaixing (從城市看中國的現代性). Taibei: Zhongyang yanjiu yuan jindai shi yanjiusuo, 2010.

    Collection of essays on 19th- and 20th-century urban history with much empirical data.

  • Wu, Weiping, and Piper Gaubatz. The Chinese City. London: Routledge, 2012.

    Concise and thorough survey of issues in contemporary Chinese urbanism with introductory material on urban history. The coauthors are geographers.

  • Xu, Yinong. The Chinese City in Space and Time: The Development of Urban Form in Suzhou. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2000.

    Sophisticated study of urban space in Suzhou, the center of China’s premodern silk industry. Contains useful discussions of Chinese urban theory and the role of such practices as feng shui (geomancy) in urban planning.

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