Administrative and Commercial Urbanism (770 BC–AD 1840)

Childe’s key criteria defining early cities in the Old World show clearly the importance of economic production and trade in the rise of its early cities, and economic factors have remained dominant in subsequent Western urban history. In China, during the Zhou period (c. 1122–256 BC), a politically fragmentary era with many independent states contending for territory and superiority, cities grew as state capitals and centers of administration, defense, and trade. With little interference from state authorities and significant improvement in agricultural productivity spurred by the use of iron tools and private land ownership, urban manufacturing and commerce flourished, which greatly facilitated social mobility and enhanced the economic functions of the cities. After the Qin (221–206 BC) unified the country and beginning with the Song dynasty (960–1279 AD), cities became increasingly secularized as aristocratic political authority gave way to bureaucratic state control in national polity. Gradually, cities lost their religious significance where early Zhou kings had worshipped heaven and Zhou noblemen kept their ancestral shrines. From the Qin to the mid nineteenth-century, Chinese cities functioned essentially as seats of imperial administration and centers of territorial control but with a significant level of economic activities. A well structured city hierarchy based on three or four levels of local territorial units was developed, with the county capitals that hovered around 1500 in number for much of the imperial period serving as the lowest level cities and key centers of imperial field administration. There were, however, numerous towns, mostly without walls, that flourished as grass roots market towns where the imperial government had no official presence.

The presence of the state in the cities was clearly visible and it strongly affected the morphology of the cities and the nature of urbanism in dynastic times, giving rise to what might be called ‘administrative urbanism’. This term does not imply that the cities of this period had no other functions, as we know they also functioned as commercial, educational, and cultural centers for the local population. Here the term is used to emphasize the fact that Chinese cities grew mainly because they were centers of state administration, a fact that has never changed even in the twenty first century. As seats of administration and local political power, cities were walled for defense and local population control. Aside from city walls, the most salient spatial element of the cities was the government district consisting of a set of local government buildings (yamen) that served as the nerve center of a city. Other key spaces in the cities included official residences, military compounds, drum and bell towers, granaries, schools, temples, and commercial areas.When settlements appeared outside of the city walls, a second wall enclosure would be added to facilitate population control and urban administration. As centers of administration, cities could grow rapidly through the establishment of a local branch government and organized migration of population, but they could also be ruined rather suddenly as a consequence of frequent internal rebellions, invasions by foreign groups, and dynastic changes, which often involved bloody warfare.

Increasing secularization, bureaucratization, and economic growth after the Song dynasty led to highly significant development of urban commerce. Geared more and more to the needs of the general urban population instead of to the demands of the elite classes as in the past, China’s vibrant urban economy during much of the millennium from the ninth to the nineteenth-century was largely service oriented, centered around a variety of stores, numerous restaurants, hotels, entertainment places, and commodity storage buildings. Aside from merchants, there existed a huge number of government officials, their assistants, local staff and their families, public security force in the cities, and for the large cities – especially the national capital – there were numerous handicraftsmen working in state run workshops and large numbers of troops stationed in and near the cities. Their daily needs had to be met. Historical commercial urbanism was thus marked primarily by local consumption demanded by these urban dwellers and by those who were present in the cities to provide various services, but conspicuous consumption by the rich and powerful was also common. However, vibrant commercial urbanism had not always been present prior to the ninth century. With the exception of the Zhou period in which a laissezfaire economy was developed in the cities, urban commercial activities, the locations of urban markets, and their trading hours were rigidly regulated by the state. After the ninth century, urban commerce was no longer restricted to specific urban wards but dispersed throughout urban space where businesses could be conducted with virtually no time limitations. However, significant commercial capitalism failed to appear in Chinese cities because the most profitable commodities such as salt and tea were monopolized by the state and the Confucian elites all preferred to pursue government service as their career goal. They showed little interest in commerce and disdained technology. However, consumption based commercial urbanism represented a significant dimension of China’s traditional urbanism, which remained little changed until the mid nineteenth century when Western powers arrived in China demanding trade with the Middle Kingdom that until then had existed in ‘splendid isolation’ from the rest of the world.