Chinese Urbanism

Cities are complex spatial entities consisting of economic, social, political, and cultural dimensions that differ significantly in different cultures, where they tend to undergo varying patterns of transformation over time. Cities and states are dynamically related and mutually constituted, with the former often embodying the essence of the latter. This is especially true in the case of China. Relative to other major cultures of the world, China’s urban experience has been quite unique in terms of the process of urbanization as well as the nature of urbanism. While urbanization is most frequently expressed as the increase in the number of cities, the expansion of urban space, and the growth of urban population, the concept of urbanism has been much more protean and scholars have used it more freely without a consensus of its definition.

Whereas studies on China’s urbanization abound, few address Chinese urbanism, and the mutually reinforcing relationship between nation building and urban development in different historical periods has not been given the level of attention it deserves. In this article, cities are seen as the discursive and material sites where a nation’s major political, cultural, and social systems are developed and specific projects for national development are concentrated, and urbanism is viewed as a historically dynamic phenomenon that undergoes significant changes in different eras. Conceived broadly, urbanism refers to the nature and meanings of the most fundamental, salient, and dominant aspects of city development in a particular nation or region in a given period of time. Operationally, this article adopts a macro historical stance to outline what major forces have affected city development and the resultant urbanism in different periods of Chinese history, paying particular attention to the mutually reinforcing relationship between the state and the city. As such, urbanism is at once a process and a spatial, cultural, and socioeconomic manifestation of urban change. The trajectories of Chinese urban development can be divided into five periods, each with a set of distinct characteristics of urbanism.

Neolithic Settlements and Incipient Urbanism (c. 5000–770 BC)

Administrative and Commercial Urbanism (770 BC–AD 1840)

The Arrival of the West and Modernist Urbanism (1840–1949)

Socialist Urbanism (1949–1978)

Multiplex Urbanism in the Reform Era

The Persistence of the State in Chinese Urbanism