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

Urbanism in China experienced a dramatic change in the mid nineteenth-century when increasing numbers of Western traders arrived in China demanding expanded trade along the China coast, which precipitated the Opium War (1839–1842) between the British and Chinese empires. China’s loss of the Opium War and other subsequent wars with foreign powers resulted in a series of unequal treaties that forced China to open an increasing number of ‘treaty ports’ where foreigners could reside and conduct business in ‘concessions’ or ‘settlements’ leased to foreign powers with extraterritorial privileges. Eventually, a total of 73 treaty ports and 25 ‘ports of call’ were established for foreign traders, first along the coast and later in inland areas. In addition, China voluntarily opened up 32 trading ports that foreign steamships could visit.

In the treaty port cities, an entirely new form of urban landscape with Western style buildings and streets was created. Whereas the size of these foreign quarters varied in different cities, they were small relative to the indigenous sectors. However, the significance of foreign quarters goes far beyond their Western style urban landscape. These foreign enclaves, and by extension, the treaty ports themselves, while a symbol of foreign imperialism and China’s humiliation, were also centers of dramatic change in almost every realm of China’s development for more than a century. Foreign traders, with the aid of Chinese compradors in the beginning, brought with them not only new commodities that generated handsome profit for them, but also, more importantly, a wide range of new knowledge and ideas, including Western science, technology, and democracy that seriously challenged Chinese traditions and eventually precipitated profound changes in virtually every aspect of China’s development. As such, the treaty ports, which by the 1930s had included all of China’s major cities except for Beijing, can be considered spaces of Chinese enlightenment through which Western ideas, goods, and institutions flowed in and where the debates as well as the actual projects of China’s early modernization in general and industrialization in particular were centered.

The impact of the West rendered Chinese cities socially and demographically much more heterogeneous than before as new classes of urban elite, including foreigners and Chinese entrepreneurs, emerged. Politically, the treaty ports introduced Western municipal administration and court systems to China. They also served as sanctuaries for many of China’s revolutionaries who could get protection in foreign settlements. Spatially, the pattern of China’s urban development was altered in favor of the coastal region, in sharp contrast to the earlier pattern that had been focused heavily on inland cities because the Chinese empire was essentially land based, and because, during the Ming (1368–1644) and the Qing (1644–1911) dynasties before 1840, the major function of the coastal cities was limited to military defense against pirates, a function that precluded meaningful coastal development. In 1943, the system of treaty ports ceased to exist as the unequal treaties were replaced by new and equal treaties.

However, China’s modernization efforts continued well into the mid twentieth century. Despite the fact that before 1937 China had suffered from frequent internal conflicts among regional warlords and wars against Japanese invasion, by the 1920s most large cities and many smaller ones in coastal and inland areas had initiated modernization projects that fundamentally altered traditional Chinese urbanism, with the reorganization of urban space and the introduction of new urban institutions forming the core of the nationwide modernist agenda. From the 1840s to the 1930s at least, Chinese urbanism was shaped essentially by modernization efforts, and as such, it can be argued that it was a period of modernist urbanism, a term used here to emphasize the fact that the dominant concern of the national and urban leaders was modernization, which was city based.

Chinese cities during the first three decades of the twentieth century witnessed significant changes in urban design and infrastructure. Cities continued to be the breeding grounds of new ideas for national development and served as the platforms for the debate of national identity. More new ideas were introduced from abroad by, and debated hotly among, urban intellectuals, many of them trained in the West and Japan. Under the effects of a worldwide urban reform movement in the early twentieth century and embracing a common model of urban administration and city planning developed in the West and carried out effectively in Japan, Hong Kong, and the concession areas of the treaty ports, major Chinese cities, coastal as well inland, initiated specific city planning projects. These cities included Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Guangzhou, Nantong, Tianjin, Changchun, Wuhan, and Chengdu. A new urban polity centered on urban administration (shizheng) emerged, and city governments were reorganized with city codes, appointed mayors, and assemblymen. For the first time in Chinese history, the city became a legal entity which represented a major departure from the lack of administrative status in traditional territorial organization. Prior to the early 1920s, there was no city government and all matters of a city, including national capitals, were under the administrative purview of the magistrate(s) of a county (counties) in which the city was located.

The most visible changes in early twentieth century China occurred in the urban landscape. Cities underwent a major urban facelift through the removal of city walls, the widening and paving of streets, the promotion of personal hygiene and public sanitation, the installation of water supply and drainage systems, electricity and tramways, the construction of urban parks, department stores and hotels, hospitals, churches, museums, theaters and dance halls, modern industries, railway stations and Western style universities and schools, the introduction of a modern police system, chambers of commerce, banks, newspapers and magazines, and the initiation of ‘local self governing’ assemblies in urban administration. There was a uniform national consensus for major changes in all realms of national development and a strong national quest for modernity. Through the power of the press, scholarly journals, and popular magazines, a distinct urban culture emerged, characterized by the presence of avant garde writers and artists, a modernist mindset pervading among the educated urbanites, and the preference for modern lifestyle among all urban residents.

Under the strong current of modernization, there was a widespread concern for national cultural identity, especially in Beijing, Shanghai, and the tourist city of Hangzhou. Newly introduced ideological and materialistic urban elements rendered the Chinese city a clearly recognizable legal, spatial, socioeconomic, and cultural entity that differed in major ways from traditional Chinese urbanism. However, China in the first half of the twentieth century suffered from repeated wars and frequent shifts of political regimes. Political fragmentation, war with Japan (1937–45) and an all out civil war between the Nationalists and Communists from 1945 to 1949 rendered the half century a period of major national disruptions and destructions. Whereas the national aspirations for modernization were high and the basic framework for modern urban administration was set up in China, constant political upheavals, incessant wars, and the lack of specialists in urban administration prevented the cities from successfully implementing urban reform projects. With the establishment of a socialist government in 1949, modernist urbanism which managed to bud but failed to bloom fully under extremely difficult national conditions was abruptly replaced by socialist urbanism which represented yet another major metamorphosis in the history of Chinese urbanism.