Chinese Urban Planning Research Paper

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The principles of Chinese urban planning grew out of the heartland of Chinese history and culture. In broad historical perspective, Chinese city planning can be divided into millennia-old imperial planning and twentieth century modern planning. Chinese urban planning history ultimately reflected Chinese cultural visions, political ideologies, and power relations. Chinese imperial urban planning, characterized by its basic design principles of centrality, axiality, and rectilinearity, was based on a syncretic world view which emphasized the centrality of the emperor as the pivot of the four quarters of the universe, and combined traditional Chinese cosmology, the yin and yang and five-element theories, and fengshui geomancy. Modern city planning is a product of the interaction and fusion between Western concepts of city development and Chinese indigenous urban traditions, which reflects tensions, conflicts, and accommodations between impulses of global forces or ideological and political monuments to reduce Chinese cities into decontextualized uniformity and the heightened appreciation for Chinese cultural roots and local sensibilities in spatial arrangements. The future of Chinese urban planning is destined to transcend both modernism driven by the pursuit of rationality and functionality and rigidified socialist politics and be based on a pluralistic and multidimensional sense of Chinese history and culture.

1. Imperial Urban Planning

The depths of the planning and design principles of traditional cities have been explored by scholars such as Paul Wheatley, Arthur Wright, and Sen-dou Chang. In a comparative study, Wheatley analyzed the origins and nature of ancient Chinese urban planning, arguing that the ceremonial center represented the earliest stage of Chinese urban development and the cosmomagical symbolism played a decisive role in defining the functionality of the ancient Chinese city (Wheatley 1971). While some scholars, based on new archaeological data, have recently challenged the ceremonialtheocratic or ‘city as temple’ thesis of urban genesis, the cosmic symbolism in the design of cities that perhaps found a more explicit expression in China than in many other civilizations was further emphasized. The symbolic and cosmological elements associated with the design and location of ancient Chinese cities, which included early cosmological traditions, Taoist principles, yin and yang and Five Elements schools, and the geomantic (or fengshui) considerations were idealized and systematized as general urban planning principles by Confucianist philosophers in the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 222) (Wright 1977). At the same time, these rules were appropriated to symbolize and sanctify the centrality of the emperor and Confucian social order that emphasized power, authority, and hierarchy.

Consequently, the uniqueness of premodern Chinese city planning lies in the fact that the buildings and their locations within the city were pre-established by age-old traditions set forth in revered literature or documents of the classical age (Steinhardt 1990). These ritual and divination texts include Zhou Li (The Rites of Zhou) and Yi Jing (The Books of Changes). According to Zhou Li Kaogongji, a planning and construction text, a city should be built in a square with three gates on each side. Preferably surrounded by hills in the distance with a river system running through, the wall-and moat-enclosed city should have an area of about seven square miles, a good size for a pedestrian city. Inside the city, there should be thoroughfares running north–south intersecting with other east–west thoroughfares. Major buildings in the city should face south, the best of the four cardinal directions. On the east side of city an ancestral temple should be built, while on the west side there should be a state shrine. The market place is usually situated in the north, while the imperial palaces lie in the southern part of the city. Built in the fifteenth century, Beijing, with its layout and structure epitomized by a seemingly endless maze of walled compounds within walled compounds, best exemplifies a highly regimented city conditioned by the prescriptions of the imperial cosmology and its geomantic modularity (Wu 1986, Meyer 1991).

Traditional city plans were almost always square or rectangular rather than circular or irregular, reflecting Chinese cosmological belief that heavens were round while the earth was square. Nearly all cities were walled to protect imperial palaces, temples, granaries, and residences from barbarian invasions, tribal uprisings, and peasant rebellions. Huge wall-gates were usually constructed, connecting between different parts of the walled city and between the city and the outside world. Walls were so important to Chinese cities that the characters for city and wall are in fact identical (Chang 1977). Another distinctive feature of traditional city planning was the axial balance and interdependence of urban spaces. Compared with the European Renaissance palace, as at Versailles, where the open vista is concentrated upon a single building and the palace itself was detached from the city, the Chinese conception was much grander and more complex. The central axis of Beijing, for example, was composed of hundreds of buildings, and the palace itself was only part of the larger organism of the whole city. Although so strongly axial, there was no single dominating center or climax, but rather a series of architectural experiences. This Chinese form of the great architectural ensemble, ‘combined a meditative humility attuned to nature with a poetic grandeur to form organic patterns unsurpassed by any other culture’ (Needham 1975).

Traditional Chinese cities were planned and designed to reinforce important power relations, especially the cultural hegemony and political dominance of imperial monarchs. City planners were determined to uphold imperial power through shaping the design and configuration of the built environment. The urban spatial hierarchy represented powerful testimony to and physical proof of the imperial order. Maintaining a highly structured and carefully planned city form was an important means through which Chinese emperors legitimized their position as both rulers and guardians of tradition. The alteration of an accepted design was therefore considered a challenge to the imperial order.

2. Modernist Urban Planning

China’s modern planning experience is primarily a twentieth century phenomenon; it has undergone three important phases of development: the modernist (1900–50), socialist (1950–84), and global capitalist (1984–2000).

The principles of imperial urban planning came under attack in the nineteenth century, when Western industrial countries transformed a number of coastal Chinese cities into treaty ports, which became enclaves of foreign political domination as well as Western trade and commerce. Chinese cities elsewhere were also pressured to adopt Western ways (Dong 1989). Westerners brought along a host of entrepreneurial, technical, and modernist ideas about urban life and industrial prosperity, as well as a body of political, social, and economic values. In addition, the urban transformation was a direct result of domestic political changes in early twentieth century China. Modern urban planning reflected a shift in indigenous ideological discourse from emphasizing the supremacy of the imperial power to one that stressed the primacy of a civil society and people’s rights. Both Western and modern Chinese ideology confronted the integrity of the Imperial-Confucian world system and its cosmology with a series of powerful secular trends: modernization, Westernization, and later on, revolutionary nationalism.

As a result, the early twentieth century witnessed a significant change in planning principles and the transformation of Chinese urban landscape. A variety of political, intellectual, and commercial leaders sought to ‘modernize’ their cities according to their understanding of what modernity meant. The quest for modernization took a number of different forms, but there was also a number of common elements. The newly created Chinese republic required new types of public spaces—parks, public squares, and meeting halls. Municipal governments sought to improve public health, with such measures as building modern waterworks and sewer systems. Many cities sought to improve urban transportation with streetcars and railroads. Through both public and private efforts, the architecture of Chinese cities was transformed, with new-classical Western architecture in such treaty ports as Shanghai and Canton and a variety of attempts to blend modern materials and covenience with distinct Chinese styles. One striking aspect of this effort at urban renewal was the extent to which the old Chinese cities, often viewed as the prototype of the preindustrial city, were now subjected to a new generation of planning and new attempt to discipline the urban population.

The Republican government was bent on tearing down city walls, remodeling city gates, and constructing or widening roads to allow passage of railroads, streetcars, and general traffic. Proponents for dismantling city walls argued that since the introduction of modern warfare, the ancient city walls and gates became useless. Moreover, the walls blocked mobility and the flow of traffic, and prevented cities from growing spatially to meet the needs of population increase and economic development. Based on the modernist ideology of rationality, the republican government demolished city walls in many Chinese cities. Opponents of modern city planning, however, emphasized the role monumental architecture such as the walls and gates had played in Chinese culture. They argued that the walls and gates served to anchor the collective memory of Chinese cityscape, reminding residents and visitors alike of the enduring power of culture and tradition. They were skeptical of the modernist government’s effort to replace traditional monumental legacy with monuments that intentionally express a ‘modern’ society. Some even evoked the traditional ideas of fengshui to resist the modernists’ attempts to introduce modern technology to reconfigure the urban order. In short, they opposed modern reconstruction not as defendants of the ancien regime, but as advocates of cultural sciences and in the secular effort to preserve and draw inspiration from the one heritage that was uniquely their own.

3. Socialist Urban Planning

The second phase of modern Chinese urban planning covers roughly the first 30 years of the history of the People’s Republic of China. Shortly after taking over power in China in 1949, the Chinese Communists embarked on a course of urban reconstruction based on a socialist agenda. Swayed by radicalism and the utopian revolutionary ideology of Mao Zedong, Soviet-style planning and design dominated Chinese cities. During this period, Chinese urban planning focused on industrial production and socialist reconstruction. Many Chinese cities were transformed into industrial centers, and capitalist consumer cities like Shanghai were criticized as being exploitative and parasitic (Kirkby 1985). The government cleaned out old teahouses and pleasure zones, and lined major streets with official monuments, government offices, standardized state-run stores, and utilitarian apartment buildings. Mao envisioned Beijing to be a symbol of the Chinese socialist state, a role to be enforced with the buildings of Soviet-style public structures. In a symbolic break with the past, Tiananmen Square replaced the former embodiment of imperial power— the Forbidden City—to become the new political center of the nation. The socialist monuments of this period tossed together ingredients of Soviet, classical Chinese, and modernist architecture to create a new socialist identity for revolutionary China.

Ideas of cultural conservation were not completely ignored during this period. Liang Sicheng represented a group of architectural experts and city planners who became cultural advocates during the radical years of Maoism. Liang himself was an architectural historian who had been trained at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1920s. As early as 1950, he drafted a plan to keep all of old Beijing enclosed in city walls, turning it into a great museum and cultural center, and to build a new, modern city next to it. He insisted that the large structures of Beijing’s street grid, its system of enclosures and its axial symmetry—all landmarks in the world’s history of urban planning—must all be preserved to maintain the historical and cultural identity of Beijing. As for the city walls, he had an idea of lining the route atop the walls with flowers, benches, transforming the ring of walls into an elevated park. This plan, he believed, would allow Beijing to leapfrog through time while avoiding all the mistakes Western cities had made: a modernization that would contain the explosive effects of rapid development and keep an ancient masterpiece for aesthetic appreciation (Fairbank 1994). Liang’s proposal bore a striking parallel to what Eric Hobsbawm calls ‘the invention of tradition’ (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983). Sensitive to both the homogenizing force of modernity and the deep-rooted sophistication of Chinese culture, Liang sought to restore and recreate an older urban fabric and rehabilitate it to new uses and attempted to repackage the old infrastructure of urban space for new style recreation and entertainment. To him, tradition and modernity could go together, and modern transformation and cultural conservation caused no apparent conflict. However, Liang’s alternative planning vision was ignored by the government in favor of demolition and other radical urban planning principles.

4. Contemporary Urban Planning

In China today, people are no longer concerned with the revolutionary and political ideology of Maoist urban planning, but become preoccupied with modernization along Western lines. While urban planning is still largely controlled by the government what is increasingly evident is the participation of global, profit-driven, capitalist and market forces from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Western countries. Modernism returned with a vengeance. Global capitalistic forces are competing with localized cultural traditions, giving rise to an identity crisis in contemporary Chinese cities. Many old cities are being quickly stripped of their character as ancient buildings are torn down for office buildings, apartment blocks, freeways, and shopping centers, edifices which are seen by city officials and real estate developers as a symbol of modernization but which have alarmed culturally sensitive citizens.

Conflict between global and local cultures and the problems of modern economic development vis-a-vis cultural conservation are at the heart of the debate over the future of Chinese urban planning. In the feverish race to transform Chinese cities into world-class metropolises, many urban planners are also struggling to come to terms with China’s rich urban heritage. The major urban planning question has become how to excel in the global community without losing China’s national identity. Some began to lament the loss of the old urban fabric of walls and gates, alleyways, and courtyard-style residential houses, and especially the close-knit community atmosphere and neighborly connectedness. There is growing complexity in Chinese popular attitudes toward cultural heritage and local identity. Many people realize that in the face of ever-stronger global forces for homogenization through technological change, increased mobility, and improved communication, a primary goal of Chinese urban planning policy must be to retain culturally essential features of China’s urban past and to ensure the continuity of Chinese history and culture.


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