AN URBAN FRAME OF REFERENCE: LANZHOU,
SHANGHAI, AND OTHER URBAN CENTERS
Lanzhou, the capital city of Gansu Province, stands at the geographical center of China. Located in a region notorious in the late imperial period for treacherous travel conditions, the city was, and is, a long way from centers of Chinese political, economic, and cultural life. How far away depended, of course, on mode of transport. In the Republican era, Xi'an to Lanzhou by car took four to seven days (or three hours by once-a-week air flight). A journey by camel from the nearest railhead at Baotou lasted forty days. In an essay published in Mao Dun's 1936 compilation of vignettes, "One Day in China," Qian Julin, newly arrived in Lanzhou, made the city seem like the end of the world. A temple fair on Wuquan Mountain overlooking Lanzhou reminded him of the Festival of the Bathing of the Buddha in Jingan Temple in Shanghai. But he also lamented that in "lifeless and lonely Lanzhou," Mount Wuquan is the only "attraction" in an otherwise "dreary" place. Sketching a hectic scene of pilgrims, beggars, prostitutes, peddlers, policemen, country girls dressed in "old and very out of fashion" clothes, "a few modern girls from the south," and a lone Christian evangelist, Qian also reported seeing a sign on the temple library that read, "‘A High Place Is No Better Than a Low Place.’ I say," he concluded enigmatically, "Lanzhou is no better than Shanghai."
High in what sense? No better in what way? Shanghai towered over Lanzhou and nearly every other Chinese city in terms of marketing functions, political and cultural centrality, wealth, and population. But Shanghai apparently was no better for all that and Lanzhou no worse for being dreary. Reasons for this bleak comparison may lie in the author's personal desolation as an exile who both missed and deplored Shanghai, a city as famous for decadence and disorder as for progress and modernity.
Cities in the first half of the twentieth century were high in that they held the commanding heights of most technological, cultural, and political change and low in their apparent inability to translate this advantage into a stable, urban-based economic, political, and social system capable of governing China. Cities like Beijing and Shanghai failed to produce or command a powerful nation-state. However, through media like newspapers, professions like writer, banker, and businessman, and disciplines like urban planning and social criticism, urban China did help produce a growing consciousness of being modern and Chinese. Among the parallel tracks and countercurrents left by failed republics, lost wars, and cultural humiliation was a heightened sense of connection among cities and between urban China and the rest of the country. High or low, Qian Julin saw Lanzhou through memories of Shanghai and Shanghai from his new vantage point in Lanzhou. He wrote his essay on Lanzhou within the framework of a common urban reality connected by camel, boat, horse or mule cart, car, train, and plane that also extended into the countryside and out into the world.
Distances were shrinking, however fitfully and unevenly, increasing the likelihood of finding the commodities and institutions of coastal Shanghai at the end of a long journey to a city of the interior like Lanzhou. Things one might buy in these out-of-the-way places, like cigarettes or patent medicine, were available as part of a national market. They were advertised, as Sherman Cochran shows in chapter 2 of this volume, with the help of recognizably Chinese and non-Chinese images. Alien and hybrid forms abounded. Western buildings with Chinese roofs, and political parties with citizens ordered in what political writers of the day described as "pagoda-style" hierarchies, achieved a generic presence in big cities and small towns. Meanwhile, temple festivals were still celebrated in modern, cosmopolitan Shanghai.
Urban zones and bands of influence widened beyond treatyport enclaves. The building of motor roads, such as the highway from Shanghai to Nanjing, laid out new urbanized corridors along older commercial routes. In good weather, one could drive from Xi'an to Lanzhou in four days, because by 1935, a new road, complete with service and aid stations equipped with telephones, had been completed between the two cities. Railway construction, though disrupted by war and political instability, tied cities together in ways that supplemented and superseded the water routes of the late imperial period. Connections and mobility promoted a mental picture of city life as one of continuous and simultaneous activity. Standing in the train station outside Qian Gate in Beijing, one could visualize disembarking outside Yudai Gate in Hankou. With a further act of imagination one might anticipate completion of the 1901 plan to link Beijing to Guangzhou by direct rail. By midcentury, rail lines would reach Lanzhou as well.
Six years after Qian Julin sent his ironic message from the interior, Cai Mengjian, the mayor of Nationalist-held Lanzhou, gave an optimistic speech celebrating the city's progress while still acknowledging the burden imposed by Lanzhou's remote location. By 1942, the war against Japan had given Lanzhou's
Listening to the reports of other municipal officials also kindled the mayor's own sense of what kind of place Lanzhou ought to be: "In comparing Lanzhou to other cities I was for the most part satisfied. Only two points caused me to feel ashamed. One is that in terms of city size, the other cities are all bigger than Lanzhou. According to the Guilin report, Guilin's total area is 1,060 sq. km. Many surrounding counties are under its jurisdiction…. Our Lanzhou has only sixteen sq. km. That is really too small. Second, there is the problem of finances. Last year our budget for six months was only 900,000 yuan. Guilin's for one year is 6,000,000. Guilin itself only [has to] collect 2,000,000 itself. The rest comes from the provincial government." Cai went on to note that although a third of Lanzhou's budget came from provincial sources, the city should be able to "step forward" to a better fiscal standing. And assuming that new resources were forthcoming, the mayor imagined a future, thriving (and larger) Lanzhou with neatly laid out commercial, industrial, academic, recreational, and residential zones. The epithet "uncivilized" when applied to places like Lanzhou provoked not merely a denial but a plan to steal a march on the competition.
Mayor Cai's actual accomplishments were more modest: under his leadership, the town built a public Resist and Reconstruct Hall (kang jian tang) capable of seating a thousand people, added an official municipal guest house, repaired roads, opened public bathhouses, experimented with supplying scientifically tested potable water to residents at reasonable prices, and installed a number of street lamps. These achievements, as well as grander plans to make Lanzhou a fully modern city, were touted with the enthusiasm befitting a local booster. Mayor Cai also succeeded in making Lanzhou bigger. Within a few months of his speech, and in the name of better planning and administration, Cai negotiated a tenfold increase in area for Lanzhou municipality.
Remote Lanzhou's somewhat far-fetched claims to centrality were made more plausible by the unsettled nature of China's urban hierarchy. In contrast to recent Qing times, there was no clear center to look to. In the period from 1900 to 1950, the political capital of China strayed all over the map: Beijing in 1900–1912, 1912–28, 1948 (as "secondary capital"), and 1949–50; Nanjing in 1912, 1927–37, 1940–45 (as "puppet capital"), and 1946–49; Luoyang in 1932 (as "administrative capital"); Xi'an in 1932–43 (as "secondary capital" Xijing); and Chongqing in
The rise and decline of cities based on changing political and economic realities was nothing new in Chinese urban history. The positioning of military garrisons, the licensing of salt monopolies, or the raising or lowering of a city's administrative status could have deep and long-lasting effects on urban commercial and cultural life. What was new in the early twentieth century was the promise of uniform progress made against the reality of unevenness imposed by political upheaval, staggered treatyport openings, the vagaries of global economic change, and the progressive modernization of transport. The windfall of attention, refugees, and investment Lanzhou received during the war years rapidly diminished after 1945, as people and capital flowed south and east. Lanzhou did not become the Washington, D.C., or Brasilia of China. However, after 1949, in a recentered People's Republic, new political decisions to develop the surrounding region's natural resources led to further bursts of construction and growth.
Objective measures of urban development (or decline) were rarely congruent with the pace and direction of change imagined by planners, politicians, and residents. The real Lanzhou of the 1930s and 1940s lay somewhere between the desolation evoked by Qian Julin—and presumed by skeptical officials from other cities—and the festival of development imagined by Mayor Cai. In Lanzhou, stove beds (kang) were heated by horse dung or dung mixed with coal, and yet, limited
Lanzhou was a study in contrasts weighted toward the preindustrial, with city walls still intact but also abutting a famous iron bridge built across the Yellow River in 1909. Like Qingdao's 1890 iron pier, the Yellow River bridge both served transportation needs and staked out a symbolic foothold for the future expansion of a machineage China. A few official buildings, banks, and hospitals in Lanzhou were modern style and of two or three stories. But most residences and shops had dirt floors, mud roofs, and old-style paper windows. Selfconsciously conservative Lanzhou people described their community as one in which "women's feet are small [bound] and heads [hairstyles] are big." But more recently, the number of women with natural feet and bobbed hair had seemed to increase day by day. Despite the existence of a number of struggling factories, Lanzhou remained dependent on other cities for even simply made goods. For example, mule carts were all manufactured in Xi'an and rickshaws were also imported from there, as well as from Kaifeng and Zhengzhou. But this dependency also reflected Lanzhou's commercial ties with distant cities and integration into regional and national markets.
Lanzhou was a hub of trade for Gansu as well as Xinjiang, Qinghai, Ningxia, and Suiyuan. As such, it was a likely location for the reprocessing of goods like wool and hides. But attempts to build blanket and tanning industries in the area had faltered by the 1930s. In the mid-1870s, Zuo Zongtang, governor-general of Gansu and Shaanxi appointed to suppress Muslim rebellions in the northwest, had ordered construction of a gunpowder plant and a weaving factory in Lanzhou. The weaving factory, outfitted with equipment purchased in Belgium, was one of the earliest machine-powered plants in China and so in a class with comparable mechanized projects like the Tianjin telegraph bureau, the Kaiping mines, and the first textile plant in Shanghai. However, once Governor-General Zuo left the local scene for further military and political challenges in Xinjiang and other corners of the empire, these industrial projects languished. A similar fate met a tanning factory opened in 1922 in the nearby county seat of Tianshui. Despite efforts by a former local official who "sent men to buy machinery in Shanghai and employed technicians from big tanneries in Tianjin and Sichuan," the business failed because of "poor management." Lanzhou's backwardness was both a burden and a provocation to development-minded officials and residents. The pressure to push the city beyond its current capabilities came from both outsiders
All this pushing and maneuvering could not in one stroke alter the basic facts of economic and geographic life. Cities in China were deeply affected by their rural surroundings and hinterlands. Lanzhou's money market was closely keyed to the agriculture cycle of planting and harvest. Since much of the city's interurban trade depended on camel trains (to Baotou and then by train to Tianjin), commercial and manufacturing activity peaked in the spring and fall and was idle in late spring and summer to permit replenishing of the camel herds. Lanzhou's urban economy—however modern it might appear when judged by products available in markets, technologies installed in factories and offices, and plans promoted in political meetings—was still captive to the reproductive cycle of the camel (and to the flotilla of inflated goatskin rafts carrying goods downriver to Baotou). In fact, the warinduced growth of the city in the late thirties and forties increased dependency on the camel as demand for transport rose and the availability of fuel for cars and trucks became ever more erratic.
The geographer Clifton Pannell has argued that in China as late as 1937 "not a great deal of progress [had] been made in the emergence of a truly national urban system." Given the documented rise of significant interregional trade in the late imperial period (c. 1550–c. 1920) and the acceleration of trade in the twentieth century, the presence of Zhengzhou-made rickshaws and Shanghai consumer goods in Lanzhou helps sketch a picture of more significant, if incomplete, progress. Uneven rates of development made coastal cities like Shanghai different in both degree and kind from cities of the interior like Lanzhou. But many inland cities, no matter how remote from the coast, were equipped with basic modern institutions and technologies like police forces, telecommunication and rail links, and factories. Militarists, politicians, merchants, and tourists used Chinese cities in systematic ways to win wars, mobilize political supporters, sell products, and pursue pleasure. This conscious, systematic use of urban China was one means by which such a national system took shape. In turn, an urban infrastructure of rail, telegraph, and telephone lines and branching systems of commerce, culture, and politics made the idea of an integrated China more than an imperial afterthought or a modern abstraction.
As embarkation points, entrepôts, and busy producers of goods and services, Shanghai and other large coastal cities dominated industry, foreign trade, and the production of newspapers, films, and magazines. By keeping up with the rest of the world, Shanghai in particular stayed ahead of most places in China. Shanghai's "first textile mills were built before any in the American South, and by 1930 it had… the largest mill in the world; its first cinema opened five years after San Francisco got its first large movie house; and by the late 1930s its Commercial Press was publishing each year as many titles as the entire American publishing industry." By 1946, 85 percent of imports to China passed through Shanghai and
There is truth in the image of an urban China paced and shaped by messages, goods, models, and technologies from Shanghai. Bits and pieces of Shanghai, like the "modern girls" glimpsed by Qian Julin on Wuquan Mountain, turned up all over, and travelers from Shanghai saw the imprint of their city in surprising places. The geographer Fang Wenpei noted that Chengdu's Chunxi Road East Avenue, "well-ordered and bustling, strangely resembled Shanghai's Nanking Road." Even Lanzhou had silk, cloth, and foreign goods shops "by and large patterned on Shanghai department stores." The trade might be called capital goods (jinghuo hang) in Lanzhou, connoting an earlier pattern of obtaining luxury items from Beijing, but the goods themselves came now from metropolitan Shanghai and Tianjin.
This Shanghai model writ large or small reflected more direct, yet subtle, kinds of influence and control. Shanghai and Beijing newspapers tended to dominate journalistic enterprise in other cities. Wuhan had forty newspapers but "most plagiarize Shanghai and Beijing newspapers." News items were in turn copied by other newspapers until the news became more and more out of date as one read copies of copies. Old news in Wuhan and out-of-fashion clothes in Lanzhou thus shared a common point of origin and common standard of backwardness. Local markets were "conquered" by metropolitan papers. Because of advances in communications, Shanghai papers could arrive in Suzhou or Hangzhou in a few hours and Beijing papers in a day or two. Residents learned, according to critics, not to take seriously the pasted together dailies that made claims to be their city's newspapers.
However, the marketing of newspapers from the coast could also promote reciprocal patterns of interaction. The Tianjin feminist newspaper Funü ribao (Women's daily), founded in 1923, was one of several newspapers with that name published in different cities by different groups of women activists. The stated purpose of the paper was to provide "a place for women to speak," permit "women in different parts of China to produce powerful propaganda materials," and encourage coordination of a nationwide movement. During a period in
The diffusion of institutions and technology to cities like Baoding was impressive. By 1918, two-thirds of provincial capitals had libraries. In contrast, half of early-twentieth-century Russian cities "had no library of any kind and 95 percent had no institutions of higher education." By the mid-thirties, most provincial capitals in China had "power plants, electric lights, flour mills, match and soap factories, telegraph and telephone installations, as well as modern schools, colleges, hospitals, hotels, and Christian churches," according to Olga Lang. Lang also noted that "sometimes there are private houses and government buildings inspired by European architecture of Edwardian times. Some streets are paved with asphalt. Many business houses use foreign types of advertising and even neon lights. On street corners loudspeakers broadcast news and music from Shanghai or Nanking, adding a new note to the traditional noises of the Chinese street. Long modern gowns, rare in the hsiens, are frequent. Universities, normal schools, and technical institutes provide the city and its provinces with a modern intelligentsia.
The distribution of modern machines and sentiments, though patterned by coastal-interior and coreperiphery relationships, was given to unpredictable highs and lows of action and intensity. A "balanced" urban system weighted toward the interior and smaller urban and marketing centers has led scholars like Rhoads Murphey to underline the historic separateness or alien nature of coastal cities based on their inability to complete or even begin the economic and cultural conquest of the rest of the country. And yet this same system, by its market-sensitive nature, facilitated the distribution of Shanghai's economic, institutional, and cultural products. To borrow a term of Certeau's cited by Cochran, Shanghai's enclosure of modernity in such brilliant and tarnished form made it an ideal field for "poaching" by entrepreneurs, activists, and planners from all over China.
In interior cities like Lanzhou, the imprint of Shanghai and other coastal cities, though clear, continued to be limited by a variety of material factors. In addition to the greater weight of agricultural and pastoral realities on urban life, replicating habits of consumption was easier than building whole new modes of production. Industrialization, and the social transformations it wrought, spread more slowly from city to city than industrial products distributed through established and expanding markets. One might put down Lanzhou's difficulties in building an industrial base to its remoteness, but, as William Rowe points out, despite Wuhan's factory boom, nearby middle Yangzi River "commercial and handicraft centers as important as Shashi, Xiangyang, and Changde saw remarkably little industrialization until after the Second World War." Nanjing's 1920s victory in the competition to become China's capital resulted in government-led economic and population growth without the rise of a factory economy. Toward the end of the Nanjing decade, less than 1 percent of the city's population worked in a handful of mechanized factories.
If the influence of Shanghai was broadly but unevenly felt throughout urban China, even Shanghai appears to have been incompletely "Shanghainized" (Shanghai hua). Olga Lang noted in the 1930s that in Shanghai, "although modern dress was a common sight, the traditional garb predominated. Many streets
Shanghai and other coastal cities also felt the influence of interior urban centers. For example, Hankou's financial markets were sufficiently powerful to influence those of Beijing and Shanghai. Cities other than Shanghai might set the standard for building and development projects. When a "greater Shanghai plan" was drawn up in the 1920s, Qingdao was cited by backers as "our model" for the most modern harbor facilities. As Wang Ling has recently pointed out, relationships among cities in terms of relative dominance or subordination could be quite complicated. The weight of treatyport economic power eventually altered Beijing's long-standing dominance of Tianjin. However, the rise of Tianjin owed a great deal to investments made in military and other industries by the Qing state. Republican-era Beijing politicians like Cao Kun retained large holdings in Tianjin, while Beijing's demand for investment and equipment for projects like its waterworks and electric companies stimulated the growth of suppliers in Tianjin. Political power concentrated in Beijing converted to economic power, and cultural authority in Tianjin revisited the old capital and advanced the project of modern design. The basic construction and interior work for Beijing's new library built in 1934 as a hybrid of Chinese and Western forms were carried out by Tianjin firms.
Travelers, politicians, and journalists saw cities of this period in modular and composite form. One could find Shanghai in most cities in China, and elements of these cities in Shanghai. As Lao She noted with amusement, even elements of a decadent city like Beijing had begun turning up in more modern centers of urban life:
Since Beiping was bequeathed its status as former "ancient capital," its pageantry, its crafts, delicacies, dialect, and policemen, have gradually been dispersed to the four corners, spurred by the search for new places of wealth and men of aweinspiring demeanor like the emperors of old. And so Westernized Qingdao has Beiping "hot pot"; in bustling Tianjin late at night you can hear the low and mournful cry of peddlers selling Beiping-style delicacies; in Shanghai, Hankou, and Nanjing there are policemen and official messengers who speak Mandarin and eat sesame-flavored pancakes. Scented tea from the south is double-smoked in Beiping and sent south again. Even pallbearers can on occasion be found on trains to Tianjin or Nanjing, bearing the coffins of the high and mighty.
Cities were not only centers of commerce in other things; they themselves could become commodities in whole or part and be dispatched by train or slower form of transport to colonize or embellish the social, economic, and political life of other cities. Influences were reciprocal rather than unidirectional, and unpredictable rather than tightly planned. In the process, the points and lines of urban China grew and thickened in ways that promised an alteration in the role and power of cities as a system. Cities became the object of reflections on the nature of urban and social life and the sites of extensive economic and social change. Critics who took a broader view of China's urban condition and prospects complained that governments only seemed to pay attention to the largest cities and ignored the potential of "interior and ordinary" urban centers. As one sign that cities had come to exist as a separate category of thought, policy, and culture, municipal studies emerged as a scholarly and administrative discourse. Fashions in bobbed hair, hot pot, and municipal reform spread from city to city within a receptive urban culture.
City governments themselves were prey to fashion and the enthusiasms of the moment. In the space of a few months, from the early winter of 1928 to the summer of 1929, nine urban centers selected official city flowers. Cities justified their choices on local and national grounds. In Shanghai, cotton defeated the lotus in a popular poll in an expression of city pride in, and concern for, the troubled textile industry. Ningbo's municipal government picked the lotus on the grounds that the flower could "thrive under a fierce sun [Japan]," and that, since it grew in water, it could represent the reputation of intrepid, sea-going Ningbo residents as the "Norwegians of Asia." Devoting time to choosing official city flowers might suggest misplaced priorities given more pressing urban issues like poverty, drug addiction, and crime. But the event underlines the fact of urban development during this era as both a particular and a general phenomenon. Not every city could support a globally competitive textile industry or tannery, much less an effective municipal government. But every city could, if it wished, join in localism's latest incarnation—civic boosterism—and puzzle over the choices offered by peonies, chrysanthemums, bamboo, and roses as signs of participation in a national movement for a more modern city in China. The airfields, buses, hospitals, and harbors would follow as a matter of developmental logic. To be a modern Chinese was to be proud of one's hometown—native or adopted—and to see local development as a concrete embodiment of the larger, necessarily more abstract reality of China. In the process, the old sentiment of localism, fueling competition and, paradoxically, reinforcing demands for centralized budgets and national standards, helped fabricate new ideologies and policies like nationalism and economic modernization.