CITIES AND SOCIAL CRITICISM:
THE IMPULSE FOR REFORM
Cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Beijing were centers of social criticism and polemic because they were modern. They had the requisite concentrations of
Cities were also centers of social and political criticism because they were cities and so presented critics and activists with urban problems to recoil from and react to. Urban life stimulated social criticism directed at gaps between rich and poor classes, clashes between old and new (in areas like fashion, politics, business, and culture), differences in style and function among cities (as in the supposed conflict between commercial Shanghai and cultural Beijing), and the chasm perceived to have opened up between city and village. According to Susan Mann, writers tended to take a systematic approach to the problem of cities based on the assumption that urban problems were part of a larger rural (and small town) context. Some critics rejected the city in nativist fashion and proposed a rerooting of Chinese civilization in the village. Others sought to rebuild or reconstruct rural China by using the wealth and resources of cities. Still others defended urbanization as an engine of growth and accepted urban crisis as a necessary by-product of progress.
Chinese urbanites not only faced each other and compatriots in the countryside but also counterparts in New York, Paris, Tokyo, and Berlin. The kinds of models proposed by reformers were often taken from the global discourse on urban planning. For example, the garden city idea (tianyuan xinshi) enjoyed a considerable vogue in the twenties and thirties in China. Dong Xiujia, an acute observer of urban affairs who held positions in the Shanghai and Hankou municipal governments in the 1920s, advocated the creation of garden cities to meet the health and housing needs of both city and village. The filthiness of modern cities and the backwardness of village life might thereby be canceled out by bringing nature into the city and modern conveniences into the countryside. Otherwise, China was fated to sink to a medieval level of "barbarism." Intellectuals just returned from European cities where traditions of municipal planning and management tended to be strong could become incensed at the seeming irrationality of the still-standing city walls, growing rickshaw trade, and shortages of basic services like
The mobility and turbulence that unified and buffeted urban China ensured that reform thinking would penetrate the interior and reach smaller urban centers. When a new municipal government was established in Lanzhou in the summer of 1941, the city's Nationalist newspaper observed that in the past "the construction of our country has mostly been in the east, especially in the great coastal cities." However, the editorial went on, advances in European and North American urban planning directed at garden and satellite cities had shown that smaller cities like Lanzhou constituted the future of urban design. Anticipating the arguments Mao Zedong was later to make about the need for inland industrial alternatives to coastal development, the paper argued that Lanzhou was certainly safer (though not immune) from enemy attack. The recasting of Lanzhou as a Western garden city eventually inspired initiatives in pursuit of this ideal. In the spring of 1942, Mayor Cai Meng jian announced plans to carry out the greening (luhua) of the city through a treeplanting campaign. A tree in deforested Gansu was as striking an image as one planted in the slums of Shanghai. A garden city in Lanzhou also fit the ambitions of dislocated administrators and modernizers forced to pick up where Zuo Zongtang had left off. While Lanzhou's flurry of municipal reforms would not have happened when it did without the intervention of the war, urban reform as an idea and policy had been introduced to other interior cities like Chengdu long before the Japanese drove China's national government west.
An eye for the aesthetic possibilities of a new urban China was accompanied by a nose for corruption and decay. Like their contemporaries in Europe and North America, Chinese reformers found the bad smells attending congestion and urbanization a particular outrage. From a scientific perspective, the smell of sewage signaled the threat of disease. In this regard one late imperial legacy— nightsoil collection—provided a ready target and object lesson on the need for reform. Long-standing prejudices directed against nightsoil carriers by city residents made the case for modern sewers or stricter regulation of nightsoil removal easy to make. The fact that human excrement was an urban resource of value to an agricultural society was less important than the need to make Chinese cities smell the same as modern, Western ones (in which, if they were not garden cities, the odor of excrement would presumably be replaced by that of smokestack and combustion-engine pollution). One reformer sardonically reported that Xuanwu Gate in Beijing was also known as "Shit Gate" by local people because of its regular use as a point of conveyance by nightsoil haulers. Another decried the "unsurpassed… stink of the nightsoil drying yards outside Anding Gate."
When this kind of antimetropolitan critique was developed most fully, technical modernity seemed to matter less than the general idea that the bigger and the more powerful the city, the more terrible the price paid for Western-style progress. And so for one intellectual disillusioned with urban life of the 1920s, commercial Guangzhou, industrial Shanghai, and political Beijing were "the three great centers of Chinese materialism" and, at the same time, the three worst "holes of poverty." The notion that big was bad opened up opportunities for critics in the interior. In 1941, a Lanzhou newspaper, playing on the conventional image of Shanghai as an "island" "orphaned" by the Japanese occupation (discussed in chapter 11 by Paul Pickowicz), printed an article entitled "Shanghai: Poisoned, Orphaned Island" describing a city in the grip of poverty, moral decay, and, now, enemy occupation. The appeal to a Lanzhou readership of a powerful Shanghai
Other critics, while aware of the moral and social problems represented by unsanitary conditions and degenerate behavior, also looked to the city for solutions. While cities were often the objects of criticism, they also represented a new standard of remedy. Advocates for cities stressed the importance of a more favorable attitude toward cities in moving beyond the traditional "agriculture-based state." Citing India as a negative example, Dong Xiujia asserted that no country that emphasized agriculture alone could end up in a strong position. Arguing in an undisguised antirural vein for a more balanced approach, Dong pointed out that "cities are the centers of the national economy." Whereas cities can create wealth out of desolate landscapes, as the cases of Hong Kong and Qingdao proved, "China's villages have existed for thousands of years without the slightest improvement." Eventually, citydriven economic growth would raise the standard of living in rural China as urban residents and industries bid up the price of agricultural goods.
Another strong, pro-city statement came from Hu Shi, who, reacting to the reality of rural and urban interpenetration, argued that Chinese cities were not urban enough: "The main reason for the failure of our big cities is that up until now we still have not broken with the customs of rural life. These habits include freedom, doing what one pleases, and being disorganized and passive. The new habits required by urban life [are an] involvement in politics, respect for law, systematic organization, and an active [attitude toward] work. If we cannot rid ourselves of these rural habits and live and work in tune with the city, we will not be able to manage urban affairs." For political liberal Hu Shi, village air made one free and irresponsible, while the modern city was a workshop of industry and citizenship. As long as Chinese cities retained a rural air, they would resist the discipline of modernity. In partial recognition of the power of rural and small-town ways of life in the cities themselves, another writer, who evoked the experience of "stepping back several centuries" when he walked out into the surrounding countryside, agreed that "even within the same city the thinking of some people may range far into the future, beyond the realm of present-day life and experience, while others are stuck fast in the ways of their ancestors and will not deviate from them even a trifle." Chinese cities bordered the fields of rural China and housed residents whose habits remained just as rustic as those who still farmed. The challenge, it seemed, lay in extending the city limits outward to the village and inward to those city people who remained immune or resistant to modern life.
That a liberal like Hu Shi praised the disciplinary value of modern urban life suggests a dilemma faced by those who would use the city as a means of changing China and Chinese. Freedom in the city might belong to a crusading newspaper editor or protesting students seeking to expand the public sphere of debate and