China: Revolution in the Streets
More than half of Chinese now live in cities. This marks a watershed in the country’s history, as the world’s most populous nation has become its newest urban society. The global ramifications of this are as yet unknown, but the origins of such rapid urbanisation do not lie in the reform period, which began with the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Ancient capitals, such as Kaifeng and Luoyang, were already great cities more than one thousand years ago. Centuries later the two Ming capitals of Beijing and Nanjing impressed the Jesuit priest Mateo Ricci, when he visited them around the turn of the 16th century. In the Lower Yangzi delta, China’s most developed region, Shanghai was then but a small town.
However two neighbouring cities were already immortalised in the Chinese adage: ‘Above is heaven, on earth are Suzhou and Hangzhou.’ The 19th century brought the British and their gunboats, spurring the rapid expansion of Shanghai, a city that quickly became known as the Paris of the East. Under Mao cities lost their ancient walls and acquired the smokestacks and compounds of socialist production centres. This long history means that China’s contemporary urban landscape may look futuristic but its roots lie in the deep past and each rapidly expanding megalopolis has its own distinct historical identity.
It is only in the last three decades that historians of China have moved away from their focus on the Communist revolution and explored how other factors have been central to the country’s development. One of the most fruitful areas of research has been the history of cities, though for many years it was believed that there was no such thing as urban culture in late imperial China. This stems from the sociologist Max Weber’s idea that a European merchant class developed a separate corporate identity, whereas elites in China may have lived in the city but remained linked to the countryside through extended lineage ties. This was simply not the case. Instead, commercial or political distinctiveness produced diverse and vibrant cities across the empire, reflected in the rapid growth of guidebooks, group tours (often led by literati) and the rise of a salon culture. Suzhou epitomised this trend. From the mid-Ming dynasty onwards (c.15th century) its two major industries of cotton and silk were supplemented with small-scale trades such as embroidery, printing, jewellery and the copying of books and pictures. Its streets were lined with hostels, flower boats sailed its canals, their courtesans enticing tourists with promises of evening delights, while dealers traded in myriad products from across the empire. Meanwhile the city’s elites wrote, painted and designed celebrated gardens, some of which survive.