The Traditions of Chinese Cities
Sze Tsung Leong
In 32 Magazine (Winter 2004).
One of the most important historical characteristics of cities in China is continuity with the past—an aspect reflected in the urban patterns and layouts that have remained, in their many incarnations over the centuries, relatively unchanging. Despite the common view that present-day Chinese cities constitute a break with the past, they are still consistent with three historical patterns that have defined urban change in China: large-scale destruction and replacement of urban fabrics to inaugurate changes of emperors or dynasties; massive relocations of populations; and highly planned urban configurations enabled by centralized and unchallenged forms of authority. These traditions underly the shape and nature of the contemporary Chinese city.
The persistence of these traditions is possible only in a nation and society that has historically been steered by absolute forms of power. Only by acting as vehicles of these forms of power can urban and architectural development undergo processes that are by now commonplace—demolishing, relocating, wiping clean, and starting anew—all on a magnitude that affects not just individuals, but populations. Concentrated authority gave shape to cities such as traditional Beijing. It also wiped them clean, accommodating a new society in the form of luxury apartment complexes, office towers, and shopping centers. Power today may not exist in the singular form of an Emperor or a Chairman, but it is managed and exercised with enough strength to channel the possibilities for urban experience, and to choose which urban traditions to preserve.
Text © Sze Tsung Leong