Cities as the frontier of propaganda: the creation of utopian/ dystopian space in Dalian in 1950s

Cities in Northeast China were critical locations for the industrial construction in the FFYP (the first five-year plan). Liaoning province was even called “the son of the republic”. As Liu Yishi demonstrates in his article, FAW became the icon of FFYP.1 Besides these physical constructions taking place in the Northeast of China, the construction of industrial cities also included the construction of propaganda and ideologies.  Propagandizing the spirit of revolution or revolutionary work was an important task for city planning. By referring to Bakhtin’s carnival sense of the world, I will demonstrate that the political propagandization comprised the carnivalization of public space, which led to the creation of dystopian space in China, especially during the period of Cultural Revolution.

In Liu Yishi’s Competing Visions of Modern, he quotes an article from Dongbei Ribao, a daily newspaper founded in 1945. It presents statistics on industrial production in the Northeast.2 With further investigation into this daily newspaper, one interesting phenomenon could be observed: the spiritual construction of citizens and industrial/ urban construction were treated equally in the socialist construction process in the Northeast. Many columns were devoted to explaining the importance of individual behaviour in maintaining sanitation and being a diligent worker in state-own enterprises. More on that, there were also patriotic education and lectures on the Party’s fundamental guiding principles.

Instead of only printing promotions in newspapers, cities were used as the media to spread these ideas. Two articles published in Dong Bei Daily Newspaper (Dong Bei Ribao) on 27 August 1950 discuss the importance of using the city as the centre to connect villages due to ‘its significant political influence on villages’ and how to exploit the function of cities in real life.  One article further explained that if a problem could be solved or figured out in the city, then surrounding villages could receive the same information so that problems would be solved thoroughly.3 The other article provided readers with eight specific methods which could be used in the propagandization work in Dalian. I will quote two of them here:

“Street radio – Radio is the best tool for propagandization/publicization in the city, it has great efficiency. Especially at the location where people gather, such as the shopping mall. Turning on the speaker, playing a CD first, attracting the attention of the masses, then giving a speech, but the speech needs to be concise and short, with incitation. Because people on the street are very mobile, some people leave, some people will come, and some will return. The speech could be repeated several times.”

“Festooned vehicle – using the festooned vehicles (big scooters or automobiles), hanging slogans around them, decorating them with beautiful flags, parading around. First, drumming attracts the public’s attention, then letting the publicist give speeches. After the speech, a short drama and peepshow could be following section.”3

The mutual characteristics could be derived: 1) the emphasis on the public space like streets and shopping malls; 2) the entertaining element in the process of propagandization, such as the short drama and the CD playing; 3) the political propagandization was hosted in a similar way to the celebration of festivals. These spatial practices match with Bakhtin’s carnival world, which includes the following characteristics: familiar and free interaction with people, eccentricity, carnivalistic mesalliance, and profanation.4  The gathering of a significant number of people in public locations blurs individual differences and makes ideas given by the speaker universal and applicable to all. Social hierarchy is eliminated. Everyone could be a part of the event. Public spaces also enable the occurrence of interaction and communication. The masses could react directly to the one giving the speech and communicate with many audiences surrounding them. However, this interaction is one-way since the audience cannot offer sophisticated and critical comments to the publicist. The only reaction they can give is either to cheer or to leave.

The addition of entertainment makes the masses subconsciously link political ideas and activities to drama, music and plays. Political propagandization is carried out in a format similar to operas and dramas. The request to use short, concise, and provocative language has a similar function to lines written by the playwriter to provoke the audience’s emotions so that they will experience the same feelings synchronously. Entertainment and the selection of public spaces where people’s everyday lives are carried out remind me of Zhang Jingsheng’s aesthetic society. In his Mei de shehui zuzhifa, Zhang proposed that music should be amplified and could be heard around the city, a subconscious form of education as people went about their daily routines.5 The political propagandization through radio and festooned vehicles are like Zhang’s music, played in the background of people’s everyday life, affecting them subconsciously. As L.A. Rocha states at the end of his article on Zhang’s urban theories, the aim of his utopian city was to reproduce the same minds and the same bodies.6 His aesthetics were basically authoritarian through and through.7 The underlying authoritarianism and the attempt to unify people’s minds could also be found in the propagandization work in Dalian.

This reshaping of public space later became the embryonic form of denunciation rally during the Cultural revolution from 1966 to 1976. While the core of this format of propagandization remained the same, the content upgraded from education of patriotism and internationalism to the public execution and criticism of people. Political propagandization was conceived as a kind of public performance. Public spaces become theatres and playgrounds. The seriousness was lost under that scenario, causing collective violence  more likely to happen. The utopian space, which could have been constructed if the masses learned from these teachings, transforms into a dystopian space where dehumanized activities and fearful behaviours take place, just like the performance of grotesque roles in carnivals if the political propagandization work is carried out in a carnivalized manner.

  1. Liu, Yishi. “Competing Visions of the Modern: Urban Transformation and Social Change of Changchun, 1932-1957.” Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley, 2011, p.117. []
  2. Ibid, p.111. []
  3. Dongbei Ribao, 27. August 1950. [] []
  4. “Carnivalesque” in Wikipedia, [Accessed 15.10.2022]. []
  5. Leon Antonio Rocha, ‘A Utopian Garden City: Zhang Jingsheng’s “Beautiful Beijing”’, in The Habitable City in China: Urban History in the Twentieth Century, 2017, p.155. []
  6. Ibid, p.157. []
  7. Ibid, p.156. []

Forward planning: A comparison of population control in Manchuko and the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom

A common thread with ideas of Utopian cities is the importance of planning, especially town planning. In the context of Manchuko, these Utopian ideals were made possible through its conception as an entirely new city, a literal blank slate from which to build a perfect regime. However, as with all concepts of Utopia dreamt up so far, what seems perfect on paper is always difficult if not impossible to make reality.

Take two examples of a Utopian ideal: Manchuko, an area of China under Japanese control, and the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Korea. Both are examples of a Utopian ideal that aimed to create a perfect world order according to the leader’s ideas. Both enjoyed a large degree of success in their formative years, and yet both ended up struggling to maintain that order as the cities grew.

The greatest similarity I found between these two examples is that of housing and the settlement structure. Both were designed around a rigid system of strictly controlled numbers for houses, whereby the entire population was compartmentalised into numerical blocks of houses, streets, villages, and districts. The aim in both was to instil a sense of duty and order in the inhabitants as well as create stronger bonds. I argue that while this may have been the case for some, this tightly controlled system of planning set itself up for failure from the beginning as both cases failed to take proper account of population demographics and long-term planning.

Let’s compare the statistics. David Tucker sets out the numbers for Manchuko in his chapter City Planning Without Cities: Order and Chaos in Utopian Manchuko. Accompanied at every stage with clearly labelled diagrams, he shows the proposed outline of Manchuko. It was ordered into a system of hamlets, with each one surrounded by fields and woodland and bordered by a gated wall and moat1. Each hamlet consists of a community building with a central plaza, and rows of houses arranged around it. Each one would have 150 houses, with each household comprising 5 people and allotted 15 acres of fields. The scale then ascended with 3 hamlets forming a village of 450 households of 2250 people2.

Tucker states that these numbers were very carefully chosen as it was based on an assumption that 150 households of 5 people each would mean an average of about 200 working-age men to provide labour, who would be equally split between guarding and agricultural duties. The designation of 3 hamlets into a village would be enough to provide “a sufficient economic base for shared educational, cultural and administrative facilities”3

These numbers were roughly the same in the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. Instead of villages, families were grouped together into 25 households, although the size of each household was not regimented4. What sets it apart from Manchuko is the religious aspect. As the name suggests, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom was a religious organisation, and so the fundamental doctrine is very different from the economic foundation of Manchuko. Perhaps the most striking difference is Taiping’s absolute segregation of the sexes and total prohibition on sex even between married couples, punishable by death5. This appears to have been far more of a religious order than any attempt at population control, and in any case was dropped after the inevitable loss of morale.

What does need to be considered is the sheer scale of population that both Manchuko and Taiping had to plan for. At it’s height, Manchuko had a population of 300,0006. A sizeable number, but comparatively easier to plan for. Taiping, on the other hand, had at its greatest height up to 2 million people7. This is of course impossible to verify and includes people on the periphery who may have proclaimed themselves a follower but not actually lived in a Taiping-controlled city. Nevertheless, the numbers speak for themselves.

In both cases, then, it was not so much a case of a lack of planning, but of fundamental population oversights. Both Manchuko and Taiping were founded on a basis of control of growth; economic for Manchuko and religious for Taiping. For Manchuko, the tightly regimented, perfect-on-paper outline could never have worked in reality as it failed to account for pretty much all aspects of population demographics. Such strictly controlled numbers of households and villages may have seemed like it could have been added to as required, but it takes an all-or-nothing approach and so does not account for the ‘in-between’ stages. Especially for a campaign that aimed to entice Japanese citizens to move in huge numbers, it would have required huge levels of pre-emptive statistics to be able to successfully house the numbers they required and neatly sort people into such a system.

Taiping, in the same vein, placed huge importance on proselytising and enticing new converts. In this sense, it is a contrast to Manchuko as there was far more planning for the governmental and political control than on a daily level, with far vaguer outlines for the distribution of land and labour. The emphasis was on communal life, but without the same kind of structural, regimented divisions seen in Manchuko.


Both Manchuko and Taiping are therefore brilliant case studies of the difficulty an urban planner faces in trying to marry a Utopian ideal with the lived reality of the human population. Manchuko arguably enjoyed a greater degree of success due to the smaller population overall, while Taiping could not cope with the sheer overwhelming scale of its devotees. It would thus be interesting to take this discussion further, perhaps in a longer essay than the scope of a blog post allows.

  1. Tucker, David “City Planning Without Cities: Order and Chaos in Utopian Manchukuo” in Mariko Asano Tamanoi (ed)., Crossed Histories: Manchuria in the Age of Empire, p. 60 []
  2. Ibid, p. 61 []
  3. Ibid []
  4. Wm. Theodore de Bary (ed), Sources of Chinese Tradition, pg. 225 []
  5. Reilly, Thomas H. The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: Rebellion and the Blasphemy of Empire, University of Washington Press, 2011, p. 142 []
  6. Tucker, pg. 53 []
  7. Philip A. Kuhn. “The Taiping Rebellion” in Cambridge History of China, p. 275 []

Confucianism and urban planning in Changchun as the capital city of Manchukuo 1932-1937

When Zeng Guofan, the famous scholar and leader of the Hunan Army in the late Qing period, successfully took back Nanjing from the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, one of the most prioritised tasks in his reconstruction plan was to build Confucian temples.1 Interestingly, Japanese colonialists’ naming of the newly constructed areas and its promotion of Confucian shrines and rituals of worshipping Confucius happened about sixty years later in Changchun coincidentally echoes with Zeng’s plan in Nanjing. In this blog, I will argue that Confucianism profoundly integrates with urban construction in Changchun, the capital city of Manchukuo, due to the reason that Confucianism is important to prove one’s legitimacy of ruling in China. It could consolidate the rule and is an essential alternative for the Japanese to construct a utopia in the urban spaces in Asia. Also, I want to address an exceptional characteristic possessed by Confucian temples, a form of unity in Lefebvre’s space of triad theory. The perceived, conceived space, perceived space and the space practised in a Confucian shrine reach a harmonious unification. This is one of the reasons why Confucian temples were preferred by a regime to build to consolidate its rule.

In order to find the trace of Confucianism in Changchun, I found a map with a detailed construction plan of Changchun. It was published in 1936 in Xinjing, another name for Changchun. As shown in the map, the names of the locations in the city centre were excerpted from Confucian classics. For example, Anmin street got its name from “Shuntian anmin” which means following the will of Heaven and bringing peace to the people.2

Since Confucianism was the most fundamental ideology for the rulers of China, it forms the most fundamental part of China’s social and administrative systems. In pre-modern China, to enter the administrative system, one must learn the classical text of Confucianism and then takes the civil examination to become a government official. On the social aspect, Confucianism assigns everyone who lives in the society a role to fulfil, like Confucius’s famous saying, “There is government when the prince is prince, and the minister is minister; when the father is father, and the son is the son.” Confucianism is the foundation for the order of society and the nation.

In the early 1930s, establishing order and control in Changchun was one of the most critical tasks for Guandong Army and the Manchukuo government after the Manchurian incident, and therefore Confucianism came to the front stage of Changchun. By looking into the historical context, we could know that in 1932, Japan was urgent to prove its legitimacy in China. In the North China Herald, published on 7 September 1932, there was an article with the title “Expedition to Manchukuo?” that reported the claim made by the Chinese government in Nanjing to take back Manchuria and the gathering of Soviet troops near the border of Manchukuo.3

In this map, these names excerpted from Confucian classics are particularly marked out, but buildings and locations such as the Ministry of Culture and Education and State Council were left out. They were only written in the columns printed beside this map. Actually, these government institutions were either located around Datong square or along Shuntian streets. The map tended to explicitly emphasise these public facilities, which were named after Confucianist ideology. The integration of Confucianism in the urban construction of Changchun entrusted Manchukuo and the Manchukuo government’s wishes that Manchukuo could become a prosperous and harmonious modern state under the teaching of Confucianism without following the trajectory of the west. Ironically, the order in Manchukuo, specifically in Changchun, was still maintained by Guandong Army.4

The other significance of the map is that it missed marking the location of Confucian shrines in Changchun. The most prominent Confucian shrine in Changchun is located near The Entertainment Place (歡樂地) on the map. Though many landmarks were named after Confucian classics, the map still overlooked one of the most critical things in practising Confucianism. It confirms what Yishi Liu argues in his article that from 1937 Confucian worshipping gradually lost its status in Manchukuo, as the Ministry of Culture and Education, which was in charge of worshipping Confucius, was reduced to a bureau and merged into the Ministry of Civil affairs.5 The promoted ritual of worshipping became the worshipping of Amaterasu. However, back in 1932, the ritual of worshipping Confucian was advocated by the first Prime Minister of Manchukuo Zhen Xiaoxu and supported by Guangdong Army, the true authority in Manchukuo.6 There was a trend of deterioration of the popularity of Confucianism in Changchun in the late 1930s when the Japanese gradually started to gain a more stable position in Northern China.

Finally, I want to argue that Confucian shrines are a space where the perceived, the conceived, and the practices could reach harmony without creating any unpredicted situation or function. Confucian shrines are built for worshipping Confucius; besides the rituals hosted by government officials or even the emperor, sometimes normal people could also go to the shrine for the same purpose. With thousand years of teaching Confucianism, the meaning of space and its ideology behind space became monolithic. An example of the construction in Changchun which created huge differences between the practices of the space and the space conceived is the National Founding University (Kendai) in Changchun, which was built as a pan-Asianist institution to breed the leader of future generations who would lead the revival of East Asia. But this eventually resulted in disillusionment amongst the best educated and highly expected people toward the nation-founding ideals, and some even turned themselves against the Japanese.7 Many secret anti-Japan activities were active in Kendai, such as the forbidden-book reading association. Compared to Kendai, Confucian shrines were a very ‘stable’ space with less probability of cultivating dangerous thinking or activities against Japanese colonial authorities. Confucian shrines, for hundreds of years, only had one straightforward function: to worship Confucius. With their close connection with the ruling class, and under the supervision of Guangdong Army8, it could be seen as a unified space of perceived, conceived and practised as a tool for the consolidation of the regime.

  1. Wooldridge, Chuck. City of Virtues: Nanjing in an Age of Utopian Visions (2015) Ch 4 “Zeng Guofan’s Construction of a Ritual Center, 1864-72”, p. 118. []
  2. Liu, Yishi. “Competing Visions of the Modern: Urban Transformation and Social Change of Changchun, 1932-1957.” Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley, 2011, p.103 []
  3. “Expedition to Manchukuo,” The North-China Herald, September 7, 1932. []
  4. Liu, Yishi. “Competing Visions of the Modern”, p. 62. []
  5. Ibid, p.73. []
  6. Ibid, p.69. []
  7. Liu, Yishi. “Competing Visions of the Modern”, p.24-25. []
  8. Ibid, p.69-70. []

Translation or interpretation? Comparison between Lefebvre’s The Production of Space in English and in Chinese

A universal understanding of translation is that the translated text can never be one hundred per cent accurate. It is even more complicated to translate theories which are abstract and ambiguous. Scholars could produce different results of translation based on their own interpretations. Therefore, it is inevitable that the translator’s interpretation will affect the translated text. Their choices of phrases and the formation of sentences could reflect their understanding of the original text. I will compare the English-translated edition of Lefebvre’s famous work The Production of Space with its Chinese-translated edition and argue that the choice of words, phrases, and terms can reflect the development of studies on Lefebvre and the interpretation and the translator’s own understanding of the original text.

The first Chinese translation of The Production of Space was published in 2021. As the translator himself said in the preface that translating The Production of Space into Chinese was a difficult task, and many versions of translation in different languages were referred to.1 From the date signed at the end of the preface, we could know that the first draft of the preface was created in 2014, and its final edition was finished in 2021. It could be assumed that the translator spent approximately seven years translating this work. The English version was first published in 1991. There is a thirty-year gap between these two publications. The time gap affects the choice of words of the translators. One point worth noticing is that in the introduction chapter, Chinese translators use the term ‘trialectics’ (三元空间辩证法) to address Lefebvre’s theory of space triad. This term is never mentioned in the English translation because it only appeared until 1996 in an article written by geographer and urbanist Edward Soja on the theory of Lefebvre. Due to the late publication time and the evolution of research on Lefebvre, Chinese translators had more resources and published works about Lefebvre for reference. They could gain more knowledge and methodologies, which were developed in the past thirty years, to interpret Lefebvre.

No matter how many new terms the Chinese version adopts from the later research about Lefebvre, there is not much assistance for Chinese translators on the translation of the most fundamental concepts in Lefebvre’s theory . The choice of the word in Chinese could create huge differences. One of the critical terms of Lefebvre’s spatial theory is the title of the book “the production of space”. This term reveals his adaptation of Marx’s mode of production. Lefevbre claims that “space is a product”.2 In the Chinese version, ‘production’ is translated as Shengchan 生产(it literally means ‘production’, more frequently used to address industrial production, production in factories. )rather than Chansheng (also has the meaning ‘production’ but can indicate a broader range of production. If we look up the word ‘production’ in a French dictionary, its meaning in French and English is highly similar to each other. They can both indicate the meaning of Shengchan and Chansheng in Chinese. The possible explanation for this choice could be that choosing Shengchan over Chansheng demonstrates an emphasis on the Marxist influence in Lefebvre’s theory. As mentioned above, Lefebvre’s space theory has an inseparable connection with Marx’s mode of production. Marx’s production theory is translated as Shengchan in Chinese since Marx’s production does not have multiple potential meanings. It only indicates the activities of using resources to produce or make, and its meaning is closer to Shengchan than Chansheng. Shengchan guarantees the consistency of translated academic terms and is more suitable to the Marxian context in The Production of Space. Therefore, when more than one choice were displayed in front of the translators, they chose Shengchan. Also, due to the vital status of Marxian theory in China, the translator might be inclined to deliberately use Shengchan to make the Marxian influence more conspicuous to the readers.

Besides the title, differences between English and Chinses translations are also caused by different strategies of translation for the key terms. The most prominent case is the translation of the spatial triad. Their Chinese translation would cause more confusion to some extent. Representational space is translated as Biaozhengxing Kongjian 表征性空间, Xiangzhengxing Kongjian 象征性空间, Biaoxiangxing Kongjian 表象型空间 and Zaixianxing Kongjian 再现性空间. They are all translations of ‘representational space’. I will focus on the comparison between Biaozheng xing 表征性 and Zaixian xing 再现性 here. The translation of “representation” is a constant debate in Chinese academia. The phrase Zaixian appeared far earlier than Biaozheng in the discourse of translating ‘representation’. However, the use of Biaozheng gradually became more frequent than Zaixian.3  In the case of Chinese The Production of Space, the translators choose to use both of these two words, sacrificing consistency. The translators change the translated term according to the context. These two words could lead to divergence in interpreting Lefebvre’s representational space. Biaozheng indicates the embodiment of the complex symbolism of this concept; Zaixian, a traditional way of translating ‘representation’, could help a Chinese researcher to instantly refer it to the English or French word ‘representation’. In addition, Biaozheng, compared to Zaixian, is a term more frequently used in scientific disciplines. They have distinct academic contexts. Therefore, when a translator deliberately chooses one of them in the context of The Production of Space, the choice must be made based on his or her interpretation of the context.

The comparison between the English and Chinese translations of The Production of Space does not only indicate a linguistic difference between the two languages. Translation could reflect more information, such as the development of Lefebvre’s research over thirty years, debates on translation in Chinese academia and the unconscious emphasis on certain concepts. All of them could reveal the different academic interests and mindsets of the two academia. Sometimes a translated book could be read as more than just a translation, but also as an interpretative piece of the original one.

  1. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Liu Huaiyu (The Commercial Press, 2021), p.xxi. []
  2. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1991), p.26 []
  3. Yi Heng, Zhao, ‘Biaozheng or Zaixian? The distinction of concepts needs to be resolved immediately’, {Accessed 30.9.2022}. []

I Believe in Shanghai: The Transference of British Identity to Shanghai’s International Settlement

In his work ‘Shanghailanders: The Formation and Identity of the British Settler Community in Shanghai 1843-1937’, Robert Bickers sets out to unpack the ways in which British culture transported to Shanghai in the post ‘unequal treaties’ era.[1] Prior to what has been dubbed as the ‘romanticized golden era of Shanghai in the 1930s’, Bickers’ spatial approach endeavours to fill the historiographical void which examines those British communities which existed at the edge of empire and colonial rule.[2] He makes the case that settler communities such as the ‘Shanghailanders’, which flourished primarily due to the laissez-faire commercialism of the period as opposed to direct colonial rule, have been somewhat ignored by historians of the British Empire. Bickers hopes that his work encourage other historians of Chinese politics to look more closely at the multi-layered identities of settler communities and how these affected foreign relations. His work sits in an expanding school of historiographical thought which examines the European cultural influence on treaty ports and urban environments throughout the world. Eileen Scully’s ‘Prostitution as Privilege: The ‘American Girl’ of Treaty-Port Shanghai, 1860-1937’, is one example which further investigates the impacts of European cultural diffusion on foreign relations, racial divides, social inequality and cityscapes.[3] Despite Bickers and Scully’s work, there is still a lack of scholarship which aims to integrate local Chinese voices into the discussion, or indeed the many other nationalities which comprised the International Settlement in Shanghai. This would be a vast undertaking, with archival material spread out and language barriers to overcome, however one that would be extremely fruitful in gaining understanding of the dynamics of Asian urban landscapes and their relational dynamics.

Shanghailanders, who for the most part were just ordinary people, had to contend with a whole new city, way of life, foreign customs and values and a large cosmopolitan population. Whilst one must appreciate the commercial opportunities offered to them by the colonial enterprise, impossible to find at home in Britain, for many, their new life in the East presented an identity crisis. Bickers highlights how their new environment was ‘grimy, polluted [and] congested’ and having to share their space helped to forge an imagined identity.[4] In his biography of Maurice Tinkler, Bickers alludes to how this helped fuel racial division and the perceived notion that Britishness and whiteness were imagined to be superior.[5] Furthermore, Bickers somewhat entertainingly compares the exoticism of life in Shanghai as to that of Slough. This captures the notion that life was distinguishably British and insular.

One of the key issues Bickers discusses is the founding myth of the Shanghailanders. This is captured in the slogan ‘I Believe in Shanghai’ which suggests that the settlers believed it their duty to make Shanghai the best and most modern city in the world. Whether this is true or not, Bickers argues it was a fundamental aspect of forging and upholding British identity in the treaty port. In reading Bickers’ biography of Maurice Tinkler (an officer in the Shanghai Municipal Police SMP), one is struck by the ‘ordinariness’ of the men who made up the majority of the Shanghailander population. For the most part, men like Tinkler were demobilised working class males. Furthermore, as Bickers points out, these men were often from rural backgrounds, unfamiliar to urban life in grand cityscapes. Playing a frame on the station billiard table was far more likely an enjoyable pastime than integrating and mingling with the indigenous Chinese population.

Finally, on a more spatial note, Jeremy Taylor’s ‘The Bund: Littoral Space of Empire in the Treaty Ports of Asia’, analyses the role of the Bund in portraying and projecting Western ideals upon the city of Shanghai.[6] The very nature of the buildings erected, often art deco or Bauhaus designs, give a sense far more akin to British Manchester than of the exotic Asian Shanghai. This was a place where British identity, notions of power and dominance could be projected clearly. Whilst Taylor comments on the commercial and military aspects of the Bund, which could be explored in much further detail, he brings out the function the Bund played in providing a space of leisure. With open expanses of grass, gardens, trees and benches, the Bund allowed British settlers to relax in the way they were familiar with. In cementing British identity in Shanghai, this aspect of the space and its functions proved of major importance.

[1] Robert Bickers, ‘Shanghailanders: The Formation and Identity of the British Settler Community in Shanghai 1843-1937’, Past & Present, no. 159 (1998), pp. 161–211

[2] Meng Yue, Shanghai and the Edges of Empire, (Minnesota, 2006)

[3] Eileen P. Scully, ‘Prostitution as Privilege: The ‘American Girl’ of Treaty-Port Shanghai, 1860-1937’, The International History Review 20, no. 4 (1998), pp. 855–83

[4] Bickers, ‘Shanghailanders’ p. 193

[5] Robert Bickers, Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai, (London, 2004)

[6] Jeremy E. Taylor, ‘The Bund: Littoral Space of Empire in the Treaty Ports of East Asia’, Social History, Vol. 27, No. 2 (May, 2002), pp. 125-142

Case Studies in World Fair Spatial Configurations

An examination of world fairs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries through a spatial historical lens provides a nuanced perspective on the overlapping cultural and international relations amongst nations at these exhibitions. This blog post will understand these fairs as “networks of exchange” rather than considering each exhibition in isolation.[1] Debra Hanson argues that the fairs, such as the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, initiated a new awareness within the “Western worldview” of the “transnational connections” amongst peoples, cultures, and nations.[2] I argue that this can be further understood through examining the spatial relations between different displays at these events, and in recognising how these relate to the global/local discourse.

David Raizman and Ethan Robey contend that the ‘language’ of material items holds political meaning. Material objects were judged by visitors in comparative terms between different nations and cultures, and politics and nationalistic rhetoric were intertwined with material objects in these fairs. Behind the unified image of peaceful competition presented at these world fairs, Raizman and Robey identify tensions and struggles between different participants, often due to their colonial status. A sort of contradiction can be identified here between image presented and reality:

“…economic competition among participant nations extended outward to supplies of raw materials and workers, and inexorably to colonialism, underpinned by the same military hardware so admired in the exhibition halls.”[3]

Raizman and Robey identify that often national histories were presented through specific narratives in the displays to help define and construct national pride.[4] We can thus identify an irony between many of the displays at these fairs. Whilst the displays of Western nations would present their colonial military ‘might’ in line with developments in technological modernity in the 19th century, the displays of Eastern or Southern (read: colonised) nations would be contrasted to these as a consumable commodity.[5] Nationalisms were communicated through the material objects on display and moulded and shaped in line with these narratives. The spatial relations amongst and between the displays played a part in this, as well as the guidebooks provided to supplement the displays and ensure the visitor followed the set path as they navigated the fair.[6] This defined the exhibitor’s position in relation to the host nation, as well as the observer’s position in relation to the displays and their original imagined locations.

A key example of how the spatial relations of the fairs constructed national narratives is in the 1893 Chicago Exposition. Structured as a classical White City, the buildings of the exposition were arranged in a centre and a periphery, with the Midway Plaisance leading away from the principal buildings. Hanson describes this lay out as a form of “spatial segregation,” as the further away one ventured from the central area the less ‘civilised’ the nations of display were presented to be.[9] Thus, the exhibition constructed a sliding scale of civilisational progress as physically represented by the Midway Plaisance, creating in line with this for the visitors a clear sense of the cultural global centre and periphery in actuality.

A further example of how the narratives of the displays were moulded by colonial influences can be seen in the Tunisian display at the Paris Exposition in 1867. Designed by French architect Alfred Chapon, the ‘Bardo of the Bey’ structure aimed to imitate Ahmed Bey’s summer palace:


The building adopted past styles and adapted them to contemporary (European) tastes, engaging with the present but preserving practices of the past. The interpretative narrative around the ‘Bardo of the Bey’ is divided. Hanson argues that the structure demonstrates Western management of the East, but for other scholars, it represents cultural negotiation and a physical symbol of hybridity.[8] However, colonial influences were intrinsically bound up in the structure’s creation. The “networks of exchange” occurring at these world fairs thus reflect the orientalist attitudes apparent in their spatial configurations.

Participation in the fairs often led to a construction of a careful, nuanced national past, in order to preserve national unity and political stability. Susan R. Fernsebner explores how a specific national image of “China” was presented by Chinese “expositional managers” (made up of Chinese elites) at various international expositions between 1904-1915.[10] How these elites presented ‘China’ tells us about their own ideas about Chinese nationalism at the time, and highlights the changes to the domestic Chinese political structure in the period. Fernsebner argues that the Nanyang Exposition of 1910 was used to mobilize people in the name of economic nationalism:

“In staging this exposition, Managing Director Chen Qi and his fellow organizers sought to stage a new kind of event for a mass audience in China, one that would help to shape a disciplined population to serve its nation… Organizers framed the ex-position as a studied inventory of the nation’s goods, both for domestic consumption amid foreign competition and export promotion, while placing a growing emphasis on science and industrial production.”[11]

Thus, the exhibitions at Nanyang served a dual purpose: the experience of visiting was painted as a national event to promote economic development, through and in combination with the social indoctrination of Chinese people viewing the displays.[12] Although less to do with the spatial configurations of the displays themselves, this example demonstrates how narrative of nationalism and modernity can be represented physically through material items (such as Raizman and Robey contested earlier on in this post), and how navigation of the physical exposition space affected the visitor phenomenologically.


[1] Raizman, David & Robey, Ethan (2017) ‘Introduction’ in Expanding Nationalisms at World’s Fairs: Identity, Diversity, and Exchange, 1851-1915. Routledge, p. 7

[2] Hanson, Debra (2017) ‘East meets West: Re-presenting the Arab-Islamic world at the nineteenth-century world’s fairs,’ in Raizman, David & Robey, Ethan (eds.), Expanding Nationalisms at World’s Fairs: Identity, Diversity, and Exchange, 1851-1915. Routledge, p. 15

[3] Raizman & Robey (2017) pp. 5-6

[4] Ibid, p. 11

[5] Hanson (2017) p. 15

[6] Ibid, p. 16

[7] Chapon, Alfred (1867) ‘Bardo,’ Pavilion of the Bey of Tunis, Exposition Universelle, Paris, sectional print. Reproduced from Revue generale de l’architecture et des travaux publics, vol. 27 (Paris: Paris Ducher 1869), pp. 35-36

[8] Hanson (2017) p. 27

[9] Ibid, p. 28

[10] Fernsebner, Susan R. (2017) ‘When the local is global: Case studies in early twentieth-century Chinese exposition projects,’ in Raizman, David & Robey, Ethan (eds.), Expanding Nationalisms at World’s Fairs: Identity, Diversity, and Exchange, 1851-1915. Routledge, p. 173

[11] Ibid, p. 178

[12] Ibid, p. 179

Shanghai’s ‘Underworld’: Considering Crime Spatially

When investigating the history of crime, whether on an institutional or ‘organised’ level, or simply petty thievery, we encounter many oppositions and binaries. Crime exists in opposition to an imposed order. It implies a nonadherence to a set rule. Frederic Wakeman’s article on policing Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s explores the various forces seeking to instil order in Shanghai, which contributed towards its development as an urban municipality.[1] Throughout his article there runs an analytical undercurrent about how crime (considering it as representing an opposition to a desired order) affected urban administrative developments. This in turn influenced Shanghai’s development as a demarcated municipality. In this blog post, I will reject the notion of crime as in complete opposition to policed urban order in Shanghai in the 1920s. I argue that these criminal networks were bound up in the governing processes of Shanghai, both formally and informally. We can better understand the spatial ordering of urban Shanghai, and how this evolved throughout the early- to mid-20th century, by analysing this complex relationship between crime, order, and authority.

The language used when discussing crime in an urban context often constructs a separate location for its occurrence. For instance, presenting the ‘underworld’ of a city, which exists alongside the regular city, provides an imaginary for where crime takes place that is useful to maintain order. Out of sight and out of mind, as it were. This separation allows residents to feel safe in the ordered ‘above-ground’ side of the city, separated from the ‘underworld’ of criminal activities and morally questionable behaviour. Concerning the ‘underworld’ of Shanghai, Wakeman explains:

“Virtually all of these underworld elements belonged to small bands of gangsters called dang or hui that were ruled over by a massive criminal confederation and secret society, originally organized by Yangzi River boatmen, called the “Green Gang” (Qingbang).”[2]

 Wakeman argues that because the Qingbang kept the criminal world of Shanghai ‘in order,’ their activities and existence were tolerated by the International Settlement, French, and Chinese police forces. Many police officers and detectives were associated with the Qingbang or drawn from its membership, as this association was key to performing arrests needed in order to supplement their regular salaries.[3] Already we can observe a complexity in that the Qingbang were instilling an informal form of order within their pursuits as criminals and racketeers. There is order in the coordination of their criminal activities, and thus the notion that crime exists in binary opposition to lawfulness is no longer applicable. Furthermore, we can understand this directly through the influence of crime on Shanghai’s evolution into a municipality.

The power struggle between the central Nanjing government and municipalities establishing their own identities played out through the police and urban order mediums.[4] In Shanghai, both Wakeman and Brian Martin connect these tensions to complex criminal networks through locating illegal activities in the French Concession area. Captain Fiori of the French Concessionary Police (FCP) protected the economic power of Qingbang undertakings, such as in gambling or opium rackets. First, in the early 1920s through instating Huang Jinrong as chief detective, and then in the later 1920s through using Du Yuesheng’s influence to maintain the Concession’s security in the face of national political unrest.[5] Martin argues that the FCP tolerated Du’s racketeering in return for Qingbang aid in maintaining order within the Concession:

“The close cooperation between the French police and Du Yuesheng’s gangsters was officially acknowledged in 1928 by the acting Consul General Meyrier in a dispatch to the French Minister in Beiping. It is probable that the French used the gangster bosses as their intermediaries in establishing contacts with the GMD’s NRA [Guomindang’s National Revolutionary Army], an important element in their strategy to maintain the security of the Concession during the first four months of 1927.”[6]

Through this intertwining of authority, the Qingbang’s crimes become relegated in the public’s imagination to another ‘criminal world,’ not visible to and unaffecting of their safety within the Concession area. In turn, this criminal ‘underworld’ is ordered by the spatial limitations of the collusion that resulted from the complicated relationship between these criminals and the police. An understanding of crime in a binary as solely in opposition to official authority prevents investigation of how illegal activities affected urban administrative developments in Shanghai, which directly contributed to its demarcation as a municipality. Where we historically locate crime, and how visibly it appeared, is affected by recognising these informal expressions of authority in combination with formal institutionalised authority.


[1] Frederic Wakeman Jr. (1988) ‘Policing Modern Shanghai,’ The China Quarterly, 115: 409

[2] Wakeman (1988) p. 414; William T. Rowe (1982) ‘The Qingbang and collaboration under the Japanese, 1939-1945: materials in the Wuhan Municipal Archives,’ Modern China, 8(4): 493-94

[3] Wakeman (1988) p. 415

[4] Ibid, p. 425-6

[5] Wakeman (1988) p. 415; Martin, Brian G. (2020) The Shanghai Green Gang: Politics and Organized Crime, 1919-1937, Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 115

[6] Martin (2020) p. 115

Newspaper Advertisements and the Promise of Hygienic Modernity

One of the most eye-catching aspects of newspapers, no matter what era, are advertisements. Ever since the advent of mass production and commercial sales, enterprising businessmen have attempted to sell a whole panoply of products. Chinese newspapers seem to have a penchant for advertising pharmaceutical products. A curious collection of diagrams published in 2017 highlights the overlaps between ads in the Shenbao and North China Daily News (NCDN) triggered an interesting deep dive into the appearance of specific ads in Chinese newspaper sources of the early 1900s. [1] These diagrams highlight an interesting evolution in the types of advertisements that appeared in Chinese Newspapers as perspectives on health evolved. Newspaper advertisements are powerful indicators of the zeitgeist of a region. In the case of pharmaceutical advertisements, it represented a powerful shift in the discourses surrounding hygiene and health in China. This was especially true in treaty ports, where increased accessibility to commodified drugs changed the nature of what health or weisheng (衛生) meant.

We begin with the primary source accounts found in newspapers from the early 1910s to the late 1940s, which denoted a marked shift in the number of pharmaceutical advertisements found in China-based newspapers. Shenbao in particular seems to have an eclectic mixture of pharmaceutical companies from Japan, the UK, the US and Germany. From 1914 to 1949, Bayer was commonly featured in both Shenbao and NCDN selling Aspirin and Cresival. While Aspirin is a household name in today’s day and age, used for the treatment of headaches and as a blood thinner. In the specific case of the Jiangsheng Bao (literally the sound of River Newspaper) a newspaper produced in Xiamen from 1918 to 1951, these pharmaceutical advertisements are so ubiquitous that most daily papers had at least one mention of medication. Once again, we see Bayer with a fairly large ad for Eldoform (anti-diarrheal) Mitigal (an ointment used to treat scabies) and Cresival. Of the many drugs advertised, Cresival seems to be the most mysterious. In the Jiangsheng Bao’s account of this medicine, it claims to clear phlegm and be the foremost cure for cough. In essence, a very good cough syrup. Bayer’s significant investment in Chinese newspaper advertisements seems quite unusual when taken out of context. Why would a German pharmaceutical company be interested in selling minor medications to people halfway across the globe?

Bayer Advertisement in 06/09/1932 Issue of Jiangsheng Bao [2]

The increased mentions of this medicine and for that matter, all types of medication indicated a significant shift in how Chinese people saw health as acquirable and consumable. In Ruth Rogaski’s Hygenic Modernity, she highlights how introduction to western culture increased the accessibility of ready-made remedies. [3] She discusses the wider adoption of Western hygienic norms throughout the 1920s and 30s in Treaty Ports throughout China: “For one and a half yuan, one could obtain weisheng in a pill.” Rogaski focuses most on the aggressive advertising of “Dr William’s Pink Pills for Pale People” a drug that was advertised heavily in the Shebao and NCDN from 1914 to 1949. [4] This pill was sold as a miracle cure for everything from “insomnia to intestinal worms”. She cogently comments on how these newspaper advertisements adapted themselves to the Chinese context, targeting a variety of figures such as the traditional male head of the household and their wifely counterparts. The ailments that these pills targeted were relevant to the discourses surrounding modernity and medicine at the time. [5]

The marked shift in how hygiene was seen as easily consumable and a mark of modernity drove pharmaceutical companies to set up shop in treaty ports such as Shanghai. Bayer set up its first Chinese factory producing Aspirin in 1936. [6] It seems that alongside the aggressive advertising in newspapers, Bayer was capitalising on this weisheng revolution and finding a market for commodified health. Their increased presence in newspaper advertisements across China was quite intentional. As the social discourse surrounding hygiene and modernity in China grew, so did the consumption of these “health consumables” that could improve not just the general health of the average Chinese person, but the health of the overall state and civilisation. These pharmaceutical newspaper advertisements in the Shenbao, North China Daily News and Jiangsheng Bao reflected on the rapidly evolving ideas on health and modernity in China that pervaded that period.

[1] ‘Circulations of pharmaceutical brands between the newspapers Shenbao and North China Daily News (1914-1949)’, MADSPACE, 5 May 2017,  <> [accessed 5 February 2022].

[2] ‘Jiangsheng Bao’,, 06/09/1932, <> [accessed 5 February 2022].

[3] Ruth Rogaski, Hygenic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in Treaty-Port China (London, 2004), p. 227.

[4] Ibid, p. 229..

[5] Ibid, p. 230.

[6] Bayer, ‘Bayer China History’ <> [accessed 5 February 2022].

Between the Municipal and Inhabitant: The Push and Pull of Power

The battle for power expression and control between the municipality and their inhabitants is a recurring theme in many of the stories that discuss cities and their development. These groups are by no means monolithic and many have substantial splits in their interests, however, as analytic units, it is fair to categorise them as such. From Shanghai to Singapore, Beijing to Changchun, there were also, subtle interplays of power and class that hint towards wider power structures. It is this combination of push and pulls between the municipality and its inhabitants, and the way that power was negotiated that is the main subject of this post.

In the case of Shanghai, an often hilarious but deeply saddening state of affairs was the segregation of Chinese and European populations. The imagined signposts saying “No dogs or Chinese”, although more a myth than reality, is a reminder that many European municipal councils had clear ideas over specific racial usages of space. [1] In the Shanghalander case especially, desires to enforce extraterritoriality and full sovereign control would have meant within these “European spaces” whether represented or real, were backed by real expressions of power.

For Singapore, the representations and usage of space laid out by the plan strongly indicated that colonial and later municipal authorities struggled to identify and assert control over the various Malay “Kampungs” (living areas). This was mostly because many lived outside of the main areas that were of interest to Raffles and Farquhar and that language provided a formidable barrier to understanding these places. [2] The Chinese areas were also dominated by various bāngqún (幫群) organisations that represented the inhabitant population. These “bāng” held considerable power that sometimes ran against colonial designs for the city. [3]

For both of these cities, there were clear examples where attempts to assert municipal or colonial control were either subverted or resisted. Although there has not been much mention of Malay or Indian resistance towards certain municipal policies. The Chinese community in Singapore, being larger in size and power, did actively mobilise their influence. In response to the unilateral passing of Police Acts in 1857, the entire Chinese community went on strike, effectively halting the economy for a few days. Despite this strike not being an act of open and violent revolt. It nonetheless serves as an example where local inhabitants expressed power through shockingly effective strategies. For Shanghai, unarmed demonstrations against what was presumably the exclusion of Chinese from public parks and spaces amongst other measures is a good example of inhabitant resistance towards assertions of municipal power. Furthermore, Chinese requests for better municipal representation could also be counted as legitimate bids to integrate inhabitant interests into municipal decision making.

That being said, the case of Shanghai is unique, as what qualified someone as an “inhabitant” was quite nebulous. Did the community of White Shanghailanders count as inhabitants? Or was this definition limited to the Chinese. The somewhat cop-out answer of “both”, makes the most sense. While local Chinese were most definitely counted as the original inhabitants of the city, many Europeans eventually were considered ‘local’ inhabitants of the area. The main difference was that often Europeans were allowed to actively participate in the decision-making processes that ran through the SMC, while the Chinese struggled to acquire that privilege. [4] Singapore’s definition for “inhabitant” was often a lot clearer, the existing Chinese, Malay, Indian and Orang Laut settlements created a distinct divide between European colonisers and local communities.

This leads us to the interesting intersection of class and race in both Singapore and Shanghai. In both cases, English educated and typically Chinese businessmen were sometimes permitted to join the ranks of municipal decision-makers. This was more so the case in Singapore where businessmen of considerable stature such as Seah Liang Seah, founder of the Ngee Ann Kongsi and Choa Giang Thye, also a prominent member of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, actively participated in municipal politics and advocated for the Chinese Community as early as 1857. [5] The English language ability of these higher-class Chinese businessmen afforded them access to the primarily European sphere of politics. They often acted as interlocutors for local populations, albeit only to a degree. Their lack of sustained and direct involvement in Clan and Bāng organisations may have impacted their ability to fully represent their constituent compatriots. In Shanghai, SMC postings were barred to the Chinese until 1920, the ‘virulent racism’ of Shanghailanders often prevented even prominent Chinese businessmen from entering the municipal sphere.

In conclusion, throughout any spatial story, there was often a battle for power expression and control between the municipality and their inhabitants. This was sometimes mediated by prominent members of the inhabitant community (often Chinese) that could communicate in English and thus partially enter into municipal decision-making. The reality is that the interests of municipal bodies and the actual inhabitants did not always coincide, whether due to racism or language (mostly racism). Although the impacts of this are not necessarily felt today, we can certainly see the struggles of the voiceless coolie, or hawker store vendor, that rarely had a voice in how their city was run.

[1] Robert Bickers ‘Shanghailanders: The Formation and Identity of the British Settler Community in Shanghai 1843-1937’ Past and Present (May, 1998), p. 205 

[2] The Jackson Plan (Singapore, National Library of Singapore, 1822

[3] Brenda Yeoh Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore (Singapore, 2003) p. 39

[4]Robert Bickers ‘Shanghailanders: The Formation and Identity of the British Settler Community in Shanghai 1843-1937’ Past and Present (May, 1998), p. 205

[5] Brenda Yeoh Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore (Singapore, 2003) p. 61