Space, Religion, Government and Dragons in Twentieth Century China

The Role that Dragons have occupied in Modern Chinese history, to many historians may be understood as contested. The history of Dragons within China’s past not only debates the mere existence of Dragons as physical entities, but as popular religious deities. Thus, through the examination of Dragons as popular religious deities, such as the Dragon King of Wuhan, we may attempt to understand how space, religion, government all facilitated towards a wider belief system of worship for many people at the time.  In particular, how people viewed such deities in response to environmental catastrophes such as the 1931 Yangtze River Flood. Chris Courtney’s illuminating article and further monograph examine such popular beliefs held by the residents of Wuhan in light of the flood, which provides the background for this analysis.


Primarily the role of Dragon’s as popular religious beliefs may be examined in light of the space that they occupied physically. For example, for local populations in the 1930’s such as those within Wuhan, worshiped the shrine of the Temple of the Dragon King. Such people prayed for fertility for their crop growth before a harvest to the Dragon King who was in control of the rains. Physical manifestations of worship within Wuhan, were also eminent, such as parades in celebration of the Dragon King annually. Following the demolition of the Temple prior to the 1931 catastrophe, many within Wuhan held popular belief that it was in fact the anger of the Dragon King which “was causing the deluge in order to wreak vengeance upon Wuhan.”[1] The destruction of the Temple, whilst not linked to any religious cause for its demolition, but for the purpose of modernization within Wuhan, further pays homage to ideas expressed within Joespeh Esherick’s work on modern zoning principles. By citing Wuhan an example, the modernising nature of the city exposes the relationship between religious space and modernisation within Wuhan as “if the nation was to modernize, the cities had to take the lead.”[2]


However, in spite of the municipal authorities of Wuhan officially outlawing belief in the Dragon King in 1928 as superstition, Chris Courtney gives a poignant example of how belief was maintained not only privately but physically. Courtney described how members of the Wuhan population “descended upon the site of the former temple. Daoist, priests, monks and Shamans were hired to chant incantations and pray”, for forgiveness in light of the catastrophe.[3] Following the example given by Courtney, this allows us to see how the role of government rose within this relationship between understanding how space, religion, and government all facilitated a wider belief system for many people at the time. As described by Courtney, municipal authorities in spite of denouncing belief in the Dragon King as superstitious, Courtney observed that they still however paid lip service to belief in the deity in times of inundation, even if this was only to appease members of the population. Thus, supporting the idea that space, religion and government all serve to facilitate a wider belief system employed by residents during times of disaster. By ultimately affirming how “the disaster had revealed that in spite of vigorous criticism, popular religion continued to exert a powerful influence over conceptualizations of the environment.”[4]





Courtney, Chris. “The Dragon King and the 1931 Wuhan Flood: Religious Rumours and Environmental Disasters in Republican China.” Twentieth-Century China, vol. 40 no. 2, 2015, p. 83-104. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/tcc.2015.0018.


Courtney, Chris, The Nature of Disaster in China: The 1931 Yangzi River Flood, (Cambridge, 2018).


Esherick, Joseph, ed. ‘Wuhan’s Search for Identity in the Republican Period’. In Remaking the Chinese City: Modernity and National Identity, 1900-1950, Pbk.ed. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2002.


[1] Chris Courtney, ‘The Dragon King and The 1931 Wuhan Flood: Religious Rumors and Environmental Disasters in Republican China.’, Twentieth-Century China, Vol.40 no.2, (2015), p.84.

[2] Joseph Esherick, ‘Wuhan’s Search for Identity in the Republican Period’. In Remaking the Chinese City: Modernity and National Identity, 1900-1950, Pbk.ed. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, (2002), p.7.

[3] Chris Courtney, ‘The Dragon King and The 1931 Wuhan Flood: Religious Rumors and Environmental Disasters in Republican China.’,p.96.

[4] Ibid.,p.83.

Thinking about Sounds: ‘Sounds of a City’

When thinking of everyday sounds, whether that be where one lives, works or takes leisure, the importance of sound is rarely considered in its role in creating and forging “individual or collective identity.”[1] David Garrioch examined the importance of sounds “as crucial sources of information in semiotic systems.” [2] The importance of such systems served to “convey news, helping people to locate themselves in time and space and making the point of an auditory community.”[3] Thus through this appreciation of sound we may deploy this thinking to the example given by Alain Corbin within the History of Bells in nineteenth century Europe. Garrioch employs this argument in order to examine how sounds again served as “signals, marks of local identity, as symbols of authority and resistance, hence sites of social and political struggle.”[4] This argument may be contrasted with how we think about urban spaces now. When thinking of sound within an urban city we may view the changing nature of sounds in the community. As for beyond its integral use in seventeenth and eighteenth century sound scapes as Garrioch has proposed, Antoine Pluche has made an argument to suggest that “sound calls us busy with the things they signify but they start to tire and annoy us when they are no longer signals of anything.”[5] When thinking of this argument in relation to urban spaces, we may suggest that the role of sound still plays a vital role in community albeit to a varied degree as well as to signify a growing array of signs in different geographic regions. As for example sound is still of vital importance within middle eastern urban cities such as for example within Morocco, witnessed with the daily call to prayer. Equally the argument may be applied to the signal which the sound of the tram warning systems evokes in the city of San Francisco for local residents. Thus through examining such places, this serves to show how the role of sound occupies an important role within communities across the globe, albeit varied.


Garrioch, David, “Sounds of the City: the Soundscape of Early Modern European Towns.” Urban History 30, no. 1 (2003): 5–25. doi:10.1017/S0963926803001019.

[1] David, Garrioch, “Sounds of the City: the Soundscape of Early Modern European Towns.” Urban History 30, no. 1 (2003),p.6.

[2] Ibid., p.5.

[3] Ibid., p.5.

[4] Ibid., p.6.

[5] Ibid., p.25.

Looking Back on Perspectives of Anglo-Japanese Tourism

In the October 13th, 1938 edition of the Japan Chronicle Weekly, there is a full page spread on the relationship between Britain and Japan in the context of tourism. The author of the article, A.F. Thomas, asserts that despite the tenuous political relationship between the two countries, the people of Britain maintain a friendly disposition towards Japan and are a potentially fruitful market for Japan’s tourist bureau. At the time this article had been published, Japanese troops had already invaded and were in the process of occupying much of China. The Rape of Nanjing had occurred early in the year and the Battle of Wuhan just four months prior.[1] Thomas ignores the Japanese Empire’s brutality and crimes throughout its invasion of China – perhaps partially as a result of lack of information about the atrocities that were taking place. Regardless of whether Thomas’ ignorance of the geopolitical situation of the time is conscious or not, he laments Britain’s lack of cultural relationship with Japan. He articulates that “everything is to be gained by beginning , even during the present Conflict, an intense publicity campaign to attract tourists and students to Japan after the regrettable crisis is over.”[2] Thomson points out that while there are Japanese Tourist Bureau offices in New York and Los Angeles, there are none in Britain. Despite the lack of bureaucracy facilitating Anglo-Japanese travel, Thomson says that “England can show a train of first-class Japanologists which America would find difficult to rival.”[3] He goes on to say that he envisions a new class of traveller emerging should Anglo-Japanese tourism proliferate. This new class of traveller would be scholarly and more focused on understanding Japanese people and their ways of life than the stereotypical Globetrotter of previous decades who ostensibly only travelled for the sake of travelling. An increasing amount of cultural understanding, Thomson says, “leads to international friendships of the more lasting kind.”[4]

Thomson’s account of the lack of a tourist-centred relationship with Japan in 1938 elicits an examination of the nature of Anglo-Japanese tourism in earlier periods. When Thomas references the “Globetrotter” he is referring to a stereotype of Western travellers that toured Asian countries, most notably Japan, in the late 19th century. Thomas Cook was an early pioneer of Anglo-Asian travel. He founded a travel company (which still exists today) that brought groups of British tourists on an around the world tour, the first of which set off in 1872 and after traversing the United States, arrived in Yokohama. An author and traveller by the name of William Griffis, writing sometime between 1870 and 1874, noted that tourists “have become so frequent and temporarily numerous in Yokohama as to be recognized as a distinct class.”[5] Other Westerners who had spent extensive time in Japan made fun of these eccentric travellers. One of these figures, Basil Hall Chamberlain, describes the interests and character of globetrotters as widely varied, from those interested in wildlife to politically-minded nobles.

These accounts show that there is a rich and entertaining history of Anglo-Japanese tourism in the early Meiji period that contrast to Thomson’s campaign for the re-establishment of tourist ties over half-a-century later. While the upheaval of the early 20th century undoubtedly curtailed opportunities for travel, the phenomenon of Anglo-Japanese tourism may in fact be more deep than Thomson suggests.


[1] Thomson, A.F. “England and Japan’s Tourism and Culture.” Volume 1938 – Japan Chronicle Weekly Edition. (13th October 1938).

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Hockley, Allan. Globetrotter’s Japan: Foreigners on the tourist circuit in Meiji Japan. MIT Visualizing Cultures. (2010)

Shanghai Homes as Private Domestic Spaces

Following the end of the Opium War, the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 symbolised the opening of treaty ports. Shanghai’s opening welcomed an influx in  Western traders as well as foreign settlers. The influence of such foreign settlers was apparent across broad swathes of the Chinese community. Such influence was clearly recognisable through the development of architecture in Shanghai. Such an exchange between western modernity and traditional Chinese emerged within Shanghai’s neighbourhoods, in particularly Shanghai’s lilong residences.[1]The rise in Shikumen style housing, which made up a significant proportion of lilong residences, by 1930, serve as insightful spaces of historical artefact, in which Jie Li, has examined thoroughly within her work on Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life (2015). Through maintaining an interdisciplinary approach to the comparison of two shikumen style houses, in which both Jie Li’s paternal and maternal grandparents and family subsequently lived from 1930, through the combination of ethnography and microhistory Li creates her own approach to the subject of such housing in Shanghai as palimpsests, through her approach “Excavate Where I Stand.”[2] Thus through the analysis of the private and domestic space, witnessed with Jie Li’s work the author reclaims the importance of such domestic spaces, and reclaims the space of Shanghai alleyways in history as “Shanghai alleyways.. a palimpsests of voices and noises, past and present.”[3]


Despite critiques of microhistory, which focus on its limited scope, the strength here within Li’s work shows the role of microhistory as facilitating the ‘excavation’ of details, within the private domestic space, which overall serve to contribute to the readers understanding on the topic of enquiry as a whole. By expressing that whilst “a microhistory is not the last nail on the coffin of its subject matter, but rather an invitation to examine similarly obscured lives and to open up the Pandora’s box of a past era.”[4]


Moreover, the approach through its focus on ethnology additionally succeeds in transforming the role of local gossip into a tool, for the use of the historian. As “the private narratives of the past form gossip and family lore.. an undercurrent of private interests, voices and beliefs.”[5] Thus, through this approach historians are able to gain access to otherwise lost oral narratives of a private closed spaces. Which may be viewed as particularly crucial in the case of reconstructing narratives of the private space within Shanghai alleyway homes throughout the early twentieth century. This is summarised accordingly by Li as, “the history of any alleyway should be written as an anthology of gossip exchanged among its residents.”[6]


The importance of the private domestic space in this instance of understanding Shanghai Homes within the period, is reclaimed through the deployment of Li’s ethnographical and micro historical approach, which succeeds in light of sceptics views of microhistory. Let us hope that Jie Li’s insightful approach may be adopted as an alternative approach to examining otherwise unavailable private domestic spaces by historians in the future.





Li, Jie, Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life. (New York:, 2015).

Yang Xianoneng, ‘Shanghai Alleyways: Situating Jinahua Gong’s Shanghai Alleyways’, Cross-Currents East Asian History and Culture Review, Volume No.2, March 2010.


[1] Lilong, is a term used to describe a street, sometimes interconnected where Shikumen housing would be found.

[2] Jie Li, Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Lives, (New York, 2015) p.11.

[3] Ibid.,p.12.

[4] Ibid.,p.14.

[5] Ibid.,p.23.

[6] Ibid., p.142

Rebranding History in Beijing

If one walked around the old, seemingly timeless neighbourhoods of Beijing five or six years ago, they would have seen the character “拆” (chai) spray painted on some of the grey shabby walls of hutongs or traditional Chinese family homes. 拆 is the verb for “destroy” or “to pull down.” Once that mark appeared on any given home, it was only a matter of time before it would be bulldozed and made into whatever the government wanted.

Zhang Yue, in their essay “Steering Towards Growth: Symbolic Urban Preservation in Beijing, 1990-2005,” outlines some of the destruction and renewal Beijing has undergone for the sake of urban development.[1] Zhang describes how Beijing’s real estate development has washed away  – both literally and metaphorically – the city’s historical and cultural DNA. Out of the rubble of many Beijing hutongs has risen massive shopping complexes or high rise office buildings. Traces of the Beijing’s ancient heritage have completely evaporated in many parts of the city.

In the early 2000s, local residents and others lamenting the disappearance of the historic parts of Beijing were appeased by the local government through projects aimed at rebuilding the city’s grandest historical buildings. Coinciding with this effort was the construction of the immense Olympic park north of the city centre. Zhang highlights the reconstruction of the Ming-dynasty south city-gate, Yongdingmen, as the epitome of the government’s cultural preservation effort.[2] Beijing, throughout its many centuries of history, has been built around an auspicious north-south axis, based on the geomantic practices of Feng Shui.[3] Yongdingmen is the base of the axis, while the Forbidden City lies at the heart and the Olympic Park at the head. Rebuilding Yongdingmen at the same time the Olympic Park was taking shape helped to complete Beijing’s power line.[4] The north-south axis was displayed as the pulsating vein of Chinese history – from its cultural grandeur and its deep historical origins to the flourishing world power it has become.

Zhang questions whether Yongdingmen was rebuilt for its cultural and historic authenticity or merely to prop up the image of the city as it became a destination for tourists and world leaders alike in the wake of the Olympic games. While the heart of Beijing’s city life – the hutong – is plagued with destruction, grand buildings and tourist traps like Yongdingmen have risen in its place. As Zhang says herself: “symbolic urban preservation prioritises monuments over urban texture, exploits the economic value of cultural heritage without protecting it, and entertains visitors at the cost of the original inhabitants.”[5]  In effect, Beijing’s rich historical landscape has been appropriated to serve the commercial and political needs of the city as China has assumed its place as one of the world’s foremost powers.




Zhang, Yue. “Steering Towards Growth: Symbolic Urban Preservation in Beijing, 1990-2005.” The Town Planning Review 79, no. 2/3 (2008): 187-208.

Meyer, Michael. “The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed.” St Michaels Publishing, 2008.

[1] Zhang, Yue. “Steering Towards Growth: Symbolic Urban Preservation in Beijing, 1990-2005.” The Town Planning Review 79, no. 2/3 (2008): 187-208.

[2] Ibid

[3] Meyer, Michael. “The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed.” St Michaels Publishing, 2008.

[4] Zhang, Yue. “Steering Towards Growth.”

[5] Ibid

Bushido: The Spirit of the Samurai as an Auto-ethnography

Mary Louis Pratt’s work Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation explores the idea of contact zones which are ‘social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power’ and the process of transculturation that can occur at these zones.[1] Transculturation refers to the process by which subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted to them by a dominant or metropolitan culture.[2] Transculturation is also a selective process, as the subjugated can determine the varying extents to which they absorb aspects of alien cultures. However, in Pratt’s work Asia remains relatively unexplored, meaning that the majority of her discussions of the contact zone remain largely confined to the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised. However, Japan arguably represents an interesting an unusual case for Pratt’s model of the contact zone; as a power that was not fully subjugated and was forced to resist imperial encroachment from the Western powers. One of the ways in which this process of encroachment was resisted was by modernisation which was accompanied by a degree of unwarranted transculturation. This process was not universally supported and debated amongst the ‘new men of Meiji Japan, who were concerned about the damage to Japanese culture caused by rapid westernisation.[3] However, Western encroachment was also resisted by the production works that publicised the modernity of the Japanese and their similarities to Western nations. A notable example of this can be seen in the association of popular western values within Japan’s past and the creation of literature designed to espouse the similarities between Japan and the West. These works were arguably auto-ethnographic in nature, by portraying themselves using the terms of the coloniser. Historians such as Karl Friday and Thomas Blackwood argued that the Bushidō that came to be popularised by government endorsement originated in the 1880s and 1890s. As Blackwood observes it has far more in common with Western ideas of gentlemanship, sportsmanship and ‘chivalrous masculinity’ than the medieval Japanese warrior ethos.[4] Nitobe’s work emphasised the importance of compassion, respect and honesty in Bushido to a far greater extent than older accounts.[5] It was not only written in English and but also explored numerous other indigenous traditions of Japan whilst citing European and American philosophers, including classics.[6] The writer of the introduction to its first edition, William Elliott Griffis, clearly identified the work as the solution of this century’s grandest problem – the reconciliation… of the East and the West’ clearly a recognition of the auto-ethnographic nature of the work.[7]

[1] Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, (London, 1992), p7.

[2] Ibid, p6.

[3] Kenneth Pyle, The New Generation in Meiji Japan, (Stanford, 1969), p190.

[4] Karl Friday, ‘Bushido or Bull? A Medieval Historian’s Perspective on the Imperial Army and the Japanese Warrior Tradition’ in The History Teacher, Volume 27, Number 3, May 1994, pages 339-349; Thomas Blackwood, ‘Bushidō Baseball? Three ‘Fathers’ and the Invention of a tradition’, Social Science Japan Journal, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Winter 2008), p229.

[5] Nitobe Inazo, Bushido: The Spirit of the Samurai, (New York, 1905).

[6] Ibid, p30.

[7] Ibid, p26.

Building, Making, Thinking – Heidegger, Bachelard and the Mingei movement.

Heidegger wrote Building Dwelling, Thinking in the wake of the housing crisis in Germany after World War Two. As an existentialist Hediegger’s primary focus was the study of being and more specifically in this work its relationship with building and dwelling, which he viewed as intrinsically linked. Using a brief lexicography into the gothic origins of the verb Bauen (to build), its relationship to Ich bin (I am – derived from the very sein: to be), and its origins as the gothic word for dwelling, Heidegger justifies his view that to dwell, is in essence to be or to exist.[1] Heidegger then continues to explain what is called the fourfold and its importance to the concept of dwelling as only by acknowledging this fourfold are humans capable of dwelling and only when capable of dwelling can we build.[2] He illustrates his point using the example of the black forest house to illustrate a building that was built with these ideas in mind. This is a nostalgic and arguably anachronistic view of both spaces and housing relies largely upon his own inherent belief in Gothic (and therefore Aryan) superiority as part of his background in the Nazi party.


In many ways the Heidegger’s work was similar to Bachelard’s phenomenological approach in the poetics of space. As Joan Ockman eloquently explained, ‘Bachelard’s evocation of the rustic abode in Champagne is almost exactly contemporary with Heidegger’s paean to the peasant hut in the Black Forest’.[3] Both Heidigger and Bachelard also disliked the ‘terrible urban reality that the twentieth century has instituted’.[4] However, unlike Heidegger, Bachelard’s dwelling is less about the space itself and the manner or reasons for which it was constructed, but a space that accommodates consciousness. The same was true of smaller objects within the house, like chests, drawers and cabinets.[5] Buildings and objects are thus shelters or dwellings for our thoughts.


The ideas of Phenomenology and existentialism in Heidegger and Bachelard’s work also have a number of parallels with east Asian philosophy, with Heidegger even being in dialogue with East Asian thinkers during his life.[6] Although these are sometimes assumed to be intrinsically different there are in fact numerous similarities with movements in East-Asia and ideas prominent in Bachelard and Heidegger’s phenomenology. The Mingei movement also celebrates the important of Zakki or miscellaneous things, such as ‘chests, plates and clothing’.[7] In his work, The Beauty of Everyday Things, Yanagi laments the ignorance to the importance of these everyday objects in modern Japanese society and the fact that, ‘their existence has been ignored in the flow of time’.[8] Through seeing beauty in the utilitarian nature of everyday objects, Yanagi evokes a similar feeling of importance in functionality that can be seen in Heidegger’s description of the Black-forest dwellings or bridges.

[1] Martin Heidegger, ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ from Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter, (New York, 1971)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Joan, Ockman, The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard, (review) in Hardvard Design Magazine, No. 6 Representations/Misrepresentations and Revaluations of Classic Books.

[4] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), pp120–121.

[5] Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space, (Boston, 1958), p74.

[6] Martin Heidegger, “A Dialogue on Language between a Japanese and an Inquirer,” in On the Way to Language (New York: Harper & Row, 1971).

[7] Yanagi Soetsu, The Beauty of Everyday Things, Trans Michael Brase, () p35.

[8] Ibid, p35.

Space, an everchanging landscape.

Gonda Yasunosuke’s approach to understanding Asakusa, an entertainment district in Tokyo, sought to portray it as an urban space under constant motion, an interpretation which he concluded would result in an inability to separate its individual parts as they represented Asakusa itself. [1] This brief summary implies a fluidity and flexibility to the understanding of this urban setting, an idea which is synonymous across multiple levels of space. For example, Sanam Luang, otherswise known as ‘The Royal Field’, a large open park in the centre of Bangkok, has served multiple meanings since its inception in 1782. The field was at first used as a cremation ground and a ceremonial rice field, before becoming a symbol of Westernisation and protest. [2]

It can, therefore, be seen that these two examples of urban space each possess a range of meanings and understandings. A diversity which raises questions over the definition of space itself, such as if it is a multi-layered concept, as the two examples suggest, or if it could be simply interpreted as having just one meaning or understanding. For example, could it not be argued that, if we examine space in one moment, a snapshot, it could be interpreted in just one way. Yet, in arguing this you ignore the complexities of space itself, historians themselves are yet to find an adequate universal definition for this concept. Instead, much like Yasunosuke’s description of Asakusa, it represents an idea of constant motion, where academics grapple to place socially constructed boundaries around spatial entities which are both mental and physical.

The Star Ferry Terminal in Hong Kong offers an interesting case study. From one perspective the ferry can be understood as a transport hub and a tourist attraction due to its colonial era design, and yet mentally as a space it represents much more. Following protests in the 1960’s the terminal became a symbol of anti-government protests, a meaning which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tried to diminish by demolishing the building in 2006. This in turn tied the building into a growing local identity within Hong Kong, which was developing as a reaction to the increasing influence of the CCP in the city, as well as helping to popularize the desire for the conservation of the city’s colonial legacies. [3]The Star Ferry Terminal, therefore, throughout out its life and beyond inhabited multiple levels of space, more often than not at the same time.

As urban historians we must acknowledge that space can be investigated beyond the traditional sense of the urban sphere, requiring the exploration of the local psyche as well as material aspects. Even then, it is not straight forward, for conflict arises in interpretation. Both the CCP and local Hong Kong residents differed on the importance of the Star Ferry Terminal, one side seeing the space as problematic, whilst the other saw it as a source of local pride. An answer to this difference can be found in the fact that space is defined by the eyes of its beholder, a statement which is seemingly confirmed when we explore Miriam Silverberg’s book, ‘Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times’. Her chapter entitled ‘Asakusa Eroticism’, highlights the multiple understandings and approaches undertaken by writers who were attempting to convey the meaning of this urban space. For example, whilst Gonda Yasunosuke focused on the importance of class division, Kawabata Yasunari used the colour palette of Soviet Constructivism to demonstrate his noir tale of Asakusa, tinged with eroticism. [4]

The difference of these two understandings represents a beauty which urban historians should delight in. Space it seems does not have just one meaning, a conclusion which is not problematic as this diversity is a gift in which historians can attempt to untangle the urban maze, unravelling ideas which may have implications beyond the topic under investigation. Post-colonial narratives particularly revel in this, as it offers them an avenue to dismantle traditionally European dominated discourses on colonial history, allowing agency to be placed within the hands of the colonised.

[1] Miriam Silverberg, Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times (California, 2012), p. 179.

[2] Koompong Noobanjong, ‘The Royal Field (Sanam Luang): Bangkok’s Polysemic Urban Palimpsest’ in Manish Chalana (ed.), Messy Urbanism: Understanding the “Other” Cities of Asia (Hong Kong, 2017), pp. 81-98.

[3] Carolyn Cartier, ‘Culture and the City: Hong Kong, 1997—2007’, China Review 8:1 (2008), p. 76.

[4] Silverberg, Grotesque Nonsense, p. 191.


Cartier, Carolyn, ‘Culture and the City: Hong Kong, 1997—2007’, China Review 8:1 (2008), pp. 59-83.

Noobanjong, Koompong, ‘The Royal Field (Sanam Luang): Bangkok’s Polysemic Urban Palimpsest’ in Manish Chalana (ed.), Messy Urbanism: Understanding the “Other” Cities of Asia (Hong Kong, 2017), pp. 81-98.

Silverberg, Miriam, Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times (California, 2012).

Domestic Work as a Civic Duty

Japanese homes underwent significant shifts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Such changes can be viewed through John Agnew’s conditions for a meaningful location where he emphasizes location, the physical point on a map, the locale, the setting which facilitates social bonds and sense of place, the emotional connection and associated memories. [1]Japan’s industrialization facilitated the development of collective privacy amongst the family and the idea of the ‘happy home’ amongst the middle and upper classes.[2] Meiji officials actively engaged with women, encouraging the cultivation of what Jordan Sand terms ‘the housewife’s laboratory’ as a necessary part of the Japanese ‘happy home’. By this, he means the professionalization of domestic housework for women who became nutrition, healthcare, and hygiene experts educated and trained to protect bourgeoise households against outside threats.[3]Thus, what John Agnew would see as the locale of middle-class Japanese homes is altered considerably during this period.  

The Meiji adjustments saw the rise of familial privacy meaning the ousting of people like laborers, maids, and other members of the household previously included in daily activities like cooking, cleaning, and overall production. As industrialization encouraged a separation of work and home life, the collective family’s privacy was important and thus the criteria for household members were redefined. This new household order placed the housewife in an all-seeing position wherthe household activities came under her purview. Thus, the state deployed the housewife as its agent advancing the state through her work and embedding her duties into a socio-economic context.

However, this shift laid the groundwork for a system where women’s care of her household went beyond familial bonds but a duty to the state, a view still supported in the 1940s. In the immediate post-war years, food was scarce, and the government encouraged women to be more economical than ever before, avoiding waste as much as possible. Magazines disseminating ideas of using all food materials, including items not normally consumed for example sweet potato stems, in new recipes were common.[4]Once again, housewives and their managerial skills took on a new value to help the state in caring for its citizens in a tumultuous period. Housewives were encouraged to waste nothing however upon the subsequent rise in economic growth, increased consumption saw these habits challenged. Once the so-called ‘consumption revolution’ in the 1950s and 60s took off, the state encouraged women to buy more goods for their families and homes and enjoy the benefits of the progress of Japan embodied in such commercialism.[5]  

The state’s emphasis on the household made women a vital tool for its agenda.  Repeatedly encouraging women to take control of their homes in what they deemed productive ways, Japan relied on women’s role as household managers to monitor households across the country. While this encouragement of household work largely limited female talents to the domestic sphere, the education which opened to educated women in such affairs facilitated social interactions with other women of similar means and provide a springboard future woman could use to branch off into different industries. Thus, while not ideal the seed for female expertise in a chosen field was planted and would develop over time. 

[1] Tim Cresswell,  Defining Place: a short introduction (Malden 2004), p. 7

[2] Itsuko Ozaki, ‘Society and Housing Form: Home‐Centredness in England vs. Family‐Centredness in Japan’, Journal of Historical Sociology  14 (2002)p.  341

[3] Jordan Sand, House and Home in Modern Japan: Architecture, Domestic Space and Bourgeoise Culture, 1880-1930 (Cambridge 2005), p. 55

[4] Eiko Maruko Siniawer, Waste: Consuming Postwar Japan (New York 2018), pp. 21-22

[5] Ibid., p. 46

Enframent and Resistance, Hong Kong in the 21st Century

Having recently read ‘Colonising Egypt’ by Timothy Mitchell, I couldn’t help but be drawn into his theory of enframent, which he used to address the place of colonialism within the critique of modernity. The idea of enframent is simple enough, it describes the process in which a container is placed upon a society, enframing the society’s inhabitants within new structures of power and order. The simplicity of this definition makes the theory incredibly versatile, enabling us to apply it beyond the colonial sphere. To prove this, I have chosen to explore the relationship between China and Hong Kong within the 21st century, a case study which details the complexities of enframent within the modern world.

     In recent times, when we think of Hong Kong and China, the first thing that tends to come to mind is civil unrest. Before the outbreak of Covid-19, news reports to do with these two entities were primarily dominated by ongoing protests which were caused by attempts to introduce a new extradition law to Hong Kong. Yet, between 2003 and 2009 more residents of Hong Kong identified themselves as Chinese citizens, than as citizens of a localized identity, begging the questions ‘How did this happen?’ and ‘Why did this change?’. [1]

     The answer to these questions I believe, rests in the importance of disciplinary power, an idea that Mitchell takes from Michel Foucault. [2] After the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, Hong Kong’s first Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, spoke of the need to make the city more Chinese. For example, advocating the need for civic education amongst the youth, stressing that it was important that they, ‘‘would have national pride as Chinese.’’ [3] This is important as patriotic education represents a soft policy, which could subtly regulate the power of thought and behaviour. Furthermore, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) government targeted the youth of the city through organising activities such as inviting mainland nationalist’s heroes to tour and perform in Hong Kong. [4] It is, therefore, clear that Chinese Communist Party (CCP) attempted in the early 2000’s to enframe the youth of Hong Kong through the introduction of disciplinary policies, which disseminated nationalist rhetoric.

     So where did this all go wrong? Marilynn Brewer suggests that Chinese integration policies failed to garner widespread support for the Chinese government. [5] Instead, within the transition period an ‘identity conflict’ arose, as Beijing was unable to strike a balance between differentiating Hong Kong identity and their desire to assimilate the city. For example, the demolition of the Star Ferry terminal in 2006 was seen by many as an attempt by the CCP to remove a symbol of protest from Hong Kong’s collective memory. [6] A decision which led to widespread protests and the development of a heritage conservation movement, which was clearly tied to concerns about the erasure of Hong Kong identity. These concerns can be found to date back as early as 2004 when 300 professionals, concerned that Hong Kong’s identity was being eroded, issued a declaration in the press to uphold values such as human rights and democracy. [7] It would, therefore, seem that disciplinary measures employed by the Chinese where not subtle enough, gradually pushing many Hong Kong residents towards a localised identity to combat the ‘mainlandisation’ (enframent) of the city. This is comparable to Mitchell’s descriptions of enframent policies in Egypt in the 1830’s, where disciplinary reforms, such as the reorganisation of the military and agriculture were met with large scale resistance as they were too overt. [8] Furthermore, Brewer believes that perceived threats towards Hong Kong were amplified by the depth of pre-existing regional identity within the city, leading inhabitants to become more inclined to respond to these threats with political resistance and conflict. [9]

     It, therefore, seems that although mainland China was initially able to begin enframing Hong Kong within the ideals of the CCP, these soon unravelled as the pace and intensity of disciplinary action became too overt. This in turn led to the development of a stronger local identity, setting the stage for the protest movements of 2014 and 2019.

[1] Yew Chiew Ping, Kwong Kin-ming, ‘Hong Kong Identity on the Rise’, Asian Survey 54:6 (2014), p. 1089.

[2] Disciplinary power is a mechanism of power that regulates the thought and behaviour of social actors through subtle means such as surveillance and through institutions (i.e. schools and the military).

[3] Ping, Kin-ming, ‘on the Rise’, p. 1089.

[4] Examples of these heroes are Yang Liwei, the first Chinese astronaut and medallists from 2004 and 2008 Olympic games. Ibid.

[5] Marilynn B. Brewer, ‘Multiple Identities and Identity Transition: Implications for Hong Kong’, International Journal of Intercultural Relations 23:2 (1999), p. 195.

[6] Carolyn Cartier, ‘Culture and the City: Hong Kong, 1997—2007’, China Review 8:1 (2008), p. 76.

[7] Ping, Kin-ming, ‘on the Rise’, pp. 1102-1103.

[8] Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt (Berkley, 1988), pp. 41-42.

[9] Brewer, ‘Identity Transition’, p. 196.


Brewer, Marilynn B., ‘Multiple Identities and Identity Transition: Implications for Hong Kong’, International Journal of Intercultural Relations 23:2 (1999), pp. 187-197.

Cartier, Carolyn, ‘Culture and the City: Hong Kong, 1997—2007’, China Review 8:1 (2008), pp. 59-83.

Mitchell, Timothy, Colonising Egypt (Berkley, 1988).

Ping, Yew Chiew, Kin-ming, Kwong, ‘Hong Kong Identity on the Rise’, Asian Survey 54:6 (2014), pp. 1088-1112.