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Reviewed by:
  • China’s Urban Transition
  • Nils Mevenkamp (bio)
John Friedmann. China’s Urban Transition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005. xxv, 168 pp. Hardcover $57.00, ISBN 0–8166–4614–7. Paperback $18.95, ISBN 0–8166–4615–5.

Facing a growing body of case studies and empirically based analyses about recent change in China, it is sometimes difficult to get the general picture. Every now and then it is time to summarize and take a snapshot of the current standard of knowledge. Given the rapid changes China has undergone over the last decades this turns out to be a challenge, all the more if the resulting text, as John Friedmann claims, is “intended for students, scholars, and others, who are not China specialists but have an interest in understanding the recent past and who may seek a guide to the current literature” (p. x). China’s Urban Transition is by no means breaking news, but it is a masterpiece of filtering, compiling, and (re)interpreting the extensive literature. In his small book Friedmann gives a comprehensive introduction to China’s transformation that is both short and highly readable.

Friedmann aims at exploring the multiple dimensions of urbanization in China, focusing on the period of post-Mao market reform. His starting point, however, is embedded in Chinese history. The brief overview in chapter 1 begins with the deep impact of Confucianism on the emergence of cities in ancient times, causing the first Chinese urban settlements to be symbols of imperial authority rather than vital living spaces. Accordingly, later imperial cities such as Chang’an were built as walled compounds with predominantly administrative functions; trade was strictly regulated in closed markets and living conditions were highly regimented. It was not until the twelfth century that imperial cities such as Hankou or Kaifeng were opened for trade at all levels of urban society. In succession villagers were motivated to move from their place of native origin to the urban centers in order to seek their fortunes. In reference to Frederick W. Mote’s rural/urban continuum, Friedmann shows how our common picture of China as a rural society has emerged: the lack of corporate unity of late imperial urban centers and the rising exchange between village and cities give reason to look at the rural/urban divide as an interweaving of high- and low-density rural life. Urban culture, as far as it had been developed, was not bound to specific, well–defined urban spaces, but changed only gradually between city and countryside. In short, it is widely accepted that Chinese urban culture of the later imperial era was basically rural.

Civil society emerged not long before the end of the imperial era and had been quite active during the Republican period, creating urban identities in terms of a Western interpretation. Both were soon suppressed with the introduction of urbanization restraints under Mao’s regime. Turning “capitalist” cities into cities [End Page 98] of production without foreign investment required a high rate of savings, savings that were provided by the agricultural sector. Given the main elements of Maoist anti-urban politics, namely the reintroduction of the regimented order of ancient Chang’an in the form of urban work units (danwei), the implementation of the rural commune system, the restriction of urbanization with social infrastructure held to the barest minimum, and the regulation of potential labor flows into the cities, we are again willing to accept the common view of the People’s Republic after 1949 as being rural.

At the end of this first chapter, however, Friedmann proposes a shift in perspective. He refers to two aspects that have partly been overlooked in the past: the political and economic roles of cities both in symbolizing the power of the Chinese empire and in controlling rural life, along with the dense pattern of urban places at the end of the nineteenth century as described by G. William Skinner. While not denying village China and its role in making cities possible in the first place, Friedmann asks us to reimagine China’s history as an urban-based history. Of course, this shift in perspective does not alter history, but it turns out to...


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