- Urban Communities, State, Spatial Order, and Modernity: Studies of Imperial and Republican Beijing in Perspective
A Historiographic Context
During the 1970s, new studies on urban China began to advance rapidly while scholars decisively abandoned Max Weber’s propositions about Chinese cities1 that had dominated the field. The first such systematic challenge to the Weberian approach, it is recalled, was led by G. William Skinner whose path-breaking studies2 were built on his earlier research work on the marketing and social structure in rural China.
Skinner refutes several basic Weberian assumptions about Chinese cities. One is that traditional Chinese cities were built neither on nor for trade but mainly served as residences of imperial viceroys.3 By re-presenting the medieval (the eighth through the thirteenth century) economic and urban revolution “discovered” by Denis Twitchett, Shiba Yoshinobu, Mark Elvin, and others4 in a new framework of “regional citification and urban systems” and by further extending the development of this regional pattern well into the Ming-Qing periods, Skinner puts Weberians on a defense position. Moving away from the Weberian Oriental-city typology, Skinner has brought attention to diversified city groups that, depending on their physiographic locations, occupied different positions in two overlapped but not identical hierarchical urban systems and spatial structures—one administrative and the other economical. Of the two, Skinner emphasizes the latter, which was non-state oriented and “reflected the ‘natural’ structure of Chinese society—a world of marketing and trading [End Page 1] systems, informal politics, and nested subcultures dominated by officials-outof- office, nonofficial gentry, and important merchants.”5 Also, Skinner adds, “administrative capitals were but a subset of economic central places.”6
Weber also claimed that since “[t]he urban resident in China normally belonged to his native rural community” and “legally belonged to his family and native village in which the temple of his ancestors stood and to which he conscientiously maintained affiliation,”7 it was hard for the Chinese urban dwellers to develop “oath-bound communities” that would fight to “attain autonomy.”8 While formulating his response, Skinner recognizes a reality that the traditional Chinese elite (gentry) “was by no means predominantly urban” and that in imperial Chinese cities the urban culture was not “comparable to that of the bourgeoisie in late medieval Europe or of the chōnin in Tokugawa Japan.” On the other hand, Skinner argues that there was a growing “merchant influence” in Chinese cities,9 which could be regarded as equivalent to the “bourgeois” culture of the “Occidental city.”
There is yet another obstacle to overcome before proving that Weber was wrong about urban communities in Chinese cities: Skinner needs to explain that Chinese merchants were not parochial and particularistic groups bounded by native-place ties. Indeed, Skinner has a different view: he sees native-place ties as a mobility strategy exploited by regional groups to facilitate their moving up to higher-level central places for professional career opportunities. As for monopolies maintained by native-place groups in handcraft industry or trade, Skinner considers them as regionally based specializations, or “an ethnic division of labor.”10 In short, native-place ties are viewed as practical and economical strategies rather than an essential Oriental cultural behavior.
To respond to the old generalizations that traditional Chinese cities lacked a complex urban social and spatial structure, Skinner draws attention to “a model of urban ecology” and points to the case of Qing Beijing where two nuclei in the city were formed: “[O]ne the center of merchant activity, the other the center of gentry and official activity.”11 The emergence of a merchant nucleus obviously paralleled a growing “merchant influence.”
To confront Weber’s claim that “there...