Cities Surround the Countryside: Urban Aesthetics in Postsocialist China

Article excerpt

Cities Surround the Countryside: Urban Aesthetics in Postsocialist China, by Robin Visser. Durham: Duke University, 2010. ? + 362 pp. US$89.95 (hardcover), US$24.95 (paperback).

Robin Visser' s book is a fast-paced tour de force through the urban visual field that has exploded in China. Visser limits her focus to the 1990s, which she sees as the climax of the city's emergence as a literary and artistic subject, as opposed to the rural aesthetics still predominant in the 1980s. The selected focus on the 1990s is both the strength and the weakness of the book, since it reiterates an urban-rural dichotomy that has become more problematic in the first decade of the 21st century. This is particularly true of cities other than Beijing and Shanghai, the two which represent the backbone of the book.

The book is divided into three parts. In the first section, Visser focuses on the urban theorists, both intellectuals and practitioners, who have engaged with Chinese urban issues and contributed to the social critique of the ways in which the new cultural aesthetics inform urban governance. Topics covered include urban design, architecture and urban planning. In the second section, Visser focuses on representations of the city in film, art and literature, but her analysis is limited to Beijing and Shanghai: Beijing as a site of performing national identity, and Shanghai as an object of consumption. Here, Visser makes a strong argument against the theory that cities are progressively homogenized under globalization, and argues that Chinese urbanization produces unevenness due to distinct local urban histories and spatial configurations.

The Introduction, and even more so the Conclusion, echo Lu Xun's 1922 Preface to his first collection of short stories, "Outcry" (Nahan), in which he explained to his readers that he abandoned his medical education at Sendai to transform the spirit of his people through literature. Visser's research interests are likewise bora from trauma. Both her personal uprooting from an urban community into a suburban area and her first experience in China in 1989 informed her choice to concentrate on how capitalist urban development is changing Chinese culture from the inside. The outcome was probably worth her Lu Xun-esque resolution to give up her job at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and embark on a theoretical and empirical analysis of the placespace tension in China's urban aesthetics. Her thesis is that urban China is surrounding and annihilating the countryside and this radical change from "rural" to "urban" is deeply reflected in cultural manifestations as much as in the microand macro-economic data. Rural-to-urban migration will deliver 400 million new urbanités by 2020, and by 2030 there will be one billion Chinese living in cities. Chinese urban transformation is indeed both a domestic revolution and a worldhistorical event with global implications.

The choice of the book's title is vigorous and intriguing, but does not fully reflect the philological and historical value of the famous Maoist strategy developed at the time of the Jiangxi Soviet (1930). At the time, Mao Zedong's strategy did not prevail over Li Lisan's conviction that the true revolutionary class was the urban proletariat. However, Mao's guerrilla tactics were developed further in southern Jiangxi, and this ultimately led to the CCP victory in 1949. The power bases established in the countryside, where the enemy was weak, were crucial tactical elements for Mao's mobilization of the entire population: the countryside surrounded the city in the sense that the rural bases of warfare were turned into a military force which helped the CCP to seize political power. …