Useless to the State: "Social Problems" and Social Engineering in Nationalist Nanjing, 1927-1937

By Songster, E. Elena | Journal of Social History, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Useless to the State: "Social Problems" and Social Engineering in Nationalist Nanjing, 1927-1937


Songster, E. Elena, Journal of Social History


Useless to the State: "Social Problems" and Social Engineering in Nationalist Nanjing, 1927-1937. By Zwia Lipkin (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Asia Center, Harvard University Press, 2006. xxii plus 420 pp. $49.95).

Refugees, shantytown dwellers, rickshaw pullers, prostitutes, and beggars are the pillars of Zwia Lipkin's recent study of (mostly failed) Nationalist efforts to create an imagined model of a "modern" national capital in Nanjing, 1927-1937. By examining these actors and challenges to city and capital building, Lipkin contributes an important perspective to the tall and growing stack of China's urban histories. She argues through her case studies that a paucity of funds, a shortage of time, and a lack of appreciation for the massiveness of scale of these "problems" prevented government officials from even achieving the explicitly limited goal of cleaning up the city's image, let alone actually solving any of the causes of these "social problems." Such charismatic figures as Chen Bijun and Madame Ma, a mayor's wife, make some headway in shelter building, but overall these projects are misguided and unsuccessful. Lipkin does a great service to scholarship through her extensive effort to integrate these important yet under-represented voices into the mainstream narrative of Chinese history. In so doing she enhances our understanding, not only of these groups, but of this period of Chinese history as a whole.

In an effort to get to the stories, plight, and life of these groups that left few if any records of their own, Lipkin has perused, analyzed, and integrated an impressive amount of a wide array of sources including Chinese periodicals, missionary writings, Chinese and foreign governmental reports, local gazetteers, period books, blueprints, and photographs, that make each paragraph meaty and support a hundred pages of notes. Additionally she has both composed and compiled approximately fifty tables of data on some of these populations from which further studies of these groups could be spun. Through a skillful integration of all of these materials she has succeeded in bringing these voiceless groups to life. Indeed in parts of the book readers can almost hear the wailing of beggars and smell the stench of shanty towns. This victory, however, is but one step toward her greater goal--analyzing the process of creating a modern national capital in early twentieth-century China and how the officials at the center of this process viewed and dealt with all the people they tried to hide from view. Her book is as important for what it reveals about the perspectives of the government and capital builders as it is for expanding our knowledge of these specific subaltern elements of society.

Each of these struggling groups is linked by their common role as blights on the image of the modern capital that the Nationalist government was trying to create. Lipkin does an excellent job of dealing with each group and its associated governmental campaign, but does not clearly articulate why she focuses on these particular groups and excludes others from her book. Several times she mentions two governmental slogans that specifically referred to fortune telling, gambling, and opium smoking (as well as prostitution, which she does address), as Nanjing's main "social problems" in need of fixing. …

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