Cities in Motion: Interior, Coast, and Diaspora in Transnational China

By Oakes, Tim | The China Journal, January 2009 | Go to article overview

Cities in Motion: Interior, Coast, and Diaspora in Transnational China


Oakes, Tim, The China Journal


Cities in Motion: Interior, Coast, and Diaspora in Transnational China, edited by Sherman Cochrane and David Strand. Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 2007. 313 pp. US$25.00 (paperback).

Cities in Motion is a loose collection of essays exploring Chinese cities "not as stand alone entities but as the sites of enterprise and action that extend beyond city walls, city limits, and regional and national boundaries" (p. 2). Ostensibly, then, the volume examines early-twentieth-century China from the perspective of translocal and transnational urban networks and hierarchies, with a focus on the movements and flows of people and things along these networks and hierarchies. This topic puts the volume's editors, and several of its contributors, in direct conversation with the work of G. William Skinner and with the legacy of Skinner's work in China studies. Like Skinner before them, the editors and contributors to Cities in Motion are interested in how urban centers are linked to each other in networks and hierarchies not primarily defined by political-administrative relationships. Unlike Skinner, however, these authors find much local variation, contingency and ambiguity in analyzing the nature of urban networks and the flows that link them together.

Cities in Motion is thus positioned to weigh in on the surprising persistence of what we might refer to as the "Skinnerian paradigm" in China studies. Indeed, several chapters take Skinner's approach to task for being, as Brett Sheehan puts it in his chapter on Republican-era banking networks, "too simplistic and too rigid" (p. 83). Sheehan adds: "Local details and particularities are as important as meta-theories in understanding urban systems" (p. 83). Similarly, Elizabeth Sinn's chapter on Hong Kong's role in the repatriation of corpses between diaspora communities abroad and home places in China points up the role of Hong Kong as a significant outlier in Skinner's framework. Her chapter notes the important role played by transnational networks in China's urban system and how these networks defined "a very different spatiality from that examined by Skinner" (p. 251). Robert Weiler and C. Julia Huang's chapter on the transnational Compassion Relief movement offers a fascinating account of how "alternative religious spaces" influence urban networks. Playing off Skinner's use of central places in his models, Weiler and Huang ask what happens to our understanding of networks and hierarchies when central places are defined by charismatic, rather than economic or political, power. They find that "charisma creates its own kinds of centrality" which complicate the straightforward assumptions of Skinner's approach (p. 294).

Despite these important interventions, Cities in Motion is only loosely organized around the theme of interrogating Skinner's legacy. The editors have collected a broad array of empirical studies of movements within China's urban networks, but only those mentioned above address Skinner's models directly. Caroline Reeves examines the infusions of modernity into traditional burial practices in the treatment of corpses during the 1911 Revolution; Kristin Stapleton explores the impact of war on Republican urban administration; Allison Rottman looks at Communist recruitment in wartime Shanghai; Vimalin Rujivacharakul discusses the transnational contexts in which China's "heroic" urban architects emerged; Karl Gerth writes about the fusion of consumerism and nationalism in Shanghai's fashion industry; Klaus Mühlhahn looks at the role of prisons in establishing modern norms of urban administration in China; and Madeline Hsu explores the transnational norms of homeosociality among the bachelor communities of Chinese men in California. …

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