Walking through China's Inner Cities: A View of History from Society's Lowest Rung

By Yan, Tian | Chinese Literature Today, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Walking through China's Inner Cities: A View of History from Society's Lowest Rung


Yan, Tian, Chinese Literature Today


Wang Di. Walking through China's Inner Cities: A View of History from Society's Lowest Rung. Nonfiction. Beijing. Qinghua University Press. 2013. 368 pages. 45 RMB. ISBN 9787302317562

Wang Di's new book, Walking through China's Inner Cities: A View of History from Society's Lowest Rung, published in August 2013, continues the reflections begun in his previous works, Street Culture: Chengdu's Public Space, Lower Class Population, and Local Politics, 1870-1930 (2003), and Tea House: A Microcosm of Chengdu's Public Life, 1900-1950 (2006), summarizing and deepening their findings, and continuing their micro-historical research method.

The book is divided into three parts: micro-historical research methods, mass cultural theory, and urban research practices. The first two sections expound upon the author's methodology and theory. The third section, however, analyzes specific cases, and also examines late Imperial and early modern China's bureaucratic gentry and local politics, teahouses and urban life, Sichuan's local culture, the struggles of the marginalized urban poor, the Xianhai Revolution and class relations, and the news media (The National Gazette) coverage of fringe politics, among other questions.

While it is evident that culture, politics, and lower-class relations remain the book's focal point, in comparison to Street Culture and Tea House's concentrated research (with "concentrated" referring to the description and analysis of a single issue, such as street culture or teahouse culture), this book presents a broader and deeper account, touching on many aspects of the lives of modern China's urban lower class. Using micro-historiography and mass cultural theory, Wang Di strives to unearth the true voice of the lowest rung of Chinese society and describe their microcosmic world in vivid images, thus recounting the history of Chinese society in its original form.

The book in its entirety presents the following characteristics: first, it establishes a micro-level perspective. As Wang Di suggests in the book, traditional historical studies are limited to macroscopic analysis and elite perspectives, which largely ignore the everyday lives of common people, excluding them from historical record and leaving history a solely elite discourse. As a result, microhistorical writings are indispensible. American anthropologist Clifford Geertz's theory of "thick description" is one kind of micro-level description, positing that from small actions or utterances it is possible to explore hidden cultural and symbolic significance and begin to decipher a society's "coding" systems and power structures. Beginning with Street Culture and Tea House, Wang Di has based his writings on the exploration of microcosms and microhistory. Walking through China's Inner Cities is undoubtedly the first extensive attempt at deciphering a large amount of historical data to unearth the voices of the weak and oppressed lower classes buried beneath the dust of history. …

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