Review: Urban Spaces and Cultural Imaginations in Contemporary Chinese Literature and Films of Beijing

Zheng, Yiran. (2016). Writing Beijing: Urban Spaces and Cultural Imaginations in Contemporary Chinese Literature and Films. Lanham MD: Lexington Books.

In recent years, the dialectic relationship between tradition and globalization has become even more visible in the urban spaces of Beijing. In the majority of news reports highlighting economic and cultural attractiveness of Beijing, we may find seemingly disconnected expressions, such as ‘greatness of imperial history’ and ‘rising center of global economy.’ This implies that there is a significant temporal gap taking place, and thereby, and points to the drastic urban transformation of the nation. Yiran Zheng’s recent book, Writing Beijing: Urban Spaces and Cultural Imaginations in Contemporary Chinese Literature and Films (2016), also acknowledges this presentation of Beijing. The conceptualization of Beijing as “the fusion of “traditional” Chinese city and a modern international metropolis” is one of the central themes that is constantly brought up in the book.

Writing Beijing (Zheng, 2016)

By this point, it is also important to note where all those urban spaces are located in the spatial structure of Beijing. According to the author, the area showing a concentration of typical Beijing buildings or courtyard houses is geographically located near the center of the city. Then, the next layer of architecture that loops outside the center is dominated by three to four story military compounds constructed under the guidance of Soviet experts. Thereafter, in the outer layer loop, there is new architecture and urban spaces that were built in the global era. Based on the three types of urban spaces identified above, the book largely consists of three parts: the first part focusing on military compounds (chapter 1,2,3), the second part concentrating on the typical building or courtyard house (chapter 4,5,6), and the third part exploring some examples of Beijing’s new architecture and urban spaces (chapter 7,8,9).

However, when considering the geographical map of Beijing and the structure of the chapters in the book together, Zheng does not fully explain why she organizes the three parts in such an order; namely, starting from military compounds to typical traditional Beijing housing, and ending with contemporary buildings. In the introduction, Zheng notes, “Beijing has been transformed from a traditional imperial capital city to a political center of communist China, then into a cosmopolitan metropolis (p. x).” The structure of the book does not seem to illuminate this transitional and changing character or flow of the city, but captures the configurations of the city in specific moments framed within the specific literary works. In that sense, to meet the author’s aim of this book, it is more persuasive to organize the parts and chapters in a geo-temporal order, moving from the central area of traditional housing to the outer area of contemporary buildings developed in present day China.

Each part of this book has three sections (chapters). In every first section, Zheng explores the architectural and spatial qualities of specific urban spaces. Then, Zheng discusses some representative writers and filmmakers in every second section, and finally in the third section, the author analyzes the configuration of the city in the literary works. Throughout the parts and chapters, Zheng uses different sources from different disciplines, such as urban studies, architecture, literature, cultural studies, history studies, and sociology. And Zheng also makes a balanced use of sources between foreign and Chinese authors. Zheng’s cross-disciplinary and cross-national use of sources is what makes this book interdisciplinary and allows it to retain a more balanced point of view.

In this study, the methodological framework is inspired by Lefebvre’s theorization of space. Lefebvre (1991), in his book The Production of Space (1991), proposed the spatial triad to understand the production of space and its embedded power relations. The triad divides space as: spatial practice (producing physical space), representations of space (conceived space), and representational space (lived space). According to Lefebvre, our spatial experience in space consists of these three interrelated elements (Lefebvre, 1991). Zheng specifically points to two of the spaces in this triad, representations of space and representational space, to formulate her methodology.

Within this framework, she emphasizes the intermediary role of artists (writers and filmmakers) between these two spaces. To be more specific, writers are influenced by urban spaces and architectures that are the “representations of space”, reflecting the ideology and expectations of designers. At the same time, writers and filmmakers respond to and reflect on those “representations of spaces” through their use of symbols, signs, and images in their literary productions. Thus, they create literary and filmic texts that refer to the space lived in by artists, “representational spaces”. However, except for brief explanations about the framework in the introduction and conclusion, the author actually does not conduct an extensive engagement with spatial theory, which she bases her work upon. It would have been more helpful if Zheng had continued to connect her discussion to her framework while discussing different type of urban spaces. By doing so, it would have been more apparent how the dialectic relationship between the three moments shown in Lefebvre’s spatial triad can be manifested and applied in this study as well.

Most interestingly, as noted in the beginning of the book, the concept of the coexistence of local and global in Beijing is an important issue for Zheng. This is clearly addressed when the author says that “the “ideal building” should be both modern and Chinese.” (p. 99). Zheng’s personal voice and position towards the relationship between the local and global in cityscape becomes especially prominent in Chapter 7, where Zheng discusses modern and postmodern architecture in the global era. These include the “three new symbolic architecture” in Beijing—National Centre for the Performing Arts (the Giant Egg), National Stadium (the Bird’s Nest), and CCTV New Main Building (the Gate).

In Chapter 7, Zheng is concerned about Beijing becoming “a common metropolis with no distinct cultures” (p. 91). According to Lefebvre, the urban spaces of Beijing produced within the context of global capital are Abstract Spaces, which are homogeneous and transparent, showing the orders and power hierarchies of capitalism (Lefebvre, 1991, pp. 50-51). The Abstract Spaces of these new contemporary buildings of Beijing are shown in their symbolic architecture marked with the dominant activities of the cities (Castells, 2005). The three new buildings mentioned above are examples of the symbolic architecture that Zheng criticizes for its disconnection from the surrounding local context and environment. In that sense, Zheng also demonstrates that these designs are not “Chinese” because they were built by “non-Chinese” designers, which I thought was a bit difficult to understand (p. 102). Although this may be partially true, the concern should not lie in the nationality of designers, but with the strategies used in incorporating this symbolic architecture within the local city at large.

The book is, in general, interdisciplinary in its approach and provides a broad socio-cultural and political context on urban issues of Beijing. In addition, the book is approachable because it does not use discipline-specific academic jargons and is written in an illustrative and descriptive manner. It is clear that Zheng wishes this book to be read by broad range of students and scholars who are interested in the city of Beijing. Zheng also achieves this by consistently and systematically reiterating the important points throughout the introduction, the beginning and at the end of each chapter, and the conclusion; the structure of the writing is easy to comprehend. Finally, the book is very narrative and poetic in that it smoothly introduces us to the artists’ world of imagination. Thus this book creates another “representational space” that is lived by its readers, who have or have not been to Beijing, and encourages them to engage with the mode of imagination of the urban spaces of Beijing.

Jeongwon Gim (University of Alberta)


Additional References

Lefebvre, H. (1991). The Production of Space. Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

Castells, M. (2005). Space of Flows, Space of Places: Materials for a Theory of Urbanism in the Information Age. In B. Sanyal (Ed.), Comparative Planning Cultures (pp. 45–63). New York: Routledge.

Robert Smithson Spiral Jetty by Tim Do

Tim Do, 2008: Spiral Jetty
Tim Do, 2008: Spiral Jetty

The Spiral Jetty, Utah – at low water.  Considered to be the central work of American sculptor Robert Smithson, is an earthwork sculpture constructed in 1970. Built of mud, salt crystals, basalt rocks, earth, and water on the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake near Rozel Point in Utah, it forms a 1500-foot long and 15-foot wide counterclockwise coil jutting from the shore of the lake.

At the time of its construction, the water level of the lake was unusually low because of a drought. Within a few years, the water level returned to normal and submerged the jetty for the next three decades. Due to a recent drought, the jetty re-emerged in 1999 and is now completely exposed. The lake level rose again during the spring of 2005 due to a near record-setting snowpack in the mountains and partially submerged the Jetty again (  We found this wonderful, rare photo in Tim Do’s blog and have taken the liberty of linking to it.

As an aesthetic response to land and place, late 20th century Environmental Art is due for a reappraisal in light of Indigenous ecophilosophies that provide a sacred and social framework for visceral relations between humans, land and the non-human.  Spiral Jetty has been invisible for much of its life in more ways that one.  These works are always a bit orphaned in Art Historical, Landscape Architecture and Environmental theory.  Environmental Art absolutely cries out to be put into a dialogue with Indigenous cultural frameworks that offer critical and contextual responses to land and place.

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

Part 2 of 2 – W.E.B. Du Bois and race in Brazil

From a Brazilian perspective, Du Bois work is of particular interest.  It’s interesting to find out that Du Bois was so attentive to science as a way to fight racism. Black movements (and many other minorities) sometimes are too attached to emotional sides of the process, such as pride and identity, but less attached to studies that would possibly promote dialogue and systemic changes.

Capitalism is a system based not only on inequalities but segregation.

Continue reading Part 2 of 2 – W.E.B. Du Bois and race in Brazil

DuBois: The Scholar Denied – a review in 2 parts

Morris, Aldon. 2015. The Scholar Denied: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology. University of California Press.  ISBN: 9780520960480

Aldon Morris’ book The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the birth of Modern Sociology demonstrates how Du Bois 1890s empirical and statistical research on black communities and classes in the United States was suppressed by a version of sociology developed by Robert Park and others of the Chicago School. Du Bois was the first black PhD graduate of Harvard University and went on to study history at Humboldt University, Berlin (1892-4) and followed the lectures of Max Weber and Gustav von Schmoller. He some of the conducted the first empirical and statistical social studies, notably his pioneering urban sociology, The Philadelphia Negro (1899). As Chair of the Department of Sociology (1897-1910) and organizer of the Atlanta University Conference for the Study of the Negro Problems, he edited annual volumes from 1902.  Du Bois hypothesized that sociological and economic factors were the main causes of racial inequality in the United States, anchored in white racial oppression not black inferiority. Du Bois argued that social analysis would reveal the truth of race dynamics and education of talented blacks would allow them to succeed and to articulate this truth across many fields as leaders in business, the media and politics. Du Bois’ sociology was a weapon of liberation.

Continue reading DuBois: The Scholar Denied – a review in 2 parts

Idea of Place: Midi Sprout demonstration

Midi Sprout & Plants Interactive Performance with Ipek Oskay, May 7, 11.45 am – 12.30 pm (Sunday Lunch Break) Venue:  Tory Building 1-105, Tory Building, University of Alberta Saskatchewan Drive NW Edmonton AB

Joe Patitucci (Data Garden), Panel Presentation in the session Recording, May 6, 9 am – 10:15  Venue: Tory Building Ground Floor Room #TBD, University of Alberta.


Data Garden creates immersive experiences through music and technology. They connect people to wonder through interactive works that encourage exploration and discovery. Begun as a record label releasing downloadable album codes printed on plantable seed paper, Data Garden has become a worldwide public art project building community and connection to living plants through art.

Midi Sprout is a product of Data Garden which allows sound media artists to use plants and other living things to control audio and video synthesizers in real time.

Listen to plants’ music and interact with the plants and listen to the music of interaction.

You can listen to one of Joe Patitucci’s works with MIDI Sprout here

MIDI Sprout Interactive Performance: Biofeedback to Music

Ipek Oskay (University of  Alberta)

Salvador da Bahia

As the first capital of Brazil in 1549 and one of the oldest colonial cities in the Americas, Salvador da Bahia is all about its heritage. The city is the result of the Portuguese colonization, the slave trade for almost 400 years and, of course, everything that comes from this bittersweet history.

Located in Bahia, in the northeastern region of the country, Salvador has many faces and titles – third largest city in Brazil (2017 pop. over 3 million with approx 4 million in the metropolitan area), Africa in America, part of the Caribbean, Home of Capoeira, Land of the Axé, UNESCO’s creative city for music, Carnival City, Bay of the Orixás, etc. However, even combined, all of these adjectives aren’t enough to capture the wild complexity of the city.

Salvador is known for its blended culture and religions, but also marked by its racial and class segregation. Both cases take us back to the city’s relation with Africa and the African diaspora. The port of Salvador was the door to one of the biggest slave markets in the world, and the African diaspora is an important factor in shaping the city’s spatial and cultural character.

Historic Centre of Salvador © Our Place The World Heritage Collection UNESCO

The multicultural factor is everywhere in the Bay of All Saints – food, languages, slangs, dances, rituals and many other moments in day to day life that mix the Yoruba, European and Brazilian cultures. From the Carnival in February or March to New Year’s Eve celebrations, the streets play an important role in Salvador’s routine, whether if it’s with the street food such as Acarajé, the tourism at the Historic Centre, the Carnival blocos, the trio elétrico followings, the Capoeira rodas, the Candomblé celebrations or the Catholic processions.

Continue reading Salvador da Bahia

Rating the Walkability of cities

Walking is not only one of the most natural activities the human being is able and willing to do, but also an activity whose effects have a profound impact on the public sphere, specifically on urban development. Since urban population growth made cities spread out until they reached a non-human scale, people living in urban areas switched from walking to using automobiles in order to travel long distances in less time. Therefore, urban design became more car-oriented than people-oriented, resulting in a poor integration of public space and the functional ways in which people use it. There is a concern that large urban areas where people travel more in cars than they do in public transport or alternative means of transportation are unsustainable. The planning agenda is therefore focusing on how to retrofit urban areas in order to facilitate and promote walking.

However, walking is not only a functional matter of urban mobility and transport; it is important to the improvement of peoples’ health and even the promotion of leisure. Planning approaches address walking both as a personal experience and choice, and as a public issue. When people decide to walk they are choosing a specific way to use the public space and to interact with the city, therefore their choice affects the city but also what happens in the city determines their experience at walking. As a result, there is an indivisible and double feedback loop between people walking and the city, and caring about walking is not just a matter of helping people individually but also contributing to improve public issues.

Walking is a spatial phenomenon. Thus the concept of walkability refers to the relation between spaces and the people who walk through them or, in other words, how does these socially-created spaces facilitate walking or not? Consequently, the chief issue of walkability is to determine what features of the public space, and specifically the streets, make a city more walkable. There is a wide research on the topic that suggests that walkability depends on the “friendliness” of the space, which includes connectivity, accessibility, functionality, safety, security, comfort, convenience and availability of pedestrian infrastructure.

As there are so many definitions of walkability and friendliness of space, there have been several attempts to condense the related concepts in one single approach, such as the Five C Approach that includes connectivity, comfort, convenience, conviviality and conspicuousness as the main characteristics to make a space walkable. There are many others approaches and definitions, but most of the aspects that can make a space walkable can be determined only by the people that actually use the space to walk. That is why the measuring or rating of walkability depends largely on the contributions of people and relies precious little on the estimations that can be done with the macro-scale variables of the city, such as the continuity of the grid or the level of mixture of land use.

The project that we are developing addresses walkability as a public and spatial issue, and engages people as the main source of data. We are trying to involve pedestrians in developing of a walkability rating tool that allows comparisons of the conditions for walking within and between different cities. This will help cities to realize what walkability related problems they have, and especially where these problems are located, so that infrastructure and walking spaces can be improved in favour of pedestrians. This project contributes to the common good on the sidewalks by collecting people’s opinions, and helping them create a local and global database about the pedestrian experience of cities — day and night, winter and summer — so that they can improve the quality of everyone’s daily walks.

Reading Laruelle 1 – a review in 3 parts

Alexander Galloway, Laruelle: Against the Digital.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2014.  ISBN 9780816692132

1. Against the digital as differentiation

I first read this book in one sitting of 7 hours but have divided this review as I wanted to extend my discussion of Galloway’s treatment of Deleuze.  This will appear as Part 2 of this review.  Alexander Galloway’s book Laruelle: Against the Digital presents 14 theses across 10 chapters that move from the inaccessible monolithic material oneness of the Real to a critical assessment of ‘analysis’ that is the hallmark of philosophy.  Philosophical elements, such as analysis, are presented under the label of the ‘Standard Approach’. Galloway argues that François Laruelle (From Decision to Heresy, Experiments in Non-Standard Thought. New York: Sequence. 2012) offers a realist or ‘Non-Standard Approach’ that foregrounds imminence and the a priori commonality of all being and thought as a general category of the undifferentiated, indifferent, or generic.  Being and thought go together and imply each other inseparably (cf. Heidegger).  Galloway insists he is not offering a book about Laruelle, but he closely follows the lines of his philosophical position.  The generic is the ‘analog’ that Galloway pits against the tradition of differentiation and division that underpins the digital 0-1 binary system.  Standard Approach philosophy is thus digital.  Lucretius, Spinoza, Deleuze, Althusser are important references for Galloway in Part Two of his book where he considers the politics and aesthetics of cybernetic control society, the aesthetics of darkness and light, and an ethics of the generic.

As mentioned, the most interesting aspects of the book for me are found in Galloway’s discussion of Deleuze’s Society of Control (see Part 2 of this review). However before he arrives at his discussion of Digital Capitalism, Galloway’s text moves through several labyrinthine chapters on analytical division, Laruelle’s critique of hermeneutics, dialectics and multiplicity, and the hierarchical temporal logic of the event.

“Laruelle is charting an exodus out of representation more generally. Thus, the true withdrawal from digital quality will lead to imminence, not analogy. The ultimate withdrawal from digital will lead to the generic” (89).

The Standard Model of philosophy is premised on the division of the One into two as an event and a decision.  It is both ontological and metaphysical.  The NonStandard Model does not permit either a hermeneutics that separates surface and depth, a structuralism that separates appearance and structure, not even a division of the digital and analog, nor critique based on some sort of external subject position that assesses an ignoble problem object.

Galloway takes the zero – one logic of today’s digital world as a logic of distinction, decision, difference, and division. He does not discuss other possible readings or understandings of this zero as a non-negative that cannot simply be contrasted against a one, meaning a particular or an entity. For example, contemporary mathematics often understands zero as exactly Laruelle’s undifferentiated whole that is an inclusive infinity or plenum that includes All.  My thought is that oneness is an eerie anticipation of quantum computing’s ‘all-at-once’ computation of a field of possibilities (an analogue space without time produced in only a single computational cycle).  It also points toward the possibility of a future social theory encounter with social diversity as an analogue phenomenon, variation rather than difference.  This entails an examination of the Janus – faced quality of the zero in the 01 binary logic,  This is one of the exciting opportunities that Galloway gestures toward (Chapter 4 and 5 of the book) but does not provide. However, it seems that Laruelle, and Galloway following him, argues for a focus on a meta-stasis of pure immanence that prevents any rational representation and analysis of being, except as the grand illusion of a divided world of subjects and objects.

…Part 2 follows.

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

The American Wall: Spatialization of Inequality

Laura Poitras, Academy Award winning Director of Citizenfour and others at Field of Vision stitched together 200000 Google satellite images to create Best of Luck with the Wall, a video of the US-Mexico border, where the American government proposes to build a wall to keep out Mexicans.

Over the last 15 years, Space and Culture has published multiple articles on the Mexico-US border as a division, a trade corridor and space of mobilities, a lived cultural experience, and as a liminal space betwixt and between the two countries.  These included Remembering Laredo (Mehnaaz Momen 2007), Road Signs on the Border (Lee Rodney 2011) and Speed and Space within a NAFTA Corridor (Jane Henrici 2002).

-Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

Review: Cities and Symbols

Nas, Peter J. M. (Ed.). (2011). Cities Full of Symbols: A Theory of Urban Space and Culture. Leiden, Netherlands: Leiden University Press. 303 pp. $52.50, ISBN 9789089641250.

Cities Full of Symbols is an edited collection that approaches the urban environment from the perspective of urban symbolic ecology. Set within the general field of urban studies, this perspec- tive is defined as “a major tendency” and new area of urban cultural anthropology, pursuing the study of “the cultural dimension of the city” by way of “establishing the distribution and the meanings of symbols and rituals in relation to cultivated surrounds.” The introduction traces the theoretical framework in correlation with a systematization of the symbolic aspects of the city into four categories of symbol bearers: material, discursive, iconic, and behavioral. The main body consists of 12 chapters, each following up selected aspects within a specific case study. The conclusion steers discussion toward a “codification of urban symbolism research,” putting forth the symbolic as a possible way toward “social cohesion.”

With its anthropological outlook, this book presents a stimulating contribution to the ongoing discourse on the urban—one of the most exciting aspects in the study of culture, where notions such as space and place, image, and identity, are subject to theorization by thinkers from diverse fields and lineages (social theory, urban studies, social and symbolic geography, philosophy, architecture). This current perspective posits “the city as a symbolic site” and confirms its symbolic structure as important part of its identity by way of examining its components within urban contexts that are highly heterogeneous in problematic and sociocultural formulation. Hence the reader will find studies on the efforts for national representation in postcolonial developing cities in Southeast Asia, such as Colombo or Jakarta, on the symbolism of urban components in estab- lished world cities such as New York, Buenos Aires, The Hague, as well as on the image con- struction and/or marketing of various towns also involving digital media techniques.

As stated in its self-definition, the theoretical scope of urban symbolic ecology is derived from several approaches. It is rooted in human ecology, furthering the description and analysis of the arrangement of social phenomena over urban space toward the aim of identifying types of symbolic patterns. It also employs Kevin Lynch’s (1960) method of combining “mental mapping” with interviews so as to understand how urban dwellers perceive and organize the urban landscape, and extends on the concepts of “identity” and “structure” by emphasizing the meaning aspects of urban elements. Furthermore, as part of a series of studies on urban symbolism, it focuses on semiotics and the processes of signification in the urban setting, including those of media as a means to constitute a virtual “hyper reality” layer of meaning.

The proposed categorization of symbol carriers bears potential in addressing the possible symbolic aspects of a city comprehensively. In this, the category “material carriers”—the “traditional terrain of urban symbolic ecology”—comprises monuments and other urban objects, as well as architecture, and is intended to “describe the meaning of the urban configuration in all its facets” by focusing on formal properties such as style and geometry. The “discursive” category entails “reflections on urban images and narratives,” and, along with literary sources, gives emphasis to websites as symbolic carriers. It allows drawing attention to computerized media as a self-standing source of signification, pointing to the suitability of this technology of image making for manipulation, and hence—for “the terrain of city branding and marketing.” “Behavioral” symbol carriers relate to urban activities and rituals such as mass celebrations or festivals involved in the city image formation. The category “iconic” is intended toward individuals or personalities with capacity to “represent a city,” highlighting elements that help posit a city as a “goal for pilgrimage,” “sacred or profane.”

The book as a whole genuinely fulfills its function of university publication, both in that it depicts a framework that is actually open and evolving and in that it allots substantial place to emerging researchers alongside renowned authors. Hence studies of the former group adhere more closely to the principal methodology, producing insightful and detailed field research and obtaining valuable data as to the “emic” accounts of meanings assigned to urban surrounds. Established social and cultural anthropologists on the other hand, engage on extending the approach, such as for instance, E. Durr’s inquiry into the workings of urban symbols within the complex mechanisms of collective memory and in correlation with conceptions from the broader field of thought on perception, mind, and memory. On the whole, the discussion of symbolic structures appears to be based on a “top-down” versus “bottom-up” dichotomy, in a way echoing De Certeau’s distinction between rational urbanist planning and the “tactics” that people who live these designs use to make sense. However, in a close up, the detailed research of various cases also yields evidence that would actually resist such clear-cut polarity, as well as the straight- forward classification presupposed by the concepts of “production” and “consumption” of urban symbolism. Hence, for instance, the status of some behavioral symbol carriers might come out to be rather ambiguous. In this, one might consider how festivals and religious rituals, though participatory in nature, are also organized/institutionalized urban events, while practices such as street painting that would begin as grassroots initiative come to be regularized through official poli- cies—ambiguities that would point toward more intricate theoretical/interpretative schemes.

Concerned with image formation and formulation of meanings, and presenting massive concrete research material, this book, in its own terms, brings into focus the symbolic as an aspect of the problematic links between the notions of identity and location. By observing buildings, objects, and practices, which present potent links with broader analytical frameworks, this book demonstrates how such elements act also as symbolic carriers. It provides grounds to involve the symbolic into the constitution of the theoretical tools that help us understand the processes whereby urban components are constructed, utilized, imagined and remembered. This symbolic perspective sheds light on the complex techniques and dynamics through which ideas, narratives, and spaces are produced, regulated, and acquire symbolic value, pointing to possibilities of generating, collectively, spaces of cultural belonging, association and solidarity.

Maya N. Öztürk, Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey