Category Archives: China

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.

Washington-Moscow: A New Geopolitical Bilateralism?

Trump has emphasized the bilateral in his thinking and approach.  This is in contrast to the multilateral world of the globalization era that is now at an end.  This includes an end to multilateral trade in favour of a network of focused bilateral economic interactions.  As a thought experiment, imagine that a Trump United States seeks to align itself strategically with other powers, ie. with Russia, even against the interests of its citizens (henceforth expendable in the interests of a monarchic state) or past allies (inconvenient obligations).  In this vision, the US and Russia would be economically similar, as highly divided countries, rigidly ruled.

A US-Russia partition of global interests would be echoed regionally, suggesting balanced tensions between proxies in each arena that dominate international interactions, for example Israel-Syria in the Middle East.  Such states would seek to profit as not only proxies but champions for their respective sponsors in each competition.

However, what of China faced with this bilateral duopoly?  There are opportunities to innovate.  Perhaps China is the banker of this dialectic?  Closer China-India ties be a better strategy for both as it  may lay the basis for a future, post-carbon economic bloc.  India is otherwise too weak to influence the course of events.

As for Europe, it is now retired from the geopolitical stage as it is too internally divided.  2017 thus also marks the end of the long-duree of European colonialism.   The peripheral states produced by European empires as suppliers of raw materials, whether Australia, South Africa, Congo, Algeria, Brazil or Canada, become more unstable because tied to one of the duopolistic major players and held captive to what they are willing to pay.

Bilateralism would suggest rather different international institutions.  It certainly is not neoliberalism with its corresponding international institutions.  Promoting a reduction to market logics  seem to have destroyed civility, allowing tyranny to take root.

If such a thought experiment were to be realized, it would entail a massive forgetting of the 20th century and the lessons of the recent past.

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)



Pokémon Go – The Peoples’ Republic

Pokemon Go
Pokemon Go – Photo: Deng Ziru (CC 2016)

With the slicker interface and better users’ experience of Pokémon Go, the game is very popular in China as well. A great deal of students are getting over the wall so that they could have access to play Pokémon Go. Many young people, especially those who watched Pokémon and Digimon when they were young,are becoming addicted to it. They collect Pokémon eggs on their way to school, work, gym and so on. What’s more interesting is, since it’s now summer holiday,  many youth walk up and down at home to catch Pokémon eggs and they can rank top among all their friends on Werun (a step counting ap in Wechat) due to the steps at home.

Some of the Chinese players consider this game as a time killer and a way for recreation, some of them just play for networking, which means they can catch up with peer culture via this game. Some of them are aware of the game is boring but they just cannot stop because once they get into the game, they would be eager to collect all the Pokémon eggs. As a result, from many players’ perspective, Pokémon Go is more like a kind of collection game and social network game than a battle game.

Admittedly, with the fast pace of globalization and the transmission of information, there are lots of fans of Pokémon Go from all over the world and the share price of Nintendo increased dramatically these days. However, many people hold skeptical views of this game. First is the information security. The game needs our GPS location and other private information, which may cause the players’ personal data to leak out. Some traditional Chinese people even hold the opinion that the game as a Japanese martial plot, which may harm national interests. Secondly, what’s the meaning of the game? Some players feel it boring and have unloaded the game already. The trend changes everyday. How long can the popularity of Pokémon Go last?Let’s wait and see.

Ziru Deng (East China Normal University / University of Alberta)

Active Audience – Huimin Jin

Review: Active Audience: A New materialistic interpretation of a key concept in cultural studies, Huimin Jin. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag 2012. 179pp.

Why are Chinese scholars interested in active audience theories that hark back to the 1980s and 1990s? In an exchange in Active Audience, David Morley comments to author Huimin Jin, Prime Professor at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing:

“As I understand your argument, you are suggesting that we face a move from a ‘producer society’ to a ‘consumer society’, that the concept of the masses’ (as mobilized in the Frankfurt School’s work) is a characteristic of what you call a producer society and that popular culture is then, conversely, associated with the consumer society. From that premise, if I understand you rightly, you see ‘active audience theory’ as being to do with the extent to which, in this thing called the ‘consumer society’, people have more choices… I think that’s a problematic form of historical periodization and one which is characteristic of a certain type of sociological approach”

Imported in the wake of the reception of British Marxist Cultural Studies of the Birmingham School the core notion of the active audience emphasizes the independence of meaning from any authors intention as texts, images and film are received and reinterpreted in different contexts. Stuart Hall was a key figure in developing an “encoding/decoding model”. The idea comes out of the 1960s social psychology of Raymond Bauer who pitted the “obstinate audience” against simplistic sender-receiver models. On one hand, the active audience is an independent collective which does not respond in a mechanical manner to the explicit messages of mass media but always reflects, comments on and attempts to interpret messages. They “actively” decode messages and meanings. On the other hand, the resistance offered by the active audience has proved a poor buttress against imperial and commercial ambitions.

Jin follows David Morley’s model as a critique of the assumptions of the determinism of technologies and media and the passive, duped audiences often presented by Frankfurt School writers in their critiques of Nazi propaganda.  What is most fascinating about the book is its shift away from communication theory to consider the everyday context which shapes the reception of information.  In doing so, while carefully following Morley’s lead, the book is genuinely new in its use of Husserl’s phenomenology of the “lifeword” and a Heideggerian approach to being-in-the-world which emphasizes the ways people reflect on their world and make it meaningful for themselves.  Jin draws on his broad experience in German intellectual history to move from the discursive, which is generally involves abstract representations, to root the discussion in the real.  For me, this everyday reality, spans both the actual here-and-now “concrete” fabric of life and also its “virtual”, intangible elements such as trust, community and society that frame our understanding of communication.  This turn to everyday world and away from the pure context of texts or, for example, a television broadcast, reflects Prof. Jin’s status as the preeminent interpreter of Confucius in China today.


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