Urbanization Trends in China

Published October 2018
Location China
© Silvan Hagenbrock

Romance of Mirrored Flowers: Reflections on Places in China 镜花缘:感想中国之地

CITYMAKERS China – Germany guest editor ZHANG Zhen, research assistant in the field of architectural theory at RWTH Aachen, has been traveling in China recently. Here she reflects on a series of developments in city planning in China and on different aspects that shape the urban landscape, such as growing segregation of rich and poor, the competition of cities for tourists, the “branding” of cities and the subsequent pressure to develop fast and radically, the orchestration of nature through light & music shows, and the revival of Confucian ethics and traditional culture in society.

It is well known that the Chinese language is a highly poetic one. In traditional high culture, various literary genres from poems to songs left enjoyable narratives which turn verbal representations of natural phenomena and desirable objects into highly appreciable rhythmic moments. This tradition is also deeply embedded in folk culture through proverbs and through couplets which every family will hang on both sides of the door during Chinese New Year. This literary tradition has left its imprint in real places and characters such as elegance (雅), tranquility (静), or joy (乐) are often seen on plaques and inscribed boards at entrances of traditional houses or passages and pavilions in traditional gardens as expressions of longing for a certain mood or as a poetic highlight of the physical place itself. If one thinks that in the fast paced contemporary Chinese cities poetic expressions no longer have a place, one just has to set eyes on rows after rows of shop signs and advertisement boards as well as some residential communities with their names appearing on the top of high-rise residential buildings. In contrary to traditions in high culture where poetic words are used to highlight and glorify grand and fine moments, the poetic expressions of today often stand in contrast to the physical reality of the surroundings, almost like a longing for a certain utopia that exactly stands for what it is not, or like a hope and a dream towards something that offers comfort and an escape from reality.

Water, Light and Music – popular open air spectacle

However, it would be wrong to say that the overall creation of ambience in the cities only stays at the level of poetic words and imaginary concepts. In fact, the art of creating ambiences and making places, first and foremost at night, has reached the level of spectacle in selected areas of the cities.

The staging and orchestration of lakes and fountains with light projections and music create an impressive theatre. Water fountains open up and lower down with different speed and scale according to the rhythm of the music; light with soft and varying colours flows over the water and takes different forms – sometimes straightforward fountains, sometimes weak and shy, sometimes as fog. The most fascinating moments are when fog spreads slowly over the lake and clouds move above in the sky, both created through light projections. Overall, the scene gives a gentle and harmonious effect with music and elements orchestrated together at public spaces surrounded by shops and restaurants. Soft and cotton like, one can watch it for hours.

Growing segregation Rites and music (礼乐), as core concepts of Confucianism are emphasized again in society. The musical features of order, hierarchy and harmony are reflected in the social politics; this idea is further expressed in the national campaign of „Sweeping the black and removing the evil“ (扫黑除恶) that is being carried out since the beginning of 2018 in all provinces in China. Walking in the city, one often sees the windows of residential buildings facing the street being secured by metal grills from the ground floor to the top floors.

Although this phenomenon is nothing new, it reflects the fact that residents of non-gated communities also seem to have the need to be gated against criminal incidents. Perhaps with these grills and gates, the luckier and better off citizens can have a feeling of security, being separated from the bad, the poor, and the ugly. There is little sympathy towards the poor and the few beggars, as one can see from reactions of people, but rather disgust, dislike and disregard. The idea of justice greatly outbalances benevolence. It seems quite easy to lead a separated life in the cities, in a well-protected and well-off bubble. There is a saying in Chinese: what eyes do not see does not trouble the mind (眼不见心不烦). There is the tendency that, like elsewhere in the world, it is increasingly easy for certain citizens to live a beautiful life without even crossing roads with troubled others – sympathy and empathy are also gone.The separation of life spheres not only takes place in shopping areas, residential communities and urban quarters, but also in public transportation. Many cities in China have a separate train station for high speed trains. These new and bright train stations are characterized by orderliness and efficiency. The old train stations on the other hand take on an abandoned look and – from what I saw – are surrounded by high fences. With the establishment of new high speed stations in urban areas previously in the periphery, a new city with modern facilities, shopping areas, high-rise residential areas, new hotels, cultural facilities such as theatres, parks and museums is often established, and administrative institutions are moved to new governmental quarters. All in all, a brand new urban area emerges from scratch.

Rapid urbanisation to continue for some time

After decades of urbanization, there is no sign that this process would slow down in the near future. Radical urban renewal continues to take place; those who still lag behind must catch up. Following the development logic of global cities with the successful examples and experiences of first tier cities in China, highways, elevated roads, vertical transportation systems and metro lines are the tested and proven pulling forces which should come into existence first, followed by waves of new development and upgrading of various areas in the cities – big and ambitious everywhere.

In May 2018, a city brand evaluation and ranking list for 100 selected prefecture-level cities in China was released in trial (中国城市品牌评价); the list ranges from well-known cities like Suzhou, Wuxi und Zhuhai to lesser known cities such as Ji’an, Bijie and Linzhi. Every city in the list is ranked according to the City Brand Influence Index, fostering further competition among the chosen cities. Enhancing the city image and city branding are on the agenda to boost tourism development. Tourism is the key word. Books on the topic are increasingly seen on the shelves in the bookstores. With the “magnificent landscape national tourist annual pass“ (锦绣江山全国旅游年票) which costs only around 100 Yuan and grants card holders free entry into more than 1000 places of interest in 180 cities in China and the tendency of policy makers to develop rural areas with the focus on tourism, national and international tourism is the driving force for image building and at the same time its object. With this background, one can imagine a further wave of urban renewal and radical construction so that a welcoming and coherent city image can be achieved – from the arrival at the high speed train station through subway transportation and directly to the desired places of interest. The traveller follows a curated selection of tourism experiences in any city; if authentic relics are no longer there, new relics will be (re-)constructed. Although these phenomena are not unique in China, open air museums and theme villages are also on the rise.

Voices of citizens

There are various voices from the citizens concerning these ongoing ambitious urbanization plans: some are proud that their city finally gets developed too; some say that the only advantage will be an increase in job opportunities; and some are happy that the value of their apartment will rise; in fact, the real estate prices start rising as soon as the decision to construct a subway is made. First are the highways and subways to come, then development and renewal of urban areas, gentrification and tourism, admiring images and building images and imitating built images, the ways to get rich seem simple and ample.

But what does getting rich mean? Where do the rankings lead to? Take for example a scene of a coffee break of a family that I saw at a Starbucks: for 30 minutes, a child of 8 or 9 years was lectured by her mother to study hard, to respect and cherish the goodwill of the parents and to have ambitions in order to have a good future and wealth; meanwhile, the father sat lazily opposite, his eyes fixed on the screen of his mobile phone. Similar scenes take place more often than one might think. Here, another key Confucius idea shows its new relevance: filial piety (孝). It seems that the era when Confucius was criticized in China is completely forgotten together with the reasons for it. Once again Confucius is respected and studied. It is hard to say whether this is memorial, nostalgia or amnesia. I sense personally all three simultaneously.

Entertainment – looking back to the past

At the end of September, during the moon festival, I had the opportunity to see enjoyable moon worship performances in Han Dynasty style and hear readings of Confucius texts – not in small esoteric intellectual circles, but on big public stages and also on national TV.

It seemed as if the times never really changed. Ideas of enlightenment have always been a long way off on this side of the earth; only the families and the faces have shifted from dynasty to dynasty. I have ambiguous feelings: on the one hand, satisfaction and nostalgia to finally hear such classic works and heavenly tunes after so many years, which I greatly appreciate. Society turns again to studies of Chinese ancient civilization (国学); classical studies are booming. Dozens of small community reading rooms have been established, there is a new focus on culture and learning and things seem prosperous. This is all very well indeed. But do reflect. Does the recitation of Chinese ancient civilization (国学) and its core concepts equal real studies and understanding? Does rite (礼) lead to benevolence (仁)? Does the reemphasis of culture lead to reflection and independent judgement as in reflecting on oneself three times a day (吾日三省吾身)?During the moon festival performances ladies in traditional Han style costumes read classic poems with the theme of the moon and sang classic songs while on the other side of the park, people were enjoying a ride in rocking chairs wearing virtual reality glasses. Voices float over the park: Dancing to the clear shadow, how does it resemble the mundane world (起舞弄清影,何似在人间)?

The novel Romance of the Mirrored Flowers (镜花缘) came to my mind, in which the protagonists visit overseas countries and hear comments from people from other countries on matters which were taken for granted at the imperial court; in one story, in the gentlemen’s country (君子国), the traveling protagonists are confronted with questions from the local citizens such as why there was the practice to bind women’s feet although it causes great pain or why birds’ nests were considered such an expensive delicacy although they are worth nothing in other countries, and why hosts belonging to high society must, according to the hierarchies defined by the order of the polite society, follow certain images and give grand banquets at high costs and great waste… The mirrored images go on and on.


Sie ist wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin am Lehr- und Forschungsgebiet Architekturtheorie an der RWTH Aachen und ist Gastautorin für CITYMAKERS. Als Kuratorin der Ausstellung “Planetary Urbanism – the Transformative Power of Cities” im Deutschen Pavillon hat sie an der UN-Habitat III Konferenz in Quito, Ecuador, teilgenommen. Für ihrer Masterarbeit „Isle of Islay – Nature Observatory – Remembrance of a Forgotten Treaty between Man and Nature“ hat sie die besondere Auszeichnung zum BDA-SARP-Award erhalten und wurde für den Euregional Preis (EAP) nominiert. 2011-2013 war sie als Architektin bei von Gerkan, Marg und Partner Shanghai tätig. Als Architektin und internationale Projektkoordinatorin hat sie das Deutsch-Chinesische Haus auf der Weltausstellung 2010 in Shanghai mitrealisiert.