China is the most populous country in the world and, consequently, has the largest planning tasks involving urban-rural development, combined with an acute need for natural resource optimisation. So the direction its planners are taking is that which will affect the largest urban populations on Earth, and therefore the philosophy of their approach(es) is critically important to the philosophy of planning in general. China also has one of the largest arable land areas and some of the most rugged mountain terrain on the planet – some of which is home to sizable settlements. In this brief article we will discover that Chinese planning philosophy is a complex multifaceted matter that is inseperable from Chinese political philosophies: a pattern that matches in many ways the influence of the polis on the shape of the city in the West through history.
Predominantly – if a survey of professional and government articles about contemporary planning in China is a sound guide – the approach of Chinese planners is still now largely positivistic in philosophy, with a strong recent – and to significant extent historical – tendency to favour and retain quite traditional themes of nature-orientated garden-city (as much as is practicably possible given resource and economic constraints). It has resulted in contemporary planning approaches referred to by Remi Curien as hyper-functionalist (3). I suggest this is in keeping with multiple factors, including, but not limited to:
- Confucian and Communist Party bureaucratic influences and corresponding government policy
- Marxist dialectical materialism (an economic and resource orientated materialism specific to Marxist doctrine) and Maoist Materialism, both congruent with positivism
- Urgent and pressing resource optimisation problems, requiring statistically and scientifically informed solutions and planning input
- Significant historical and contemporary issues of isolation, regional poverty, and wealth disparity
- A cultural affinity for nature and a broad underlying naturalism rooted both in traditional Taoist and Buddhist thought, and in contemporary Marxist dialectical materialism and Marxist-Maoist scientific and materialist naturalism.
The Chinese, with their invention of rockets and explosives and many other technologies, did not experience a European style of scientific revolution in the cultural sense, both because they did not need to, and because in some sense they missed the opportunity due nationalist and imperial isolationism, but also due to internal political pressures resulting from from negative impositions of European powers. Firstly, having not experienced or inflicted upon themselves anything like the Dark Ages that the church inflicted upon Europe, their scholarship and libraries remained in tact (except for those destroyed or stolen by Japanese and European invaders). Secondly, most religious influences in China were naturalistic in their dispositions. There was a lot less dueling about metaphysical dualism (although metaphysical dualisms expressed in narratives about heaven and earth and the like certainly abounded): the largely European idea that there is a material world, and a supernatural one made of spooky stuff of some kind.
China has been under the influence of a broad naturalism in its politics and religion for much of its history. Importantly – historically and doctrinally, Chinese culture and religion arguably does not denigrate the philosophy and intellectual pursuits of human beings like theistic traditions are apt to do (although the anti-philosophical “empty philosophy” theological doctrines of Christianity are probably more acute than those of Judaism – just). Naturalism and the closeness of man to nature, and his access to wisdom inspired by it, are common themes in Taoism and Buddhism, and also in more secular Confucian thought.
However, China did arguably experience a kind of parallel cultural impediment to the dark ages in its own political and social construction in connection with the rule of imperial dynasties and dowager families that were frequently at war with each other. Chinese emperors and their families and retinues were housed – or cloistered – in imperial cities. Dowager Emperors of China did not have to engage with the Chinese people and connect with outside events in the same way as the monarchs of Europe – who had to be militarily and demographically aware for good reason (British Monarchs in particular ran a relatively high risk of being deposed and worse, historically speaking, due to social systems and the Catholic-Protestant divide, if nothing else). The common Chinese imperial aspiration of unification of China under one rule generally led to conflict. But this conception of unification was a national and imperial one – not a social one.
Imperial cities were designed very much with an emphasis on separating the internal space of the imperial from the dangers and chaos of the outside world. This exclusionary and elitist thinking influenced most planning philosophy in China prior to the Twentieth Century. Much like the castles of medieval Europe, the class system and separation of the masses from the elite was both imposed and represented by planning and architecture. In fact the feudal lords of Europe were generally more tolerant of the company of peasants and the public. In imperial China for a commoner to deny (or even see) an emperor – considered to be the son of heaven – could mean instant death. So this setting informed the traditional and first phase of planning philosophy in China: the philosophy of the traditional or walled city, with everything that its particular separation and partitioning of social spaces entailed.
The only exception to this narrative is due to the presence and power of the Confucian (and Taoist) bureaucrats. The story and philosophy of the traditional walled city is also part of the story and philosophy of Confucious and the Confucian bureaucrats, who were the arbiters of the relationship between the cloistered imperial and dowager families and the rest of the population:
The great Chinese philosopher argued for an ordered society founded on the concepts of ceremony, filial piety, loyalty, humaneness and gentlemanly behaviour. They are ethical principles and led to the layout of geometrically ordered cities on a north-south axis with dwellings facing south.
The best example of a Confucian city plan is the Forbidden City in Beijing. The earliest planned Chinese cities were in effect palace cities – the other buildings within the compound were a support structure for the imperial family. Regulated markets and residential quarters were later included with the walled grid layout. (Source: Garden Visit)
The bureaucrats, for most of Chinese history prior to the 20th century, controlled the interface between the imperial and dowager families and those that they ruled, and so the planning philosophy of the traditional walled city with its divided social spaces reflecting extreme classism was largely authored by them. Their authority and assumed role as the interface between imperial government and people continued unabated throughout most of imperial Chinese history:
From the perspective of organizational analysis today, it can be argued that the separation of officials from local staff that emerged in the Wei, Jin, Northern, and Southern Dynasties in Chinese history was a major institutional change in the personnel system of the Chinese bureaucracy. On the one hand, the convention of local elites serving as county magistrates gave way to the direct appointment of outside officials to fill these positions by the central government; on the other hand, there emerged distinct career paths, statuses and positions, and incentives between officials and local staff, and these paths diverged gradually over time and eventually became separated by a huge institutional divide. The separation of officials from local staff together with the institutional arrangements and organizational behavior incurred by this separation was a central feature of the Chinese bureaucracy, in sharp contrast with the Weberian bureaucracy. (Zhou, 260)
This largely all changed (although many bureaucratic and traditional structures associated with markets and social spaces were retained) with the deposing of the imperial Chinese family in the Maoist Communist revolutionary victory of 1949. Then it is fair to say that the philosophy of planning very much took a Marxist, then a Maoist turn. The integration of the masses with the government according to Socialist tenets was reflected in the planning and development of social spaces. The palaces of imperial cities were made into symbols of the imperial past and became effective museums. This continued until 1958, when the impositions of the cold war and the asymmetric warfare of the powerful united states and NATO allies forced the Maoists into the Cultural Revolution, resulting in a hiatus in most other projects.
More specifically in terms of political philosophy and history, the influence on planning in this era came from Mao’s Soviet-inspired First Five Year Plan. Mao’s primary objective was to achieve industrialism on a wide scale for Chinese self sufficiency, and as a result industrial output of the nation was the primary objective of the CCP. This meant that industrial scale development on a positivist and functionalist basis was the order of the day, and other considerations were not only secondary but even considered counter revolutionary. This was by default more than by philosophical intent or design with respect to planning itself. Prior to this, Mao’s focus had been rural, but his political and economic thinking became heavily influenced by not only Soviet politics but also by Soviet intelligence about the economic and military intentions of the West.
This industrially-driven phase was the inception of positivist functionalist planning philosophy, and although little consideration was given to aesthetics in the usual sense, living conditions for urban populations improved functionally and economically:
A good deal of China’s economic growth in the mid 1950s centred on urban, industrial and infrastructure projects. These works enhanced the quality of life for urban populations, whose numbers increased from 57 million to 100 million between 1949 and 1957. Life expectancy rose from 36 to 57 years, city housing standards improved and urban incomes increased by 40 per cent. Workplaces were organised on socialist principles; urban and industrial workers subsidised housing, medical care and educational facilities. Mao saw the political benefits of such improvements, saying in 1957 that “If China becomes prosperous, just like the standard of living in the Western world then [people] will not want revolution”. Yet despite these improvements the state continued to expand its influence over citizens. Life for urban Chinese was tightly regimented by way of danwei or work units. The danwei provided the basic structure for labour and controlled many aspects of everyday life, including accommodation, education and social services. People even had to consult their danwei in matters regarding to marriage, having children or travel.
After The Gang of Four were defeated a the end of the unfortunate and internecine cultural revolution (about 1962-72), urban planning philosophy of a more broad and considered variety began to develop, albeit with the emphasis continuing to be “focused to increase the percentage of blue-collar workers, create affordable housing, urban communes, work unit (danwei 单位), discrete enclosures, broad, central avenues and large squares and Soviet style exhibition halls. Examples include: Harbin (哈尔滨) or Харби́н (Kharbin) and Beijing (北京).” (Wikipedia)
Mao was an avid student of Marxist economics and political thought (although some of successors were not so much, and focused instead on Mao’s own teachings) and so the dialectical materialism of Marx – that discourse (way of speaking) and ideological orientation that emphasised the handling of material capital as central to all governmental and social dynamics – was directly influential in urban and city planning.
The great analytic philosopher Bertrand Russell once decried dialectical materialism thus (Why I am not a Communist):
Marx’s doctrine that all historical events have been motivated by class conflicts is a rash and untrue extension to world history of certain features prominent in England and France a hundred years ago. His belief that there is a cosmic force called Dialectical Materialism which governs human history independently of human volition, is mere mythology.
However, despite the salience and clarity of some of his other criticisms of Marx – and more of importantly Stalin’s ‘slave camp’ and Soviet bureaucracy – Russell may have been ungenerous to Marx (and by extension Mao – see On Contradiction) regarding to dialectical materialism, in a similar way to the way in which scholars think that his treatment of Meinong’s metaphysics (which to Russell’s chagrin regarded fictional entities as real) was somewhat precipitant.
It is certainly not the case that Mao thought material outcomes to be isolated from human volition, and it is arguable that Marx did not think this either. Perhaps the constantly growing skill and success of Communist planners is a testimony to both Confucian bureaucratic discipline and Marxist-Maoist theories of social governance, as well as Chinese cultural and intellectual flexibility exemplified by a willingness to learn from their enemies and political opponents. In any case, dialectical materialism is scientistic and positivistic, and so it is not unfair to assume that it influences the positivist-functionalist attributes of current themes in Chinese city and urban space planning philosophy to at least the extent that Maoist thought and the CCP still hold political power (which is a significant extent indeed).
What China did experience in the industrial revolution was chaos because of the impositions of Great Britain, Japan, France, and Russia. So 20th century impact of Marxist and Maoist communism was not only a revolution for planners, but in a significant sense the unsurprising (in political context) inception of a drive towards a coherent and unified approach, where previously provinces had been unified only by (albeit strong) culture and tradition.
The move to integrate more Western ideas of governance and planning (subsumed of course under Communist Party revision and vetting) grew gradually out of necessity after the cultural revolution due to the limitations on technological resources and the residual damage of internal and external conflict (Vietnam war). The story of urban planning from about 1972 to the late 1990s was largely one of heavily industrial-scale functionally-purposed positivism as influenced by earlier Western postwar trends, but mediated by naturalistic premises and ideas of natural-rural-urban integration.
Since the late 1990s, planning in China has become increasingly a matter of internal design and development, and Remi Curien sets the contemporary scene well:
In the three decades since the turning point in 1979 when China began to open up to the market and to the rest of the world, it has experienced double-digit growth and an unprecedented rate of urbanisation. The number of city dwellers stood at 190 million in 1979, representing 20% of the total population; today it stands at 700 million, or 52% of the population, (1) and the number of people living in Chinese cities swells by 15 to 20 million every year.Over the course of the next 15 years, the country’s cities are expected to welcome 300 million new inhabitants, (2) equalling the number of houses in the whole of Europe today; in other words, by 2030 there will be a billion urban inhabitants, and the urbanisation level will have risen to 68%. (3) Chinese cities have become powerful production and wealth creation machines. This phenomenal development has enabled China to become a major world power, and has paved the way for improved living standards for its population, although major social disparities do remain. However, it has also brought increasing pressure to bear on natural environment, and has led to major environmental damage, seriously compromising the quality of living conditions in China for the medium and long term,triggering major threats to the availability and sustainability of natural resources and to the health of the country’s population – and even its economy – and basically resulting in a critical situation today. (4) Given this context, in which the equation between accelerated development and urbanisation and protection of the environment has become an acute issue, the question of how cities are planned and built, which largely determines urban metabolism, is a strategic one that represents a major challenge to the state of the environment in China and across the world. (3, Abstract)
This is the scene as it stands, and this is the statement of the questions and challenges faced by Chinese urban planners. They have answered it with a planning philosophy that is increasingly a hybridisation of what in the West would be called positivist, fucntionalist, and constructivist ideas. The philosophy of planning is now governed by the objective to mitigate problems with pollution and social infrastructure by converging development and construction on the concept of the socially harmonious sustainable eco-city:
Two concepts were created with a view to forming the ultimate goal of urban development in China: yongxu chengshi (similar to the Western idea of a “sustainable city”) and hexie chengshi (“harmonious city,” a concept favoured and backed by the central authorities at the UN-Habitat World Urban Forum organised in Nanjing in 2008 (6) because they considered its focus on the idea of seeking social, environmental, and temporal balance and stability to be more deeply rooted in the Chinese way of thinking). A new urban planning law approved in 2008, the “Urban and Rural Planning Law” (chengxiang guihua fa), placed environmental questions at the heart of the aims and principles assigned to territorial planning: (7) careful use of land, improvement of the ecological environment, promotion of the rational and sparing use of energy and natural resources, protection of land suitable for cultivation and natural resources, etc. The environmental objective now also features prominently in urban planning documents at the municipal level,zongti guihua (“urban planning guidelines”), in which the essential principles to be adhered to are as follows: sparing use of land and resources, protection of the environment, high economic efficiency, and social harmony. (8) (Curien, 160-1)
So the contemporary philosophy of urban planning in China is quite sophisticated. It is still positivistic and industrially motivated, and the aforementioned corresponding functionalism is still the resulting mainstay philosophy, now as hyper-functionalism. However, included in this functionalism is a conception of the importance of function for the achievement of social harmony conceived of in both Maoist and Socialist terms, but also as informed by more constructivist modes of thinking that recognise the importance of aesthetics and comfort to the individual citizen (which is only fitting since Marx doctrine does in fact emphasise the growth and health of the individual as the objective of socialism to begin with). There is much criticism of the process internally as being too disconnected with the realities of urban life, but arguably this can be attributed to a robust internal set of political and bureaucratic accountability that is perhaps not so lacking as the sometimes politically and ideologically enthusiastic Western press would have us believe.
The history of the philosophy of planning has seen two themes retained since the establishment of the first Chinese dynasties: that of nature and naturalism, and that of harmony between nature and man. The idea of harmony in the established natural order as reflected in the nature of man is one that is familiar from Plato’s Republic and his theory of justice. However, it would be wrong to adduce this is the influence of the conception of harmony in Chinese religion and culture that persists now in scientistic, psychologistic, and social-scientific terms. The functionalist dual precept paradigm (social harmony plus eco-sustainability) of contemporary Chinese planning philosophy is very much a product of the culmination of what might be the most successful of communist-socialist projects in history (perhaps the only successful one, if Soviet achievements like the Lunakod Rovers are attributable to Stalinism more than Communism) and along history of naturalistic thought, with a Chinese propensity to flexibility and humility with respect to assiduous intellectual and technological advancement.
References and Bibliography
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- Tang, W.-S. (2000). Chinese Urban Planning at Fifty: An Assessment of the Planning Theory Literature. Journal of Planning Literature, 14(3), 347–366.
- Wang, J. W. X. (2015). Transition of Chinese urban-rural planning at the new-type urbanization stage. 中国建筑与土木工程前沿：英文版, 4(4), 341–343.
- Yu, L. (2008). Learning process of Chinese urban planning: the case of Xiamen’s City Comprehensive Plan. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 26(1), 229–242.
- Zhang, Z., & Spicer, A. (2014). “Leader, you first”: The everyday production of hierarchical space in a Chinese bureaucracy. Human Relations, 67(6), 739–762.
- Zhou, X. (2016). The separation of officials from local staff: The logic of the Empire and personnel management in the Chinese bureaucracy. Chinese Journal of Sociology, 2(2), 259–299.
Web Links of Interest: