Carolyn Cartier: Theoretical Territory

From imperial cities to local temples and common houses, Asian landscapes demonstrate discerning placements and diagnostic spatial practices whose symbolisms continue to inflect contemporary geographies. Among these, however, new cities in China would appear more often to challenge local history in favour of economic exuberance and global reach.

Where the rush to document increasingly urban China finds expansive extent, diversity of forms and proliferation of images, this talk suggests how portrayals of such maximal aesthetics bely the reality that defining the Chinese city remains under constitutional power to change state space through the administrative divisions or xingzheng quhua 行政区划 – from establishing new cities to merging and disappearing others.

The Chinese Communist Party has also evolved ‘model city’ programs that continue Mao era models used to idealize and implement socialist practices and political thought. In response, theoretical understandings of territory contribute to co-situating such apparently disparate lines of inquiry as the visual landscape and built environment, party-state governance and debates over the role of the state and the market in China’s ongoing transformation. In reflection on the unprecedented instantiation of the city as the intermediate echelon of state and society in China, this discussion makes a case for the pivotal role of historical state practices in China’s contemporary urban process.


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