Demolish the Walls, Rebuild the City: Infrastructural Transformation and the Emergence of Urban Governance in Republican Canton, China

Project: Research

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This project is an inquiry on socio-political and material transformations. By making sense of the efforts to rebuild the political system and to initiate social change through re-organizing space, this project seeks to reveal how socio-political transformation is made tangible and durable. It does so by taking an anthropological approach toward studying the historical development of urban governance in Canton (Guangzhou) in early twentieth-century (Republican period) China. Though Imperial China had had a history of walled cities, there was no urban administration until the Republican era when municipal governments emerged amid a dramatic reconfiguration of the socio-political landscape. Yet, the process through which the language, rationality and techniques of urban governance took root and took shape has not been fully explored in the existing literature. This project will develop a new approach to studying this transformation. It will place the infrastructural process—including such practices as building bridges and tramlines, and converting cemeteries into residential space—at the center of investigation. In the late imperial times, local social organizations were often responsible for building and maintaining streets and bridges. During the Republican period, infrastructural construction grew in scale and was increasingly centralized in the hands of a newly formed municipal government, whose staff often lacked the knowledge and skills to manage such construction projects. How did government officials develop technical and administrative expertise to manage the infrastructural projects? How in this process were political reasoning and capacity for such governing techniques as budgeting, taxation and planning developed, which led to the increase of infrastructural power? How did the government develop new forms of knowledge, skills and practices that shaped municipal governance? How did the reshaping of the built environment reconfigure social relations and power structure? To answer these questions, the proposed research takes theCanton Municipal Government Gazetteas the primary source of information and the primary object of scrutiny, supplemented with memoirs written by officials, local and foreign newspapers, maps, photos, interviews and field visits. The research draws on insights from the studies of the art of government and of material power in the social sciences to develop an innovative approach to urban transformation in Republican China. In addition, the research, which unravels a historical process with anthropological sensitivity, will enrich our understanding of the complex entanglement between infrastructure, infrastructural power and political order, and contribute to developing an analytical framework for the study of social and urban transformation. 


Project number9048142
Grant typeECS
Effective start/end date1/01/20 → …