Urban China: Work in Progress

Urban China magazine is a groundbreaking Chinese-language periodical about cities, architecture and urban issues.

Timezone 8 has published an English-language book called Urban China: Work in Progress, based on work from the magazine.

Below, with published with permission, is an excerpt from co-editor Brendan McGetrick’s introduction and an extract from the book.

The extract is about the role of family as a cultural and political organizing principle throughout Chinese history. It was written by Jiang Jun, the co-editor of the book and editor-in-chief of Urban China. Family is one of the the book’s three main themes (the others are village and education).

For more on the book, see this China Daily article.

Introduction to Urban China: Work in Progress

by Brendan McGetrick

For years, people around the world have strained to understand, emulate, and affect the modernization of China. It is an endeavor that unites scholars, merchants, missionaries, artists, and autocrats, each of whom can find in China’s social experiments the rationale for his or her personal vision.

In the last decade, the growth of Chinese cities has inspired architects to join in. Having missed the modernization of their home countries, these professors, students, and professionals see in China a second chance to test theories, make proposals (and money), and possibly save a developing country from urban trends that originated elsewhere but show signs of reaching apocalyptic proportions in the land of 1.3 billion. In a short period of time they have produced an impressive amount of stuff - buildings, books, conferences, reports, recriminations… all offered in good faith and executed with the inevitable bias of the outsider.

At this point, there is little need for more Western commentary on the Chinese condition. To advance understanding, Europeans and Americans must now turn to primary sources. We must commit ourselves to understanding China’s modernization on its own terms, not as the adoption of our way of life but as the continued evolution of theirs.

Since launching in 2005, Urban China magazine has explored the world’s fastest urbanization from the inside out. Through field work and historical research, consultations and commissions, an organization of Chinese architects has created one of the world’s most valuable social documents, a study of urban change that combines a planner’s perspective with a neighbor’s concern.

Unlike other architecture magazines, Urban China places buildings in the background, focusing instead on the cultural phenomena that trigger their creation and justify their destruction. By emphasizing urban concerns over architectural creations, it has established an intellectual space capable of accommodating any imaginable subject. Over the course of more than thirty issues, Urban China has taken up many of the 21st century’s most urgent issues, including migration (Urban China #16), manufacturing (#7), climate change (#21), creativity (#33), and disaster (#31).

This book is drawn primarily from three issues, Building a Socialist New Village (Urban China #12), The Chinese Family (#19), and Chinese Education (#22). The three were originally created to coincide with Documenta 12, each responding to one of the exhibition’s three key topics. Issue 12 responds to the question “Is modernity our antiquity?” by examining the New Village, a stacked concept that implies both historical continuity and radical change. Issue 19 offers a response to “What is bare life?” by reducing Chinese society to its most fundamental social unit, the family. Issue 22 answers “What is to be done?” by declaring education the most vital component of China’s remaining modernization.

Chinese Pedigree under the Impact of Modernization

by Jiang Jun


Family is the fundamental unit of human group living. The traditional Chinese family and its genealogy contributed not only to vertical lineages spanning dynasties and eras, they also expanded a network of family members and acquaintances horizontally, and even more, as a greatly cohesive but exclusive community of common interests and a highly autonomous intermediate organization, the Chinese family balanced the interests between the state and individuals. It is only within the oriental context that the concept of “State” (in Chinese 国家 or “State Family”) could take a form of “Family-Governed State” - a term that implies “regarding the country as a family” and governing all the people with family regulations and rituals prescribed by the royalty. Top-down power and commands, as well as bottom-up loyalty and obedience, progressively penetrated sectors everywhere from the superstructure to the social foundations, structuring a hierarchical system extending from the “state” to the “family”, and the “king” to the “minister”, the “father” to the “son”. In this sense, Chinese families performed beyond their basic function as simple group living units, eventually growing into a successive Chinese cultural tradition and an administrative pattern. On the basis of this “Isomorphic State-Family” structure, traditional China can be read as an ideal model of pre-modern society: it tied the interests of family and the state together, maintaining the competition and alliance between blood and political relations.

Conflicts of interest between the central government and local clans run throughout Chinese feudal history. During booming economy periods, family prosperity is proportional to the capacity of its vertical structure: those who successfully embedded their own family into the national power structure became a “famous family and celebrated clan” and used their privilege to serve family interests under the table. But once the regime was in crisis, the discrepancy between social ambitions - “Nourishing the world and benefiting the people” - and family obligations - “Flourish and glorify the ancestors and clans” - was exposed. Resignation and a return to their hometowns was preferred by government officials once they realized that it was beyond their abilities to save the country. Families and clans, tied together by blood, seemed far safer and more stable than the turbulent world of politics. Due to the blood-determined system of property ownership, as well as the custom of sharing wealth and space between generations (commonly referred to as “Four Generations under One Roof”), family values transmitted through rituals like “ancestor worship” and “extending the genealogical record” were bound to produce a highly cohesive and stable intermediate organization immune to historic fluctuations, as a result of the family’s common economic interests and cultural beliefs. This is exactly the base to which the traditional Chinese society could quickly conform itself in hard times of dynastic change.

However, this self-organizing ability was a double-edged sword. In chaotic situations when the local authority was weak administratively, the country would have to rely on the local family or clan powers to realize reintegration. At the same time, the country also made great efforts to prevent the local government from being “clanized”, assigning officials to positions far away from their hometowns to reduce the risk of conspiracy between local government and native clans. On the other hand, the country was not against local wealth congregation, which added to the importance of the family, as it was the basic unit for gathering wealth. This consequently enhanced family members’ angst over their shared “ancestral property” and their sense of responsibility to the interests of the “community of clan”.

Because the highly centralized power appeared oppositional to the localized wealth, a system called “Lian Zuo” was introduced as a tool to intimidate and punish clan power. By distributing guilt throughout a family, it made self-supervision within the family possible and decreased the likelihood of wealth-centered “clan power” over-expanding and posing a threat to imperial power. The dialectical relationship between the country and clan in Confucian society is precisely underlined by the country’s method of simultaneously taking of and precautions against clan power. This sort of spontaneous and autonomous administrative model formed the basic social structure of traditional Chinese society, and initiated a ceaseless self-motivated impulsion.

Intermediate Organizations

The traditional Chinese society is not only a “family centralized” but also “clan-oriented” society. In Isomorphic State-Family structured traditional China, the upgrading of production modes and increasing complexity of social relations could easily transform the cohesive force derived from blood relations of “sib”, “clan” or “phyle” into a rallying point of “locals”, effectively turning the domestic vertical lineages to parallel connections among clans, breaking the “vertical integration” of interpersonal relationships and establishing a geographic relationship beyond blood links and an intermediate organization above family or clan.

The Town Fellowship Association is a clear demonstration of how the patriarchal clan system developed into a geographic force. It collected individuals from the same hometown together into groups which, through their credential chains and relationship networks, integrated into commercial organizations (for instance, the Hakka associations of different origins and guilds of various industries) as well as governmental bureaucracy (like Shaoxing Shiye, which means pettifoggers from Shaoxing).

As a new type of social relationship, “the community of locals” inherited the effects of blood lineage but simultaneously diminished the assumption of lineage as the only possible type of social relationship. More importantly, the Town Fellowship Association extended the town fellow relationship outwards and created a competitive force against local organizations through its trans-regional trade channels, while driving the majority of its income flow backwards into its “hometown”.

Another derivative of the clan system were the “secret gangs” formed by brotherhood or master-apprentice relationships. These groups simulated the organizational system of clans by forging blood lineage through blood oaths and other rituals, establishing strict generational hierarchies with varying levels of intimacy, and participating in well-organized instructional and social collaborations. In this ambiguous area beyond governmental control, gangs could either subvert social security and harm the government’s interests or act as defenders once a consensus between themselves and the government had been reached. More over, in certain circumstances a gang could grow into an informal force strong enough to rival clan or state power.

The influence of the Town Fellowship Associations and “secret gangs” in encouraging local solidarity ensured self-protection in a completely foreign environment, thus producing unique and lively urban spaces such as Chinatown. The magic of Chinatown was not only in the wide distribution of settlements generated all over the global coastline through thousands of years of Chinese migration, but also in the ways that overseas Chinese communities organized themselves through the clan system inherited from their home country. It was this system that allowed them, without the benefit of governmental measures, to penetrate various sectors of local society, such as production, logistics, marketing and services and, on top of that, generated a self-sufficient “micro-society” supplementary to the local society. Despite being far way from the imperial power and remaining marginal within mainstream Chinese culture, these mini “states within states” maintained virtual connections to their “home country” and “hometown”. When the “Celestial Empire” entered its old age and imperialist treaties constantly violated and reshuffled the international order, the united forces of family, clan, and hometown quickly upgraded into a trans-regional national force. At the same time, they produced a number of secret associations which were infused with an inherited “clan-oriented” genetic code fundamental to Chinatown. These associations joined together with domestic revolutionary parties motivated by foreign ideologies, and eventually forged a unified power that shaped the future of China.

The Big Family of Socialism

As one of the most important instruments of pre-modern society, Chinese families built upon Confucian traditions and contributed many defining elements of modern society, such as stratified social morality and ethics, a strict family law system, high education rates, and stable cultural continuity. However, China’s administrative system, with its emphasis on blood relations and hierarchy, was at the same time a congenital defect that hindered technology and institution transformation. The top-down “patriarchal politics” and patrilineal principles made the decision making procedure a “monologue”. Advanced technologies could be kept only within the family and were forbidden to spread out. Clashes among clans and between clans and the government produced intertwined factions and nepotism inside the national superstructure. This development is not only the key factor associated with the change in ancient social relationships, but also a fatal obstacle to the process of Chinese modernization. This type of family structure had once been positive in the pre-modern society in which strict contractual restrictions were lacking. It was built on a system of “folk contracts” expressed orally. Even though this kind of credential could only work in certain circles, after relationships had been established, being an internal social relationship, it allowed secret operations and blocked the development of more open and free external relationships. The “May Fourth Movement”, waving a flag of nationalism, started to deconstruct “clan authority” and “patriarchy” and raised the curtain on Chinese modernization, but the ingrained “family style organization” ideology made it impossible to separate the local tradition from the development of modernization

The “socialist transformation” carried out by the Chinese Communist Party in 1950s was the biggest social reorganization carried out in 20th century China. It penetrated directly into every family. In the Land Reform, the whole society was re-divided according to family origins: peasants, workers, soldiers, and cadres were assigned to farm groups, factories, armies, and government offices. Danwei and the Community Association, being intermediate organizations used by the government to execute basic administration, replaced the exclusive force of influential families or clans. The traditional family lineage through family names was replaced by class lineage defined by the “origins”. Important decisions like who and when to marry were no longer made by parents but subject to upper organizations. Replacing the standard of “the perfect match” in marriage was a system which wed members of the Five Black Categories (landlords, rich-farmers, anti-revolutionists, bad influencers, and right wingers) to the Five Red Categories (soldiers, cadres, workers, poor peasants, middle and lower peasants) which aimed to dilute all “inherited” class origins. The concept of class established through “robbing the rich and helping the poor” during the war was turned into a set of exclusive hierarchical standards thereafter, and the vertical relationships of traditional Chinese society were superseded by “the great union of proletarians” aspiring to solidarity within a class and among different classes. As a result the three-dimensional Chinese family tree was and pressed into a flat “big family of socialism”.

The sequence of mass movements that followed the “socialist transformation” revealed the potential for large scale social integration hidden in the legalism of pre-Qin period. However, this new type of organization, catalyzed by radical modernization, still carried the genes of a clan-based society and “Family Governed State”. In fact the collectivism advocated by China’s new society virtually sustained the restrictions on individuals and absolute obedience to the collective that originated from Confucian society. If traditional China was regarded as a clan-oriented cell society, then the new society after the 1950s was a “Danwei-oriented” cell society. The country attached its citizen’s entire life to a Danwei through a system of household registration and food quota distribution. The Danwei, as a relatively independent unit of production and accounting, became the first “big collective family” to which individuals must subject themselves. Although it maintained a flattened horizontal relationship among members within the Danwei itself, since Danweis had to follow the national plan in terms of raw material provision, production, and circulation, modern business to business operations among various Danweis were very rare. This sort of large-scale horizontal separation was even more severe than that of “cellular” traditional society. During the cold war in the 1960s, the country had to apply a strategy of dispersion in industrial configuration and urban planning, which further intensified the cellularization: numerous individuals were distributed among different “self-sufficient” communes, industrial districts, and Danwei yards, which never communicated with each other throughout their existences.

The Danwei system is actually a hybrid of Soviet national authoritarianism and Chinese family-governed administration, or a management model with “a Confucian appearance and Legalist soul”. Although individuals had to unconditionally obey national planning and institutional arrangement, there was still model performers among the Party members in the basic organizations. It was through the altruistic values spread by them that the ‘Great Socialist Family’ transformed from traditional Chinese society upon which it was built.

Nuclear Family

In the traditional Chinese family, population was not only an element of passing on lineage through generations, but also a vital factor in labor production. This mentality originated from labor-intensive agriculture that had dominated Chinese civilization for thousands of years. Because more people can cultivate and manage more land, family became a unity of both material production and human procreation. In this kind of poorly socialized labor work, people were bound together with the land, and became part of the household’s productive force.

Furthermore, in the pre-modern society, which had little social welfare protection, more children meant more security for the parents’ old age. Based on this, the importance of human procreation far outweighed one’s individual preferences in marriage, thus marital customs that disregarded individual preferences proliferated, such as “prenatal betrothal”, “child marriage”, and “blind marriage”. Keeping “four generations living under one roof” and “offspring crowded in the hall” became important criteria for ensuring family prosperity.

The process of China’s modernization coincided with the emergence of horizontal collaborations and the socialization of production, as well as the rise of guilds, chambers of commerce, companies, and other intermediate organizations that served to shrink Chinese “big families”. Since the big families had passed the contract, interests, and production relation issues to national planning, they became meaningless as independent production units and communities of shared interest. Starting in the 1980s, even natural procreation within individual families was brought into the planning system, consequently producing a generation of “standard families” with a minimal family population.

Just as in ancient China when the emperor built memorial archways outside of the homes of those who strictly abided by Confucian morality, the government in new times promoted its new fertility agenda by honoring “Five Virtues Families” and setting up models for the 421 family that was coming into being. The traditional Chinese family pyramid was reversed to an inverted pyramid, while the kindred lineage of a family was condensed into a single lineal consanguinity with the collateral line gradually withering away. After 1990s, when a great number of national enterprises went bankrupt one after another, the workers who “took the factory as their home” realized that their life-long contracts with the Danwei had been sold outright overnight. Hundreds of thousands of people became unemployed and wandered in a collective sense of loss; the huge tree of “the big Danwei family” collapsed, dispersing resident monkeys everywhere. As the localized Danwei system was taken over by trans-regional free employment, even the nuclear family lost its basic stability: hundreds of millions migrants produced more fragmented “separated families,” “concubine families,” “divorced families,” and so on…

The deconstruction process of the “big family” is also the deconstruction process of pre-modern social organization. Although in the time of Collectivism, the cell society and communities of acquaintance within the Great Socialist Family left some space to substitute the “big family,” it hardly left enough room for the up coming market economy, transferring autonomy gradually downwards with more socialized production. When the traditional structure has been broken and the mode of national planning is no longer sustainable, what kind of organizational measures can the new society provide to save the more and more fragmented family and interpersonal relationships? If “pedigree” and “household registration” are no longer valid, can a western approach to modernization be applied to an oriental context to help reorganize the social bases that currently constitute “a mass of loose sand”?


Modernization having destroyed the traditional organizations on which minority groups depend and the new society having not yet built up a relevant social welfare system, individuals that are unable to live independently now must turn backwards to a patriarchal clan system for help and self-protection. At the same time the contractual foundation and legal environment on which modernization relies is not comprehensive, thus essential components of the pre-modern clan system, such as “human rule,” “personal favors,” and “guanxi,” remain active in government and enterprises, and as a result have produced an unsaturated modernization with strong Chinese characteristics.

This “desaturation” of Chinese modernization can be seen as a reaction against the modernization process derived from the strong inertia of the thousand-year-long clan system. In the government, it appears in the monologues painted in patriarchal tones and the privileged “Crown Prince Party,” a product of the entrenched nepotism on all levels of government. In commercial enterprises, it takes the shape of “couple-managed businesses” and “family enterprises” applying familial employment relationships and designating “successors”. Management is similar “clanized” even in state-owned enterprises. In folk society, traditional clan organization has resulted in the formation of groups like “The Wenzhou Gang” - a group of real estate speculators coming from Wenzhou - and “The Chongqing Bang-Bang Army” - a crew of porters working in the mountain city Chongqing - both of which are mass organizations having considerable impact upon the city. There are also contractors who operate as 21st century squires, organizing their hometown farmers into construction teams…

China’s fundamental condition is precisely represented by the clash between patriarchy and modernity in different organizations, and the extensive infiltration of unofficial institutions into the official ones. Patriarchy provided a credit mechanism without expensive and complicated contractual procedures, and thus hindered the establishment of such a legal contract system. It is certain that until a healthy legal system, social security, and basic administration systems are well established, this kind of unofficial organizational mechanism will continue to exist like a phantom. The current modernization process in China will inevitably have to constructively integrate “pre-modernity,” which might lead to a more localized and more culturally contextual Confucian modernity.

“The Chinese Family” is the response of Urban China to the second topic of Documenta 12 - “What is bare life?” - considered from a typical Chinese context. The almost old-fashion, stereotyped paradox of the modern family states that when all family members seem to have more choices, the resulting decline in affection and strength of marriage causes the clan to lose its roots and become more fragmented, making each member live separated, in a form of virtual homelessness that eventually causes the family to lose power as a whole. Although having an exceptional heritage of family ethical traditions, we are facing the same global dilemma and its resulting problems: domestic abuse, extramarital affairs, feminism, divorce rate and population age imbalance, etc. At the same time, we are also interested in the formation of the traditional united force of Chinese family in the modern context, hoping to see this historical heritage transform into a constructive force for the future along with the process of Chinese systemic transition. In the flush of modernization, the Chinese family will become a mirror of modernization per se and, through various unprecedented variants, disclose how the fiercest revolution ever in human history impacts every one of us, forces us to reconsider ourselves, our families, and its history and, most importantly in this era of individualism, how to rebuild the traditions of ancestor worship and kindred affections of which the Chinese family was once so proud.

Translation: Zhu Fei & Mee Michelle Liu (Beijing)


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