To be published in IIAS-DSD Newsletter.

China has historically been culturally multivalent, with a heterogeneous range of cultures operating within the larger paradigm of the country as a whole. This tension is today best realized in the Chinese coastal metropolis Shanghai and the inland ‘northern capital’, Beijing, two cities equally convinced of their centrality, with systems of spatial organization that, in addition to being completely at odds with each other, ratify their own roles, and in so doing, offer two equally valid models for other Chinese cities (the so-called ‘second tier’ and ‘third tier’ cities) to follow. “Shanghai and Beijing seem to have similar urban symbolic resonance within China, as do Paris, London and New York in their national contexts1,” commented an urban planning scholar recently, missing the point that the centrality of Paris, London and New York is uncontested in their countries: all three are considered global cities, a role that isn’t truly accorded to any other cities within their respective countries. Beijing and Shanghai are both consciously jockeying for this global city status within a China that, still in the midst of finding its own version of modernity, has not yet crystallized around a single urban space. If China can truly become a ‘middle kingdom’, moving from the global periphery to the center, a spatial and cultural practice that is equally compelling to those of Western countries will have to be formed, echoing the logic developed in one of these two competing metropoles. The hugely different dynamics of Beijing and Shanghai, arising from very different cultural, geographic, and political factors, mean that the city which becomes the central, defining space of the new China will, in effect, have imposed its own spatial logic on the rest of the country; indeed, both cities seem to be attempting to do so. The spatial dynamics of the cities are not irrelevant to the nature of social relations within them; the architectural typologies express the configuration of the city as social space, the dominant types reflect a ‘deep structure’, making visible the ideology which constructed them.”It is the building… in which the ideology of all ‘imagined communities’ … is contained, materialized and symbolized,” writes Anthony King2, and this seems especially resonant in China, where contemporary architecture has reached its apogee.

Beijing, the political capital, is often given precedence in national discourses, controlled as those are by a centralizing state based in Beijing, which has both explicitly and implicitly used media, concentration of academic and cultural institutions, and language standardization that posit Beijing as the true ‘center’ of China3. For Hung Wu, the spiritual center of Beijing is Tiananmen Square4. The urban design of Beijing, concentric ring roads, would seem to suggest that in a cultural sense, all of Beijing is suburb to the Forbidden City, an impression that is equally apparent on subway maps, as shown in Fig. 1. Wu Hung writes that immediately after the 1949 revolution, the planner Chen Gan “identified the city’s traditional zero point… all other architectural features were subordinate to this absolute center, while reinforcing it5.” In fact, not only Beijing, but the entire country itself can be said, in the vision suggested by Beijing’s planners and officials, to be centered around Tiananmen, “a freestanding front [which] can thus have a large architectural complex- city or country- as its ‘metaphorical body6.” A China in which all roads lead to state power is one, necessarily, which revolves around the Forbidden City (or its contemporary equivalent, the Zhongnanhai complex directly adjacent to it). The continuity with the previous imperial tradition is clear; one may say that the slight shift from the Forbidden City to Zhongnanhai of absolute state power, ‘signified only the changing of leaders, not a new concept of leadership7,’ nor a new concept of the distribution of power throughout space. Whatever the ambitions of the revolutionaries of 1989, total power would still reside in the center of Beijing, a city incessantly described by textbooks, propaganda organs and even tourism bureaus to be a cosmic diagram, an astounding and bizarre claim8.

Clearly, this diagram is in the form of a gigantic altar surrounding a ‘gate of heavenly peace,’ to literally translate Tiananmen, designed primarily for the use of emperors, now claimed by their contemporary successors. Beijing envisions itself as culturally, because politically, central to China, a vision which itself defines culture as hierarchical, residing in closely-guarded legacies of the imperial past in the Palace Museum, Forbidden City, etc. This vision, demanding even the subversion of language for its realization, has no room forlocal dialects or ethnic difference, even representing the 56 ethnic groups with Han Chinese.9 This narrative crystallizes around the political space of the center of Beijing, and its realization requires its imposition and universal acceptance. This center, however, is strangely deserted, echoing Anne Querrien’s concept of the capital: “The center of the capital represents the political power by which it has subjugated its territory. This center, sporadically alive with the comings and goings of its representatives, is often apparently vacant… it is never the heart of metropolitan life10.”

Shanghai is another story altogether; it is a series of centers, having at least three zones in different areas understood by Shanghai residents as ‘downtown’11. To once more use Querrien’s terms, Shanghai “offers its own mode of space-time to those for whom the principles of a sovereign people and a nation state do not apply.” Shanghai’s gaze is, when not narcissistically directed at its own image, (which it is, and often: see figs. 3 and 4) is directed at the world outside of China. Shanghainese have no doubt about the privileged status of their city; if it doesn’t really rival Beijing in political terms, that’s because politics is Beijing’s game, and Shanghai isn’t playing. Though Shanghai, almost by definition, has no center like Tiananmen12, the Oriental Pearl Tower is as indicative of Shanghai’s spatial practices as Tiananmen is to Beijing; as with Tiananmen, it is both symbol and center of the city, a monument that has real social meaning as an organizing principle. If the square materializes the logic of collective gathering made monumental, the tower gives life to an entirely different logic of social organization. The tower, built for the broadcast of television signals, is clearly spectacular in its nature: as Jay Pridmore writes, “the oriental pearl TV tower… was Shanghai’s first attempt to create an instantly recognizable architectural signature. The building would serve not only for transmission, but as a centerpiece of Pudong13.” In addition to being central to the view of the Pudong New Area (an area that was largely unpopulated at the time of its construction- the building was thus meant to be viewed, on the opposite side of the river from the Puxi area in which the majority of residents live) it is itself a viewing tower. This triple function of spectacle- transmitting spectacle, enacting spectacle, enabling spectacle, exemplifies the language of Shanghai’s skyline. “Much of the admiration for Shanghai is based on visual evidence. Just look at Shanghai’s impressive and imposing skyline and the conclusion is obvious,14”, writes an economist; Shanghai’s baroque frippery is not a coincidence, but fundamental to the perception that it is the natural economic center of China. Shanghainese writers have noted the commercial character of the city; Wang Anyi writes about the Shanghai opera of the 1920s that “The singing resembled everyday conversation, and the subject was the bitterness of not having the necessities of life, such as rice and salt- a far cry from… Peking opera, consumed by lofty ideas such as loyalty and patriotism.15.”

It’s worth noting that the names of both cities denote their geographic positions; if Beijing defines itself as the capital of the north, Shanghai epitomizes the culmination of a different folkway and tradition, that of the water cities of the Yangtze river plain; the city’s name situates it on the upper reaches of the Huangpu river. Ranciere recently wrote of the chaotic populism of port life, “a disease that comes from the port, from the predominance of maritime enterprise governed entirely by profit and survival. Empirical politics, that is to say democracy, is identified with the maritime sovereignty of the lust for possession16.” This feeling is still present in the streets of the old quarters of Shanghai, for example in large swathes of the Huangpu and Hongkou districts, places that truly seem designed for communal living, daily rituals of buying and selling, chatting and living in a street whose role is situated between public and private. This is, of course, a democracy completely different from the one that elite students demonstrated in favor of in the Tiananmen Square that we have already seen in a symbolic space; as they never had their opportunity, it is impossible to say what sort of democracy they sought, but it is certainly not the situation of contemporary Shanghai: “The social ideal of the metropolis is a democracy in which citizens of various origins stand at an equal distance from each other… however, in its quest for a world market, the metropolis encourages a limitless economic expansionism which completely overrides this ideal.17” Indeed, the social mobility that is so often cast as vulgarity in Beijing is Shanghai’s most redeeming feature: as Wang Anyi wrote of a building on Shanghai’s Bund, “it was designed to look down over everything, impressing viewers with an air of tyrannical power. Fortunately, behind these magnificent buildings was an expanse of narrow streets and alleys that led to the longtang houses, whose spirit was democratic.” These same longtangs are now being demolished on the grounds of hygiene18, recalling Louis Chevalier’s remarks about the same process in Paris, “As for the filthiness, [they] were adapted to the imagined unhealthiness… that is, their own uncleanliness, which they were used to and even appreciated.”

The hygiene problem of Shanghai is perhaps less the bacteria that might germinate, but the ideas and men that may spring unplanned for from the lively backstreets of the city; the secret to the city’s famous economic vitality is the independent spirit that disturbs Beijing’s political vision so. For this view does not privilege politics, nor the sacred spaces of Beijing, in the least; the rules of the market here apply, where all distinctions of culture and tradition are valued at best as commodities to be sold (Fig. 4), which, while indisputably having given the city the kitschy veneer of a Fabergé egg, inadvertently helps to dismantle ancient structures of domination simply by carelessly failing to take account of them.

A recent book about Beijing, recounting the choice of the ill-starred OMA design for the CCTV tower, tells us that “the choice of such a spectacular and grandiose solution… was dictated by the explicit desire to compete with other metropolises, especially Beijing’s Chinese rivals of shanghai and Guangzhou.21” The fate of this tower may have convinced Beijing’s planners to leave the skyscrapers to the experts, as their own pompous claims to be the authentic source of Chinese culture literally exploded. As office workers set off fireworks in one of the buildings in the complex to celebrate Chinese New Year, the building caught on fire; the CCTV tower that was to be the spectacular centerpiece rivaling Shanghai’s TV tower remains unoccupied. However, Beijing has its own monumentality, which is just as grand if not grander as Shanghai’s: the point being that two completely different power structures are being monumentalized (Lefebvre quote about monumentality and the production of space here). The two cities spatial organization reveals two entirely different urban cultures, and at this point it would be presumptuous to claim that one or the other has proven dominant in the competition for global city status. It is clear, however, that whichever city becomes the central space of the Chinese imagination will bring its cultural, economic and social model along with it, and not only the monuments of that model.

For all these avowed differences, the two cities are, though locked into competition, in some respects mirror images of each other. Those who take the budget flight from Shanghai-Hongqiao to the old Beijing airport, stepping from the Shanghai metro into the taxi into the airplane into the taxi into the Beijing metro, may feel that they are somehow trapped inside the same labyrinthine form, one that contracts every year (as, for example, when the new speedy train link is built, making the cities only five hours apart by land). Though their spatial programmes are defined by their opposition to each other, this precisely makes them partners or twins, the subtle differences jarring because of their subtlety- the accent of subway announcements and strangers in restaurants, the greater humidity in the air of Shanghai, calling streets “Jie” instead of “Lu”. The truth is that the daily lives of the two cities resembles each other in a way that no other Chinese city can claim; they are worlds apart, but still unified by whatever mystical quality the Chinese government judges to be “first-tier” about them22. Their differences are significant, though: Beijing representing a China subjugated to state power, to urban planning that often disregards traditional neighborhoods, and to an ethnic nationalism (one, moreover, that proclaims local identities and dialects to be subversive of the national project); Shanghai representing a China that is dominated by foreign investment, characterized by greater ethnic diversity and openness to social progressivism, but which is perhaps compromised by a past and present relation to foreigners that seems uncomfortably colonial to many. The competition causes mutually felt tension, and citizens of the two cities (Chinese and expatriate), locked into competition, stereotype each other mercilessly; for Beijingers, Shanghainese are superficial, arrogant, obsessed with fashion, and lack culture; for Shanghai residents, Beijing seems drab, overly policed, dirty, poorly planned, and generally vulgar. The contrast between the two is crucial to China’s future– will it look like Shanghai, with its endless crowded shopping malls, visible foreign population, and economic dynamism? Or will it more resemble Beijing, with its homogenizing, nationalist vision of a China where academics, artists, and officials alike come to the capital? To ask where the de facto capital of China will be is to ask whether the future of China will be dominated by the state or by non-state economic actors. As Beijing’s Olympics brought the formidable power of the state to bear, Shanghai’s Expo today, built on a different economic structure of coalition between the city government, foreign investment and investment from state owned enterprises, reveals its own unique strengths. Both spectacles were primarily aimed at the domestic Chinese population, showing China its own cities, which have just recently taken on new forms as much as displaying itself to the outside world. The model that China is lurching towards is still uncertain, and the clashes between the metropolis and the capital stage the internal divisions for the world.


1. Arkaraprasertkul, Non. Debating Interdiscliplinarily, Debating Shanghai Urban Housing. Oxford University, 2010.

2. Greco, Claudio, and Carlo Santoro. Beijing: The New City. 1st ed. Milano, New York: Skira; Distributed in North America by Rizzoli International Publications, 2008.

3. Huang, Yasheng. Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics : Entrepreneurship and the State. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

4. King, Anthony D. Spaces of Global Cultures : Architecture Urbanism Identity. London: London : Routledge, 2004.

5. Querrien, Anne. The Metropolis and the Capital. Zone 1/2.New York:Urzone, 1986.

6. Rowe, Peter G. East Asia Modern : Shaping the Contemporary City. London: London : Reaktion, 2005.

7. Wang, Anyi. The Song of Everlasting Sorrow : A Novel of Shanghai, Weatherhead Books on Asia. New York ; Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2010.

8. Wu, Hung. Remaking Beijing : Tiananmen Square and the Creation of a Political Space. London: Reaktion, 2005.