Villagizing the city

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Danjiang, Guizhou (T. Oakes photo, 2012)

I recently published an article about the town of Danjiang, in Guizhou Province, which, beginning in 2008, underwent a massive face-lift project to transform itself from an aspiring and urbanizing town into a village.  The article focuses on a theoretical question about how the transformation of urban space into a kind of heritage theme park might be viewed as a project of governing the behavior of the town’s residents.  But here I’ll discuss how Danjiang’s transformation can be viewed as part of a broader campaign throughout China to produce ‘civilized cities’ by creating new kinds of urban public spaces and new built environments.  Danjiang offers an interesting twist on this broader trend since its approach was not to produce a slick and shiny new urban landscape, but a deliberately rural-looking, and ethnic, urban environment instead.

Typically, the vision of a ‘civilized city’ for most municipal leaders in China is a vision of sleek and shiny skyscrapers, vast public squares with tidy shrubberies, trendy shopping malls, and plenty of room for everyone’s new cars to drive around in.  The city of Guangzhou’s new CBD, the ‘Pearl River New Town’ would be a good example of this vision:

PearlRiverNewTown

Pearl River New Town, Guangzhou (T. Oakes photo, 2013)

The sleek and shiny civilized city is often contrasted with the rural village, which for some city leaders represents backwardness, poverty, and even chaos.  Indeed, Pearl River New Town is an interesting example here, since it was built on land requisitioned from local villages.  As the city has spread outward, and these villages have lost their land, villagers have taken to earning their money through real estate instead of farming, building tenement flats where their houses used to stand, and renting these to the armies of migrant workers flooding into the city from other parts of China.  For municipal leaders, however, such ‘urban villages’, like Xiancun (below), are an eyesore and a blotch on their efforts to build a shiny new civilized city.  So they’re being demolished, though not without villagers in some cases putting up a fight.  Xiancun villagers have famously fought its demolition for years.

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Xiancun tenements, mostly abandoned now, awaiting demolition in Guangzhou’s Pearl River New Town (T. Oakes photo, 2016)

Danjiang is a small city – just a county town – in Southeast Guizhou.  Most of the population in the surrounding countryside is Miao (one of China’s 55 recognized minority groups) as is much of the town population as well.  While the town’s facelift project was in part an effort to lure tourists who travel from all over the world to experience Guizhou’s ethnic villages, it was also a recognition that Guizhou’s rural ethnic culture – as a tourist attraction and as a provincial ‘brand’ – is perhaps the region’s most viable route to achieving development and modernization.  Seen in this light, Danjiang’s villagizing project should not be that surprising.

Still, the rhetoric of ‘civilizing the city’ by villagizing it marks an important shift in the role of cities as symbolic landscapes in China.  As the anthropologist Uradyn Bulag once wrote in an article about the ‘municipalization’ of Inner Mongolia and the increasing Han Chinese presence there through urbanization, “cities [in China] are not supposed to be ethnic.”  Indeed, Danjiang was founded in the 18th century as a military garrison, one of several built to contain the ‘uncivilized’ Miao in the borderlands of Guizhou.  During the Socialist era under Mao’s leadership, towns like Danjiang were meant to symbolize the advancements of socialist modernity to the ‘less advanced’ minorities.  Their buildings were functionalist concrete blocks which contrasted sharply with the wooden and ornamented village houses of the Miao.  That the village has now become the model of a new route to ‘becoming civilized’ is thus somewhat ironic.

In our research, conducted with Colorado PhD student Yang Yang and the Guizhou sociologist Wu Xiaoping, we found that most of the residents in the town (the majority of whom were themselves Miao) were pretty indifferent about the villagizing project.  Some felt it a waste of money.  Some felt it to be a step backward, away from their idea of what a modern urban space should look like (i.e. sleek and shiny buildings).  Some genuinely liked it since it celebrated the Miao cultural heritage.  But for most, it was simply a government project that had little to do with them.  They had their own ideas about what being ‘civilized’ meant.  Here are some more images of the project:

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