Cities Surround The Countryside

Urban Aesthetics in Postsocialist China

Cities Surround The Countryside

Book Pages: 376 Illustrations: 53 illustrations Published: April 2010

Author: Robin Visser

Asian Studies > East Asia, Geography, Sociology > Urban Studies

Denounced as parasitical under Chairman Mao and devalued by the norms of traditional Chinese ethics, the city now functions as a site of individual and collective identity in China. Cities envelop the countryside, not only geographically and demographically but also in terms of cultural impact. Robin Visser illuminates the cultural dynamics of three decades of radical urban development in China. Interpreting fiction, cinema, visual art, architecture, and urban design, she analyzes how the aesthetics of the urban environment have shaped the emotions and behavior of people and cultures, and how individual and collective images of and practices in the city have produced urban aesthetics. By relating the built environment to culture, Visser situates postsocialist Chinese urban aesthetics within local and global economic and intellectual trends.

In the 1980s, writers, filmmakers, and artists began to probe the contradictions in China’s urbanization policies and rhetoric. Powerful neorealist fiction, cinema, documentaries, paintings, photographs, performances, and installations contrasted forms of glittering urban renewal with the government’s inattention to a livable urban infrastructure. Narratives and images depicting the melancholy urban subject came to illustrate ethical quandaries raised by urban life. Visser relates her analysis of this art to major transformations in urban planning under global neoliberalism, to the development of cultural studies in the Chinese academy, and to ways that specific cities, particularly Beijing and Shanghai, figure in the cultural imagination. Despite the environmental and cultural destruction caused by China’s neoliberal policies, Visser argues for the emergence of a new urban self-awareness, one that offers creative resolutions for the dilemmas of urbanism through new forms of intellectual engagement in society and nascent forms of civic governance.


“In Cities Surround the Countryside, Visser does an excellent job of demonstrating that coordinated analysis of various dimensions of urban experience is a profitable way to read cultural texts. . . . The importance of the collective contribution of this research, though, is a product of the present moment, when Chinese urban development continues at break-neck pace despite pointed questions . . . about the wisdom of moving quite so fast. . . . Chinese artists, writers, and intellectuals will continue to respond to these developments in rich, creative, and perhaps even politically potent ways. Fortunately, we have books like this one to take full account of such creativity and to thoroughly (as much as is possible) contextualize it.” — Paul Manfredi, Modern Chinese Literature and Culture

“One of the strengths of Visser’s analysis of urban culture is its ability to situate China’s transformation within imbricated global processes, including the new global imaginaries tethered to urban revolution.... This turn beyond the national is a key element of postsocialist aesthetics. In this context, issues related to global sustainability emerge as key concerns for critics, theorists and practitioners who increasingly recognize the importance of Chinese cities for regional and global futures.” — Joshua Neves, Reviews in Cultural Theory

“Robin Visser's book is a fast-paced tour de force through the urban visual field that has exploded in China. . . . The interdisciplinary methodology is innovative and makes the book useful to scholars of urban studies, literary criticism and cultural theory. . . . The major contribution of Visser's book is ultimately her ability to offer an aesthetic perspective that complements the growing historical and sociological studies on urban China.”
— Maurizio Marinelli, The China Journal

“So clear in its aims and expression, [Cities Surround the Countryside] would make a fantastic textbook for undergraduates or provide a more casual reader on China with a fabulous survey of an emerging post-socialist aesthetic. To students of globalisation, it offers an invaluable account of the way that neoliberal economics produces certain modes of subjectivity.” — Darren Jorgensen, Media International Australia

“Visser has given us an invaluable tour of territory that has not previously been charted, certainly not in English. She reminds us that massive urbanization has correspondingly large effects on national culture, and has provided a survey of the ideas of those who are most articulately registering those effects.” — Richard Harris, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research

“[A] timely and valuable study. . . . [It] will be an indispensable guide for students and scholars of contemporary Chinese urban culture.” — Andrew Jones, Journal of Asian Studies

“[I]lluminating and rich in material. . . . Visser’s account of changing urban planning, especially the aesthetics of planning, is fascinating. . . . The book makes an important contribution to the contemporary cultural studies in China.” — Fulong Wu, Asia Pacific Viewpoint

“[T]his book is a strong intervention in our understanding of the key contributors to the urban art scene, and to formations of critique in China’s cities.” — Stephanie Hemelryk Donald, The China Quarterly

“This is an important study of a global issue which applies particularly to China in this period of unprecedented development: how to manage and ‘survive’ in the cities as they expand and modernise.” — Michael Sheringham, Asian Affairs

“Visser’s study develops a new perspective on critical inquiry and urban culture in the postsocialist period by situating them within the tension between place and space in a rapidly changing urban environment.” — Alexander F. Day H-Urban, H-Net Reviews

“For a brilliant discussion of artistic insubordination in reaction to urban modernity in literature, performance and art, I keenly recommend Robin Visser’s Cities Surround the Countryside.” — Michael Sorkin, The Nation

Cities Surround the Countryside is a truly exceptional book. Robin Visser has identified crucial issues that are nothing short of constitutive of urbanization and its reflections in the intellectual and cultural life of contemporary China. In addition, she deals with an impressive amount of material from various disciplines and media, much of which is little-known in English-language scholarship.” — Maghiel van Crevel, author of Chinese Poetry in Times of Mind, Mayhem and Money

Cities Surround the Countryside is about everything important in contemporary China. In sensitive critical readings of everything from buildings and squares to artworks and short stories, from the literature of urbanism to the media of advertising, Robin Visser traces the emergence of a new urban self-consciousness. With its thorough scholarship and deft approach to text analysis, the book goes beyond the humanities to be a major contribution to Asian studies and urban studies, anthropology and history.” — Judith Farquhar, author of Appetites: Food and Sex in Post-Socialist China


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Robin Visser is Associate Professor of Chinese at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Cities Surround the Countryside 1

Part One. Conceiving the Postsocialist City

1. Designing the Postsocialist City: Urban Planning and Its Discontents 27

2. Theorizing the Postsocialist City: Cultural Politics of Urban Aesthetics 85

Part Two. The City as Subject

3. Performing the Postsocialist City: Beijing Identity in Art, Film, and Fiction 131

4. Consuming the Postsocialist City: Shanghai Identity in Art, Film, and Fiction 175

Part Three. The Subject in the City

5. The Melancholic Urban Subject: Black Snow, Private Life, Breathing, and Candy 225

6. Postsocialist Urban Ethics: Modernity and the Morality of Everyday Life 255

Conclusion: Sustainable Chinese Aesthetics 287

Notes 295

Bibliography 331

Index 353
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4728-6 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4709-5
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