chapter  2
20 Pages

The historical urban system

China has one of the world’s oldest and most enduring urban systems. This chapter traces this history from the establishment of ancient settlements along the Yellow River, the development of empires, the extension of the Silk Route, to the establishment of foreign Treaty Ports in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It emphasizes the growth of the urban system in tandem with key events in Chinese history. The following questions should help guide the reading and discussion of the materials in this chapter:

• How did the Chinese urban system change over time? • What were the primary factors, in the different time periods, which contrib-

uted to the development and growth of Chinese cities? • Why were certain commodities, such as silk, tea, and salt, particularly signifi-

cant in the development of the urban system? • What happened when Europeans, Japanese, and other foreigners developed

Treaty Ports in China between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries?

Thinking about the historical Chinese urban system There have been several different approaches to understanding the historical significance of cities in Chinese civilization and the ways in which the urban system grew and changed over time. Was the Chinese urban system primarily “top-down” (most cities established by administrative decree) or “bottom-up” (developed out of local needs for trade and cultural centers)? Was the growth of the urban system governed primarily by the needs of the empire to administer and control its territory, or did the system grow primarily as a result of the growth of local, regional, national, and international economic systems? Because the role of cities in society became one of the rallying cries of the Chinese revolution, as Chairman Mao sought to characterize the revolution as a movement of rural laborers against the overconsumption of urbanites, it is worth exploring the ways in which thinking about Chinese cities and the Chinese urban system changed over time.