On the emergence and intensification of the pattern of rural–urban continuum in late imperial Jiangnan society
Introduction This chapter examines the overall features of urbanization of the society in the Jiangnan area from middle to late imperial China, focusing particularly on the intensifying trend of the “urban-rural continuum.” The sociological term “urban-rural continuum” implies the interstitial placement of cities and marketplaces in the countryside. The early phase of such a pattern of urban-rural relationship first emerged in Chinese society during mid-Tang times (approximately the second half of the eighth century). The skeletal form of this pattern was then fully fleshed out during a millennial course of history that followed. What does this change mean in the enduring trajectory of the urban system in China? My interpretative hypothesis about this change is that it represents the shift from an “incomplete” urban hierarchy in early imperial times to a “complete” one in the middle and late imperial periods.1 In the next section I shall argue briefly that during the early imperial period prior to the Tang dynasty, the pattern of the urban system was underdeveloped. It was a period when there were few intermediate urban settlements between the administratively established country capitals and the natural villages that came into being through the natural process of agricultural development; the social integration of basic social units within the society would hence have been loose and inefficient. Following this background section, I shall move on to deal with the transition of the level of social integration from the stage of “incomplete” urbanization to “complete,” which took place in mid-imperial times. More specifically, I shall look into the stratified form of urban system consisting of seven or eight rank-sizes of central places, which came into existence for the first time in China’s urban history.2 Given the general trend of diversification at local and regional levels and the increasing complexity therein, I shall first reconstruct the empire-wide distribution of “intermediate” market towns (i.e., most of the towns named zhen 鎮), before turning my focus to the overall pattern of urbanization of the Lower Yangzi Delta. I shall sketch in the following section an account of the intensifying trend of urbanization at the level of “intermediate market” zhen in the Lower Yangzi from the late Ming (i.e., the latter half of the sixteenth century) down to the end of the Qing (early twentieth century). Finally, in the
concluding section, I shall briefly discuss whether the intensive distribution of zhen in this region should be taken as a natural outcome of the ongoing urbanization of the society or as a reflection of overdevelopment under the given institutional framework during this late imperial period.