The Urban Guru Website

China, 3000 years of urbanization

01/05/2007 00:00

There is an amazing correlation between the urbanization process and the historical evolution of the central-regional-local relationships in China. 


The history of China, an immense country, is often described as a succession of order and chaos, of multiple kingdoms in permanent war among themselves and of centralized and stable empires, of fantastic achievements and of disastrous backward moves, of progress at the beginning of a new dynasty followed by stagnation, decline and fall in anarchy, opening the way to the next dynasty. According to some specialists the history of China illustrates quite well a fundamental dialectical principle, the law of the unity of contraries. Indeed the history of Chinese urbanization alternates phases of centralization and autonomy, of pyramidal and rigid structuring and involuntary liberalism. This process was entirely endogenous, i.e. it was not affected by any external influence until the 19th century (unlike the case of India for instance).


The real history starts with the Shang (1500-1050 BC, capital Anyang in present days Henan) and effectively with the Western Zhou (1050-770 BC). The Zhou create the feudal and patriarchal system. They develop the first ceremonial cities and the division between agricultural and urban labour. They establish the two cities which will be the capitals during almost two millenniums: Chang’an, presently Xi’an (West) and Luoyang (East), separated by only 300 km, in the fertile basin of the Yellow River. But they are unable to unify the country. In 770 BC the Zhou transfer the capital from Chang’an to Luoyang and become therefore the Eastern Zhou. The pendulum of power between the two neighbouring cities begins. But political chaos occurs, resulting from conflicts between warring states, mainly after 475 BC. In the meantime Confucius (551-479 BC) starts his teaching and preaches harmony and the power of knowledge. Out of anarchy, the great Chinese philosophies, Confucianism and Taoism, and literature, astronomy, medicine appear, at the time when Greece discovers or invents the same arts, the same sciences. Interesting coincidence. Confucius precedes Socrates by eighty years. Large walled cities with big earth fortifications and tiled roofs are developed. Counting more than 100.000 inhabitants (the size of Athens at that time), they are the seats of decentralized powers competing with each other. And they benefit from the increasing surplus of a dynamic agriculture.


With the very short- but long in the making- Qin dynasty (221-202 BC), the country reaches a turning point as it is unified for the first time by the first emperor, Qin Shihuang (Qin, which is pronounced “chin”, gives the country its western name). The written language, measurement units, currencies are normalized. The Great Wall, the terracotta warriors buried at Lintong are the witnesses of this glorious era. The cities lose their autonomy, they become administrative prefectures (in total more than one thousand) which stabilize the country and constitute a solid hierarchical structure.


The Han dynasty is in fact the first great dynasty. It brings about economic prosperity through a centralization of decisions and lasts four centuries (206 BC – 220 AC). It continues the pendulum swing by transferring the capital from Xi’an (Western Han until 8 AC) to Luoyang in 25 AC (Eastern Han until 220). Luoyang then reaches 300.000 inhabitants. The Han invent paper, seismograph, chemistry and general anesthesia. The Han can be considered as the Chinese equivalent of the Roman Empire. Rome, the first world metropolis, is three times bigger than Luoyang around the year 100.But the decline of the Eastern Han due to insurrections such as those of the Yellow Turbans closely precedes the decline of the Roman Empire. Another interesting coincidence. The following dynasties (Wei, Shu, Wu, Jin, Song, Qi, Liang, Northern Wei) are weak, unstable, their capitals moving from Luoyang (which falls in 316 to the barbarians) to Nanjing. Many cities take advantage of their increased autonomy. The Northern Wei import Buddhism from India. The Sui, new transition dynasty (581-618) bring back stability, they dig the Grand Canal (about 2000 kilometers) and build beautiful bridges in marble. They choose again Chang’an as their capital. In Europe this is the time of Constantinople (today Istanbul) hegemony.


Then the Tang take over. They are the second great dynasty which lasts three centuries (618-907). Among their achievements, one can find elegant pottery, gold and silver jewelry, a number of mausoleums, a silk road in full expansion, a sinicised Buddhism, one strong empress (Wu Zetian) and the organization of the territory in 300 prefectures. Under the Tang, the city of Xi’an, still under the name of Chang’an, is the largest city of the world (around one million people in the year 700). Modern town planning is invented there, over 84 km2. The city will be used as a model for the emerging Korean and Japanese cities (Kyoto, Nara). In the South Guangzhou (Canton) grows and welcomes many foreigners. Poetry, music and painting flourish. Astronomy makes enormous progress. After a first phase of expansion, chaos and fragmentation restart in the middle of the 8th century (the Arabs defeat the Tang armies in 751 in Central Asia, Baghdad will be the most populous city of the world in 900), resulting in the fall of the Tang in 907, and worsen during the following fifty years. Again, some cities benefit from this collapse of the imperial power. But Chang’an fades. It will never be a capital anymore.


The Song stabilize the southern bank of the Yellow River, taking Kaifeng (100 km east of Luoyang) for capital. These Northern Song remain in power for 166 years (960-1126). Simultaneously, the Liao (916-1125) dominate the region of Beijing while the Xia (1034-1227) occupy the North West. This is a time of territory sharing among major ethnic groups and of moving internal borders. In 1115 the Manchus arrive from the North-East and create the Jin state; they attack Kaifeng (which counts 400.000 people) in 1126. The dynasty totters; this is the very end of the Yellow River capitals. The Song abandon the Yellow River for the Yangtse, thus becoming the Southern Song (1127-1279). After Yangzhou, Hangzhou (under the name of Lin’an) becomes their new capital in 1138. But the North-South confrontation deepens. The Song traders live a depraved life in Hangzhou, on the banks of the West Lake. In 1153 the Jin establish their capital in Beijing (renamed Zhongdu). The country is split in two parts but the Song remain a great dynasty, particularly at cultural level. Neo-Confucian philosophy, history, poetry, silk production, porcelain, international trade, roads and canals are thriving in the 11 and 12th centuries. Four essential inventions reflect the scientific supremacy of China: the compass, gunpowder, papermaking and printing appear and are quickly disseminated. China counts more than 10% of urban population, slightly more than Europe. Between the 8th and 12th centuries China has witnessed a shift of population from North to South, due to recurrent instability in the North. While during the Han dynasty only 20% of the population lived in the South, one thousand years later, during the Southern Song, more than 60% of the population lived South of the Yangtse River. The centre of gravity of urbanization also moved towards the South. In Europe urbanization was also concentrated in the South, around the Mediterranean Sea (Italy, Spain, France), until the 16th century. Then it moved to the North-West (England, Netherlands) due to a rapidly increasing transatlantic trade.


The 13th century sees the birth of the third great dynasty, the Yuan (Mongol), which begins with Gengis Khan (1206-1227) and reaches its peak with Kublai Khan (1260-1294). In only 70 years the Mongols unify the country by force and go much beyond, up to India and the Black Sea. In 1234 they defeat the Jin. In 1272 Kublai Khan decides to make Beijing (under the name of Dadu) his capital and launches enormous renovation and construction works. Dadu becomes the capital of the world while Hangzhou (which counts half a million people) finally falls in 1276. At the same time dozens of cathedrals are being built in Europe, at the end of the Middle-Ages, but Paris, the largest European city, counts only 200,000 inhabitants in 1300. In both the East and the West the 13th century was a century of builders. The Yuan dynasty (1206-1368) should be remembered by its achievements in architecture, urban development and geography, as well as in figurative arts, astronomy, cotton textile and agriculture (many publications). However the 14th century is more chaotic and witnesses many revolts, including those of the Red Turbans. As always the dynasty which was progressive in its first phase degenerates in its second phase.


The fourth great Chinese dynasty is the Ming (i.e. lights) dynasty (1368-1644). It emerges out of the popular discontent against Mongol domination and taxes. Zhu Yuanzhang founds the new dynasty in Nanjing and conquers Beijing where his son Zhu Di (Yongle) retransfers the capital in 1421, after building the most splendid temples (Forbidden City, Imperial City, Temple of Heaven, etc). Beijing will count more than 600.000 inhabitants in the year 1500. The far-reaching expeditions of Admiral Zheng He (1371-1435) open maritime routes to the West, up to Africa. But Zhu Di dies in 1424 and his successors decide to stop these expeditions which preceded those of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama by 70 years. In fact the glory of the Ming only lasts half a century. The Mongol remain pressing in the North, they defeat the Ming army in 1449 and harass them for more than a century.

Japanese pirates frequently attack the Chinese coast. The State is getting more and more corrupt and the decline continues all over the 16th century.

China loses ground while Europe wakes up (it is the time of the Renaissance) but its arts and sciences remain dynamic and of the highest calibre. This is in fact one of the most interesting feature of Chinese history: the periods of political troubles are not synonymous of scientific and cultural decline, on the contrary it seems that scientists and artists (essentially urban) take advantage of the weakened central control to move forward, to innovate, to liberate their imagination and talents.


The fifth and last hereditary dynasty is the Manchus or Qing who, coming from the North-East (Shenyang), eliminate progressively the Ming forces by surfing on peasant insurrections. Under the leadership of Li Zicheng, the peasants attack Beijing in 1644 but are pushed back. The Manchus cross the Great Wall and take Beijing. They push away the Ming to the South, up to Taiwan. Emperor Kang Xi, the last great Chinese emperor (in power from 1661 to 1722) stabilizes and unifies the whole country in 1683 and signs a treaty with Russia to define the common border. His grand-son Qian Long (who rules until 1799) brings Tibet under Chinese control in the 1780’s. At the end of the 18th century the Chinese economy looks prosperous, Beijing is the most populous city in the world with one million people, it will be overtaken by London around 1820 (London will reach 2 million in 1840 and 6.6 million in 1900). The country population has exploded, increasing from 150 million in 1700 to 320 million in 1800. Exports are growing but the imperial State tries to limit imports through regulatory measures. China closes its doors and this isolationism plays against its economic and technological development. The productivity gap between China and Europe increases during 1750-1840 and China misses the industrial revolution. For once Chinese cities are unable to replace the collapsing State. Chinese capitalism remains focused on trade. In spite of agricultural surpluses the urban bourgeoisie does not invest in the industrial sector and does not make use of technical innovations. City’s potential initiatives are discouraged by the central bureaucracy. Stagnation and decline start. And as usual corruption replaces good governance, the Manchus become unpopular and tyrannical. The Western powers, led by the British, take advantage of this situation to force the Chinese to open their markets. These are the two Opium Wars (1840-42 and 1856-60) aiming at introducing the Indian opium on the Chinese territory. The British occupy Hong Kong and share Shanghai with the French. The great China (430 million people in 1850) becomes a semi-colony. Popular revolts, such as the one of Taipings (1851-65) fail. Inequal treaties are signed. The last Qing (including the empress dowager Ci Xi) collaborate with foreign forces. But a new class of modern intellectuals appears at the turn of the century, they call for independence and democracy. The dynasty collapses after the uprising of 10 October 1911. In 1912 in Nanjing Sun Yat-Sen is elected President of the Republic.


The last and present Chinese “dynasty” is therefore republican. It is marked during 37 years by many conflicts, civil wars (between communists and Kuomintang forces) and the war against the Japanese invaders (1937-45), then by the liberation and the creation of the People’s Republic in 1949, the achievements and chaos of the construction of an independent country under the leadership of Mao Zedong until 1976, and by the economic boom of the 1990’s which is still on-going. This “dynasty” is not hereditary, it is there to last. Despite its political unity, it has gone through a process of administrative and financial decentralization over the last two decades. Chinese cities of the 21rst century are rich and autonomous. High incomes resulting from market-oriented land policies allow them to rapidly improve urban infrastructure and to address progressively the enormous environmental problems inherited from a forced industrialization. For the first time in history, the idea that political decentralization and socio-economic progress can go hand in hand is gaining credit. The State does not fear any longer centrifugal forces.


It is possible to briefly draw some lessons from this three thousand year history and from its continuous moves between progress and recession, stability and anarchy, centralization and fragmentation. Over 3.000 years one could claim that imperial stability predominated during 1.800 years while divisions and chaos marked the country during 1.200 years, i.e. during 40% of the time. These troubled decades or centuries cover approximately the following periods: 300 years at the end of Zhou dynasty, 400 at the end of Han, 150 at the end of Tang, 70 at the end of Yuan, 150 at the end of Ming and 110 at the end of Qing (1839-1949). In fact these periods of political and military turmoil have often been those of great economic and cultural progress and success. This “mystery” of Chinese history can be easily explained if we note that quite often cities have replaced the failing State to ensure the vigor and harmony of the Chinese civilization.

And, thanks to close relations with their hinterland, they have brought about an almost uninterrupted growth of the economy. The cities have grown like one hundred flowers on the vast Chinese territory and they have structured the Chinese space through a dynamic interaction (quite dialectical indeed) between centralism and autonomy, bureaucracy and initiative, unity and diversity. The main exception to this rule occurs at the end of the 18th century when the Qing State prevents all possible attempts to bring the country into the industrial era. However Chinese cities remain, today as yesterday, the engines of development and an essential sphere of the state machinery. Spending only a few weeks in Shanghai and in the other cities of the Yangtse delta is enough to be convinced of this reality.


In Europe on the other hand the correlation between urbanization, political situation and economic development is much more evident, all along history. European cities have been both the engines and the beneficiaries of economic growth (particularly agricultural progress), while always trying to be politically autonomous. But their demographic expansion did not start before 1750 when the rate of European urbanization was only 12%. European cities exploded in the 19th century as a direct result of the industrial revolution.


In 2007 China has officially a population of 1.33 billion inhabitants, including 545 million living in urban areas (41%) and one hundred cities above one million people. These 100 cities produce three quarters of the GDP. The ancient capitals Xi’an and Luoyang regroup respectively 3.3 and 1.6 million inhabitants, Shanghai agglomeration 13 million and Beijing 11 million. The urban network of East China is dense and quite balanced but the country is still under-urbanized (in view of its fast growing GDP). The Western cities, less dynamic, receive an increasing attention from the central government, including through the improvement of transport infrastructure between the interior and the coast. The issues of equity or “harmony”, both social and spatial, are also high on the agenda. The urbanization process will continue at least over the next 40 years. The one-billion-urban threshold will probably be reached before 2050. Chinese cities of the 21rst century will have to be economically productive, socially inclusive, environmentally sustainable and politically democratic. A serious challenge that the lessons from history can help address, provided they are combined with a forward-looking vision of the future.


Many developing countries could learn a lot from the Chinese experience.


January 2007


The Chinese version of this article was published in "Urban Planning Forum", magazine of Tongji University, Shanghai, May 2007.