on July 23, 2005
Scholarship on China has tended to mainly focus on social elites when describing urban life in the imperial and early Republican eras. One of the most famous exceptions to this is Jacques Gernet's 'Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250- 1276'. While a few other studies on commoners' everyday lives exist, they tend to focus on coastal cities. Very little scholarship in this area has been done on China's inland urban areas. Wang Di's book marks a major attempt to remedy this dearth of research.
The main concern of the study is to display how life in public spaces was transformed during the early twentieth century, from a place were pedestrians freely joined together during the late 1800's, to a place that became increasingly regulated and politicalized throughout the early 1900's. To describe this Wang uses "three major thematic points".
First, Wang describes how the Qing bureaucratic structure reached only to the county level and as a result had little control over street life. Neighborhoods were organized by the "baojia" system, an informal organization of households in a community participating in keeping local order. The "baojia" system gave commoners freedom to gather in public spaces for a "range of activities associated with commerce, everyday life, and ceremonies"(p.24). Also teahouses and voluntary organizations played an important role in communities.
The second thematic point is the urban reforms of the early twentieth century attempting to regulate street life and as a result altering the relationship between the local elites and commoners (for a discussion of these reforms see Kristin Stapleton's 'Civilizing Chengdu: Chinese Urban Reform 1895-1937', 2000). Although these reforms brought about positive changes overall in leisure activities, material life, and public spaces, Wang believes they nonetheless led to the events of 1911.
The third point describes this phenomenon. The regulation of commoners' public activities that accompanied the reforms caused ordinary citizens to become involved in political struggles. "The year 1911 symbolized commoners' political participation and the transformation from street culture to street politics, which radically affected their daily lives. From then on, the streets were frequently used for political purposes, and ordinary residents were forced to live in the shadows of relentless power struggles"(p.221, also see Robert Kapp's 'Szechwan and the Chinese Republic: Provincial Militarism and Central Power 1911-1938', 1973).
'Street Culture in Chengdu' is rich in its description of everyday life about numerous segments of society during late Qing and early Republican Chengdu. Sections on teahouse culture (the role they played in people's everyday life) and women's role in society (the changes brought about by urban reforms) are particularly interesting.