Book review: Urban Informal Settlements: Chengzhongcun and Chinese Urbanism

reviewed by Fanghao Chen

21 Mar 2023, 1:12 p.m.

Urban Informal Settlements book cover

Yannan Ding, Urban Informal Settlements: Chengzhongcun and Chinese Urbanism, Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022; 167 pp.: ISBN: 9789811692017, US$49.99/£34.99 (hbk), ISBN: 9789811692024, US$33.54 (eBook)


Chinese urbanisation has slowly become a heated topic since the opening and reform policy was implemented. Recently, the concept of urban renewal (chengshi gengxin) started to gain currency in terms of theoretical engagement and practical exploration. Along with the rapid development of Chinese modernisation, the landscape of Chinese cities and towns experienced drastic changes. As land development and housing reform continuously moved forward, Chinese cities embraced their respective new chapters, while the residents faced forced or involuntary relocation and displacement. As a result, some underdeveloped residential areas within the urban territory are called urban informal settlements (chengzhongcun) and are mostly considered ‘social scars’; an acute, urgent and demanding historical problem that needs to progress in urban expansion and development. Yannan Ding’s Urban Informal Settlements: Chengzhongcun and Chinese Urbanism (Urban Informal Settlement thereafter) combines archival research with fieldwork and historicises the changing landscape of Chinese urban informal settlements, the Chinese version of a high-density residential area dating from the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Situating chengzhongcun in a larger context of global urban history and political economy, Urban Informal Settlement reminds readers not to restrict the question of chengzhongcun in the framework of urban housing but consider chengzhongcun as a productive site for examining urban renewal, social movement, governmental management and tourist practices. It is in this sense that the book seeks to gain more scholarly attention on China’s rapid modernisation process as well as the Chinese way of treating the issue of urban development.

By examining cases of Chinese urban informal settlements over the two decades, the author’s findings allow readers to reconsider China’s process and progress of urbanisation. Land and housing reform is only one part of urban development in the Chinese context. Chinese bureaucratic institutions at all levels have also been facing complex pressures on regulating the population in over-densely residential areas, preserving historical sites for commemorating the past and commercial tourism, and building organic relationships with commercial companies and residents.

The main body of the book is organised into five chapters. The introductory part overviews various theoretical frameworks on the studies of urban slums in the United States and European countries. It also examines previous works on urban informal settlements in southeast China and reminds readers to pay more attention to China’s other geographical areas. Offering a historical–geographical review of the theoretical development of urbanism, Chapter 2 analyses historical urban theories on the formation and progression of city and village and the generational history of outcasts. A comparative study of urban villages in Chinese and western contexts is also introduced in the rest of the chapter. Chinese cities had their respective historical burdens in reforming residential areas. The historical approach offers a comprehensive overview of the urban–rural relationship in general and the position of outcasts in China and the West. The author’s approach to urban theories and global urban history shows the complicated and complex dynamism within the city. In addition, different from their western counterpart, Chinese urban outcasts were never excluded from the urban areas and treated as marginalised groups in a geographical sense because the Chinese city was ‘neither merely the seat of a despotic governor of irrigation projects, nor a boundless community ruled as the village’ (p. 37).

Chapter 3 begins with a discussion of housing rights and then continues to explore the history of Chinese chengzhongcun. The historical legacy of the Soviet Union left a deep imprint on the construction of Chinese chengzhongcun. Besides architectural design and layout, the experience of communal governance and Soviet planning made socialist China embark on its journey of urbanism, but Chinese central and local governments also faced drastic pressures in mobilising large populations. This chapter also compares China’s chengzhongcun with the Urban Village Group in the United Kingdom and New Urbanism in North America. It points out the differences among these diverse forms of village-in-city. Refuting Him Chung’s argument on China’s fallacy of the planning system, the author argues that it is important to consider China’s social conditions and avoid neglecting to focus on the people who live there. The top-down model only centres on the policies, ideas and ideals of institutions while ignoring human rights, livelihood strategies and the outcome of urban reforms. It also argues how a socialist market economy and socialist legacy ‘engendered the chengzhongcun and determined the lives of hundreds of Chinese people’ (p. 60).

Chapter 4 uncovers the residential voices living in Shanghai and Hefei’s chengzhongcun based on the firsthand material Ding collected during field trips in 2009. Despite most chengzhongcun residents still suffering from several constraints, including low income, lack of education and being disqualified from registering in Shanghai hukou (household registration system), the communities exert their dynamic and vibrant dimensions. The author’s empirical research reveals the joys and sorrows of residential life in chengzhongcun. Living in chengzhongcun is considered a transformative process for urban immigrants from rural areas while we are reminded that they also suffer from ‘artificial and obsolete policy’ (p. 92) and discrimination for lacking urban citizenship, necessary for acquiring social welfare and other opportunities.

Chapter 5 presents the artistic dimension of chengzhongcun and tells stories of how the residents strategically took to art forms as effective resistance and channels of self-expression and struggle in Hefei, Anhui province. Such a practice also serves as a pedagogical way of popularising the concepts of citizenship rights and social justice. The curators and artists successfully displayed their works, expressing their voices while facing harsh censorship. Despite its limited influence on political policies, public art has created a sense of solidarity and provided moral education to the masses.

The final chapter, Chapter 6, focuses on slum tourism in South China. Rather than raising moral critique on the tourist experience as exploiting poverty for personal pleasures, the author demonstrates how slum tourists can participate as agents of inclusive development.

Several questions may be raised after reading the book. First, although the author points out that the demographics show that residents in Chinese urban informal settlements are mainly from rural areas, the rural–urban relationship in the book seems very vague. How did rural immigrants contribute to the development of Chinese urbanism? Second, besides artistic expression, what other ways have marginalised Chinese groups adopted to make their voices heard? How did other parties or groups of interest involve the development and demolition of chengzhongcun in different areas of China? Bringing different angles into the discussion may have given a more comprehensive picture of the Chinese urbanisation process.

Urban Informal Settlement adopts theories and methodologies of historical geography and traces the emergence, development and demolition of Chinese urban informal settlements. The study of chengzhongcun centres not just on urban planning, housing reform and infrastructure development, but also raises various social, political and cultural issues to be examined, such as urban governance, citizenship acquirement, class division, immigrant management and community administration, to name a few. This book challenges the conventional understanding of Chinese chengzhongcun, treating it as a passive and static area falling behind the rest of the city and calls scholars’ attention to the grassroots level of society. It also emphasises the importance of contextualising different cases around the world. For historians, geographers, sociologists, anthropologists, architects, political scientists, urban planners and art historians who share the same interest in urban studies, including global and local urban history, urban planning and governance, urban artistic practices, and urban tourism, this book may offer scholastic inspiration, bring inter-disciplinary dialogue, and point the way for future research in this field.



The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: The research for this article was funded by the National Office for Philosophy and Social Sciences (grant reference 22&ZD067).


Related articles

If you enjoyed this review, the following articles published in Urban Studies might also be of interest:

Informality and the Development and Demolition of Urban Villages in the Chinese Peri-urban Area by Fulong Wu, Fangzhu Zhang, and Chris Webster

"Reflecting on the long-established study of informal settlements and recent research on informality, it is argued that the informality in China has been created by the dual urban–rural land market and land management system and by an underprovision of migrant housing."

The contribution of intergroup neighbouring to community participation: Evidence from Shanghai by Zheng Wang, Fangzhu Zhang, and Fulong Wu

What kind of neighbouring might enhance participation in community activities? Wang et al examine the relationship between different types of neighbouring and community participation in Shanghai.

Read more book reviews on the Urban Studies blog.



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