Shanghai: A Chinese Vision of the Universal
The Universal Exposition Shanghai 2010: Better City, Better Life was a key moment in China’s urbanisation. An ethnographic study of this great ritual founding China’s modernity uncovered the ways in which urban crowds are managed as well as the country’s strategic positioning in a globalised world.
As an anthropologist of religion and having lived in Shanghai from 2006 to 2009, here I want to focus on the use of traditional conceptions and practices of urban planning in building this Asian megacity, which also involved trying to position the city as a world centre.
Elevated expressways: A ritual approach to infrastructure
Visitors to Shanghai are often impressed by some 80 km of elevated expressways (gaojia lu) that criss-cross the metropolis. This large infrastructure was built in the 1990s to direct the circulation of Shanghai crowds for work, rather than to try to assemble them in revolutionary masses as was done during the Maoist period. Beyond their technological and economic symbolism of modernity, it is interesting to note that this infrastructure reproduces the two thousand-year-old ritual structure of imperial territorialisation: two north-south and east-west axes connecting the four cardinal points and forming eccentric circles extending towards the margins (see map).
This centre-periphery logic, one of the characteristic traits of imperial forms of territorial design, summons into modern Shanghai the ancient Chinese concept of Sinicization of “everything under Heaven” (meaning the Empire as universal). This meant the transformation of lands that were considered “savage” and populated with “barbarians” into a domesticated territory equipped with technologies, literate knowledge, and the urban bureaucracy of the dominant Han ethnic group.
At the centre of the elevated expressways, there is a gigantic motorway interchange adjoining the People’s Square, a large paved public garden with the town hall, opera, and museum. There, a majestic pillar about thirty metres high supports the interchange. What is the meaning of the bas-reliefs of golden dragons entwined around it? Dragons are divinities of the ground and the water cycle, which in ancient times were tamed by the colonisers of South China to integrate them into the geographical and ritual space of the Empire, in particular by chaining them to pillars.
One would have thought that, with the development of science, this symbolism linked with traditional geomancy (the “art of water and wind” or feng shui) would have been relegated to medieval superstition or New Age followers searching for positive vibrations. Nevertheless, city dwellers of Shanghai today refer to this traditional knowledge of city planning when talking about the construction of the “dragon pillar,” the central axis of the elevated expressway.
Live in or make use of a territory?
The current urban legend says that, in spite of the financial and technological means employed, the construction workers were not able to pierce the stone (the dragon’s bones) until the intervention of a feng shui Buddhist master who “chased away the dragons” from the city centre. A few years later he died, just as he had announced he would during his ritual action, which was transgressive to say the least.
What ritualist could do without the services of the divinity associated with his ritual? In fact, this act of ‘exorcism’ differs greatly from the logic of ‘inhabiting’ within feng shui’s ritual practices: feng shui usually involves fostering negotiation and reconciliation between various natural and social forces, which form a link to the particular topography and social worlds (nature and culture are not separate in this context).
The other way round, the idea that dragons could be exorcised places us in an imperialistic logic, or at least top-down logic, by imposing an ad hoc space onto a local context to turn it into a pool of economic resources (lands to be used, workers to be put to work). Yet this idea also underlines the ritual function of the expressways, which is to actualise the dogmatic and abstract principle of “economic mobility” in the megacity. As a corollary to the destruction of the old quarters, which have been converted into luxury houses, shops, and office buildings, the centripetal tidal wave of concrete buildings enables people to be relocated in the suburbs, both those expelled from the centre and those attracted from rural areas and secondary cities to the megalopolis.
The ritual spatiality of the expressway corresponds well to the purification of the centre for economic and political elites, and to the rejection toward the periphery and into oblivion those elements which, although indispensable to life in the megacity, are considered “impure.” In this way, through this urban rumour we can hear how building the elevated expressways crystallized the ambivalent feelings of Shanghai’s people through traditional referents. This was the social and psychological price to pay in order to mourn the passing of the old order and being rooted in local spaces and social worlds, when faced with a violent desire to make Shanghai a model of global modernity.
The China Pavilion: Centring the world around Shanghai
Was choosing Shanghai, a cosmopolitan city and large business centre of Asia, to showcase the Chinese construction of the ‘universal,’ not revenge against Western colonialism? For the time when international trade at Shanghai (see map) was the main hub of the opium trade? The “Crown of the East,” as the China pavilion was called during the Universal Exhibition (later reconverted into an international art museum), invites us to think not only of the symbolic displacement of the seat of Chinese power from Beijing towards Shanghai, but even more so the ambition of Chinese elites to recentre the world around this megacity.
The architecture of this prestigious building, studied by Aurélie Névot, reveals the staging of a very Chinese vision of “universal harmony.” The pavilion, taking the form of a seal affixed on the world, was painted with the colour “China Red,” with imperial and communist variants. This encourages us to consider the persistence of bureaucratic and totalitarian intentions in today’s “market socialism.” Fifty-six cantilevered ledges supporting its roof are even more explicit: this figure corresponds to the number of ethnic-nationalities categorised according to Stalinist criteria during the Maoist collectivization process in the 1950s. This was a matter of inscribing in the Constitution as well as in the urban landscape the “multi-ethnic state” that is China today. This was done with the aim of maintaining influence over old neighbouring kingdoms who had to pay a tribute and who made up the margins of the Empire. An ethnicity policy was therefore essential for China to maintain a colonial empire that she had constituted “with neighbours” (like Russia) in contrast with the “overseas” colonialism of Western nation-states.
For the last twenty years, the Party-State has assiduously applied itself to controlling networks through tourist and cultural imaginaries. It suffices to have visited the Universal Exposition or the myriad of great patrimonial temples and tourist sites that run through China’s territory to be convinced. Hypermodernity and a “many-thousand-year-old culture” combine to construct political legitimacy through leisure, and to spread international influence through a certain soft power (for example, Chinese medicine, feng shui, tai chi, Confucius institutes, or new spiritualities). In these areas, the phantasmagorical can have the most concrete consequences. Taking into account China’s powerful weight in the international arena should not be limited to examining economic and political data, but should include the ways in which Chinese cultural otherness participates in globalization. It is with this purpose in mind that we have studied the Chinese production of space, which proposes ways of living in a territory through conciliation, as well as taming it and exploiting it as a resource.
Crédits image à la Une : CC Free Photos and Images Li Yang et crédits image d’entrée : CC Wikimedia Commons Ipipipourax