‘China’s Urban Environment, Past and Present’ Conference, 16-18 January 2014

 ‘China’s Urban Environment, Past and Present’ Conference, 16-18 January 2014

Following the success of our first workshop in Leicester in December 2012, we will be holding our main conference entitled ‘China’s Urban Environment, Past and Present’ at the University of Aberdeen on Thursday 16th-Saturday 18th January 2014.

We are seeking research papers of 30 minutes’ duration which relate to the theme of the urban environment in historical and/or contemporary China. This could include, but is not confined to, the following areas:

  • Managing/governing the city
  • Urban geographies
  • City planning
  • Urban culture as it relates to the environment of the city
  • Comparative approaches to China’s urban environments

If you wish to offer a paper, please send a proposed title and an abstract of no more than 200 words to the BICC’s Project Assistant, Grania Pickard (Grania.Pickard@bristol.ac.uk) by Wednesday 20 November. Enquiries may be directed to Isabella Jackson (Isabella.Jackson@abdn.ac.uk).

Introducing Dr Isabella Jackson

Isabella Jacson portraitIt is no exaggeration to say that I owe my career to the BICC. My BICC studentship enabled me to study Chinese from scratch to the point where I can use it for my research and in building networks with scholars in related fields in China. This commenced with a two-year MPhil in Modern Chinese Studies at Oxford, which included six months’ study in Beijing and intensive language and area studies research training. I completed my MPhil dissertation under the supervision of Professor Rana Mitter on the evolving Chinese perspective on and representation of the Shanghai Municipal Council and the broader International Settlement from the Republican era to the present. This had a direct bearing on my doctoral research, for which I returned to Bristol (where I had completed my BA and MA) to work with Professor Robert Bickers, the leading expert on treaty-port Shanghai.

My PhD was entitled ‘Managing Shanghai: The International Settlement administration and the development of the city, 1900-1943’. It examined the nature and functions of the council which ran the International Settlement, the heart of Shanghai, in the decades of dramatic change in the first half of the twentieth century. I argued that the council functioned as a semi-colonial and transnational authority – concepts which I tested within the unique political environment of Republican China’s treaty ports. This provides a new, precise formulation of the nature of western colonialism in China that has broad ramifications for the fields of Chinese history and colonial history.

The BICC supported my research comprehensively, including the provision of tailored advanced Chinese reading classes in Bristol and attendance at Republican Chinese text reading classes in Oxford. It also paid for me to spend a year conducting research in the newly opened Shanghai Municipal Archives, where I found the bulk of my materials, and to continue my language study with private tuition while there. In addition, I was able to secure funds from the Worldwide Universities Network to attend a masterclass in Sydney and conduct research in the State Library of New South Wales, and I spent three months researching as a fellow of the Kluge Center in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. My dissertation was awarded the University of Bristol’s annual Faculty Prize for the Best Dissertation in the Arts and I am currently adapting it for publication as a monograph.

During my PhD I revised my MA dissertation for publication, using my new Chinese language skills to include a broader range of sources. The resulting article, ‘The Raj on Nanjing Road: Sikh Policemen in Treaty-Port Shanghai’, appeared in Modern Asian Studies last year.

When in the final stages of writing up my dissertation, I began a one-year post as Departmental Lecturer in Modern Chinese Studies at Oxford’s Institute for Chinese Studies. It was an excellent, though demanding, first academic position, furnishing me with a broad range of teaching experience on modern China and experience of administration, including directing the MPhil in Modern Chinese Studies. I moved from Oxford to my current post as the Helen Bruce Lecturer in Modern East Asian History. Mine is one of a number of newly-created posts in Chinese and East Asian Studies as departments have responded to student demand to study modern China, and the BICC has been instrumental in ensuring the next generation of China scholars are available to meet this demand.

I direct the BICC Chinese Urban Studies Network, based in Aberdeen with partners at the University of Leicester’s Centre for Urban History, Lyon’s Institut d’Asie Orientale, and the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. We held our first workshop in December 2012 and will be following up with a visit to Shanghai in August 2013 and a major conference in January 2014, bringing together scholars from different disciplines concerned with the study of Chinese cities. The BICC thus continues to be a major force in my life as a researcher, as I consider the role played by the Shanghai Municipal Council, and similar institutions in other treaty ports, in shaping urban China.

Introducing Dr Chris Courtney

In 2007 I was awarded a BICC studentship to study at the University of Manchester. The language based area studies scheme provided me with the opportunity to develop a number of key research skills. In addition to the extensive academic training I received in the UK, I also spent a year studying Chinese at Wuhan and Peking Universities. Whilst researching my PhD, I spent one and a half years conducting fieldwork in Central China. During this period I also benefitted from a postgraduate exchange with the National University of Singapore. My research to date has depended entirely upon the skills and contacts that I developed whilst on my BICC studentship.

Dr Chris Courtney, Leicester Workshop, 2012

Dr Chris Courtney, Leicester Workshop, 2012

My PhD thesis examines the social and environmental history of the 1931 Central China Flood. This disaster inundated an area the size of Britain, and caused over one million fatalities, making it probably the most catastrophic flood in world history. I draw upon a range of theoretical perspectives from anthropology, disasters studies and social and environmental history, in order to write the first comprehensive study of this event. I explore the experiences of ordinary Chinese people, describing how they died and survived during the disaster. I also examine the diverse narratives used by differing sections of the community to explain the genesis and outcome of the flood.

Having completed my BICC studentship, I was awarded a four year Junior Research Fellowship at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University. Whilst in this post I hope to develop my PhD research further, studying the impact of natural disasters upon Central China during the Republican and early Communist Periods. My broader research interests include the long-term interaction between human communities and the environment in the Middle Yangzi region, and the social history of the treaty port city of Hankou. I am currently conducting an oral history project into the 1954 Central China Flood.

BICC community successes

Congratulations to two BICC participants on their recent successes. Dr Tehyun Ma, currently working with the ‘Historical Photographs of China‘ project at Bristol on BICC-supported engagement activities, has been appointed to a new, permanent Lectreship in Post-1500 Chinese History at the University of Exeter. Chris Courtney, a BICC-suppored student at the Unievrsity of Manchester, and active participant in the BICC Chinese Urban Studies Network, has been elected to a Junior Research Fellowship at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge University. Chris will be working on a history of flood disasters in Central China during the Republican period.

A partial snapshot of the destinations of former BICC-trained students and Career Development fellows shows Centre alumni now in post at the University of Lancaster (Dr Astrid Nordin), University of York (Dr Jon Howlett), University of Aberdeen (Dr Isabella Jackson), University of Oxford (Dr Nicola Horsburgh; Sam Geall), Hong Kong Baptist University (Dr Catherine Ladds), Hong Kong Institute of Education (Dr Kelvin Cheung), Stanford University (Dr Regina Llamas), Rhode Island School of Design (Rachel Silberstein).

Chinese Urban Studies network launch workshop

New Directions in Chinese Urban Studies, Centre for Urban History, University of Leicester, Monday 17 December 2012

Workshop participants, 17 December 2012, Leicester

This was the first in a series of workshops that will explore the state of Chinese urban history, identify recent developments in the field and explore new approaches and directions. In her opening remarks, Isabella Jackson raised some possible points for wider discussion, including the wealth of research on Shanghai compared with other cities in China, the possibility of linking urban history with the rapidly growing literature on Chinese urban studies, and whether the field is merely engaging with debates that have occupied scholars of the West for years or has a new perspective to offer.

Two general papers that reviewed the state of the field then followed. Christian Henriot discussed the continuing emphasis on Shanghai, and the problems of inserting this into a broader framework of Chinese urban history. He highlighted the problems of language and archival access and that makes it likely that Shanghai will continue to be a focus of study for some time to come. He then turned to the role of digital technologies, such as databases, and online archives, and the need to create platforms for sharing knowledge and data. He described ongoing projects, which included the collection of advertisements from Shanghai newspapers, which will be made available to scholars, and a new collaborative venture that will investigate how war made Shanghai. Turning to urban studies, Hyun Shin discussed its Eurocentric focus, which is largely derived from the global cities literature. Within China, this means that there is a concentration on large coastal cities, most notably Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Moreover, the role of the party-state remains under-explored, while ideas surrounding the right to the city, and the role of marginalized groups such as migrants also need more research.

Chris Courtney presenting, Leicester December 2012

The workshop then moved on to consider case studies from the first half of the twentieth century. Wang Min introduced her current research on the treaty port of Shanghai. Through an analysis of the Feetham report, she highlighted the diplomatic interplay between the British state, the Shanghai Municipal Council and the Chinese government at a crucial time of upheaval and crisis that threatened the International settlement during the 1920s. The response of the Chinese and British governments and community illustrate how the history of Shanghai concerns the city itself, but also incorporates wider narratives of Chinese nationalism and the relationship of China to Western Imperialism. Moving one hundred miles inland, Toby Lincoln turned to the city of Wuxi, and the interaction of local elites with the emerging modernizing state. He argued that attempts to construct municipal autonomy in the early 1920s illustrate how the state was perceived as an important source of power. However, the fact that during the Jiangsu-Zhejiang war it was social organizations that were responsible for urban management points to the weakness of the state in this period. State-society interactions were also important to Chris Courtney’s paper on the 1931 Wuhan flood. He argued that the construction of competing narratives surrounding the relationship between the destruction of the Dragon King Temple and the causes of the flood illustrate that while local opinion may have sought spiritual reasons for the disaster, this was utilized by local elites to disrupt further state plans for urban development.

The final panel moved the discussion into the early PRC period, and Jon Howlett showed how the development of Communism in the city was often gradual and contingent. Through an analysis of changing street names in Shanghai, he illustrated that some areas of the city were almost forgotten by the party, and that requests from residents in the late 50s and 60s forced the change, rather than central or even municipal directives. The difficulties of building the revolution in the city were similarly the focus of Karl Gerth’s paper on consumption in Shanghai. Advertising was common throughout the early 1950s, and this points to the continuation of an urban culture that is more often associated with the pre-war period. Moreover, the notion of socialist shopping illustrates some of the ideological compromises that had to be made by the CCP.

The final roundtable returned to some of the key themes of Chinese urban history. Shanghai and its position within the field dominated the discussion, which also touched on whether the study of the city in China is emerging as a sub-discipline within its own right. Participants also commented on the fact that many common themes exist in urban history and urban studies, and that as the Maoist period and the Cultural Revolution become history, perhaps it is time to join the two fields together in a more coherent way.

By Emily Whewell, PhD Candidate, University of Leicester