As you may know, I'm fascinated with Chinese history and culture. I also like thinking about the way things are made and how that affects people. This article, then, was excellent: A thorough essay on Chengzhongcun, the urban villages that, now subsumed by cities like Shenzhen, play a distinct and unique role in Chinese urban culture.
So, apropos of just that much, here are some passages that I thought were really great - partly because they feel so much like my (limited, for sure) experiences in urban China, but also because the vision of urbanity they describe are so much like the daily life that I want for myself.
The Chengzhongcun is a vibrant place which is alive twenty-four hours a day and there is a constant hum of activity. The ‘handshake buildings’ over look one another and it is easy to see directly into your neighbor’s living room. These facts should not be considered a negative, but they are the consequences of living at such a high density. It can be argued that such a model of living would not be acceptable in a Western society but in the Chinese context and culture this model is perfectly acceptable and actually thrives.
The boundaries between private and public within the Chengzhongcun as so blurred that even your own home becomes part of the public realm being overlooked. It can be said that this layered living actually reinforces a sense of inclusion and a sense of belonging almost, a sense of belonging to a place and a community. Unlike living in a faceless gated high-rise were you are sealed in your own apartment, living in the Chengzhongcun binds you to a place, you are constantly aware of the environment you are living in and constantly feel part of a wider social group. This is perhaps how a social trace of a village community has remained despite all physical traces of the village disappearing.
The constant flow of daily life spills out onto the alleyways and brings with it a vibrancy which can only come from people living on top of other people. The constant social interaction and the constant feeling of an urban society that is ever present within your life. The fact that everything you need from supermarkets to workplaces to entertainment is literally round the corner. These are elements that a mega-city designed in zones of activities and connected by vast transport links can’t replicate and these are the exact characteristics that give the Chengzhongcun their atmosphere and sense of place...
Only in China can the most extreme form of urbanisation be said to have a rural community at the heart of it...In fact an urbanism with community and social interaction, one which has grown out of a rural beginning can sit just as comfortably within the context of that most 21st century form of a mega-city like Shenzhen...
I believe if you truly want to understand contemporary China then you should try and understand the Chengzhongcun. The traces of history mixed with pragmatic development, the hap-hazard approach and determination to achieve progress, the self-regulation and social cohesion, the density and intense atmosphere of social interaction are all elements that are present at all levels of Chinese society. Here in the Chengzhongcun they are exaggerated and amplified given an insight into the Chinese mindset. For me the Chengzhongcun are in their way a summary of China at this moment in time. To have architecture achieve this is quite special, it was organically produced from the people themselves and the value lies with the villagers and migrants who live in these places, the people who produce the vibrant lifestyle and preserve the ancestral heritage and create their shared communal living. It is that quintessential Collectivity through Individuality that is so appealing and produces these fascinating communities and fascinating communal urban space that is uniquely Chinese.
All I know is this: they're doing *something* right.