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Der Urbane Code Chinas by Dieter Hassenpflug

China has embraced media camouflage, with walls of pixels masking architecture

Can a city be read? Or is what outsiders take for important social symbols only the result of different forms of pragmatic functionalism? In this book, German sociologist Dieter Hassenpflug describes his research on China’s urban code. Hassenpflug, who has taught at several Chinese universities, lists Chinese urban code indicators.

Closed communities is one: 97 per cent of urban Chinese live in gated communities, whether traditional walled compounds with arched entrances, or modern high-rise apartment clusters with barriers and security. Lilong housing in Shanghai or Jingyu Street settlements in Harbin are two examples of externally Western-influenced forms that internally are traditional, closed communities grouped around courtyards.

Only 30 per cent of Americans live in what has been thought of as an American aberration. China also beats the USA at its own game of Disney-themed environments. Hassenpflug cites the many personal activities that take place on the pavements and in public squares - praying at altars, chess, homework, hair cutting, teeth pulling, sewing or washing - as another Chinese urban code indicator, but you wonder if these are not owing simply to lack of space.

Chinese traditional architecture was certainly never strong on facades for the delight of a wider public: decoration is reserved for private courtyard frontages. Perhaps because of the low importance of public facades, China has embraced media camouflage, with walls of pixels, advertising and flashing posters masking buildings.

On the other hand, this might reflect the importance of marketing over architecture in a consumer society. There is an extreme dualism in Chinese society, with feudalism in the countryside and middle-class hedonism in the cities. Despite this, the nation has a high degree of collectivism, centuries older than that forged by Communism. A Chinese millionaire is happy to buy a luxury villa on an estate of identical luxury villas, because conformity strengthens identity.

Hassenpflug’s book is worth reading and discussing. What many China-watchers would agree with him on is this: in no way is China becoming Western. Rather, it’s consuming Western ideas as it often indiscriminately consumes its own traditional treasure trove. Much like shopping.

Der Urbane Code Chinas

Author: Dieter Hassenpflug

Publisher: Birkhäuser, 2008

Price: £23.19

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