"They Come in Peasants and Leave Citizens": Urban Villages and the Making of Shenzhen, China

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Jonathan Bach, "Untitled ." October 28, 2012 via Bach.

In Shenzhen, China, rural structures play a key role as villages were propelled into a booming, global city in one of the most rapid urbanizations in history.  International Affairs scholar Jonathan Bach analyzes the dynamics of Shenzhen in the August 2010 issue of Cultural Anthropology. "They Come in Peasants and Leave Citizens: Urban Villages and the Making of Shenzhen, China," describes Shenzhen's urban emergence in the shadow of Hong Kong, and how a rural-urban distinction continues to shape identity and politics in postsocialist China.  There are 241 villages within Shenzhen today, which in various ways use their rural vestiges to co-produce the city. These so-called “villages-in-the-city” play a complex role in a context where the legacy of the urban-rural divide lingers as a critical social and material demarcation.

Teasing out the tension between official and practical approaches to "the gray zones of quasi-informal and quasi-legal communities," Bach asks what is to become of urban villages, not just in Shenzhen, but in cities broadly.  "This question of approaching the symbolically “rural” part of cities as something other than a space to be wholly assimilated or physically excised is a key challenge for the rapid urbanization happening around the globe, of which Shenzhen is one part of a phenomenal trend," Bach argues. A powerful reflection on intersections between spatiality,  economy, governance, and community, "The Come in Peasants and Leave Citizens" shows how how China's urban zones are riddled by historical legacy, yet suggestive of global transition.

Cultural Anthropology has published a variety essays on the economies of China. See for example, Shao Jing’s “Fluid Labor and Blood Money: The Economy of HIV/AIDS in Rural Central China” (2006), Pun Ngai’s “Subsumption or Consumption? The Phantom of Consumer Revolution in “Globalizing” China” (2003), and Yan Hairong“Neoliberal Governmentality and Neohumanism: Organizing Suzhi/Value Flow through Labor Recruitment Networks” (2003).

Cultural Anthropology has also published a number of essays on cities and urbanism, including Olga Demetriou’s “Streets Not Named: Discursive Dead Ends and the Politics of Orientation in Intercommunal Spatial Relations in Northern Greece” (2006), Judith Farquhar and Qicheng Zhang’s “Biopolitical Beijing: Pleasure, Sovereignty, and Self-Cultivation in China’s Capital” (2005), and Brad Weiss’s “Thug Realism: Inhabiting Fantasy in Urban Tanzania.”

Jonathan Bach, "Untitled ." October 28, 2012 via Bach.

About the Author

Jonathan Bach, "Author Picture." October 28, 2012.

Jonathan Bach is Chair of the interdisciplinary Global Studies undergraduate program and Associate Professor of International Affairs at The New School in New York. His current work concerns post-socialist transition in Germany and China and how these societies appropriate their past. He has also written on information technology and organizational change, labor migration and citizenship, and political theory. His work draws from anthropology, sociology and political science to explore how received notions of sovereignty, space and identity are reformulated through micro-level practices. He is the author of Between Sovereignty and Integration: German Foreign Policy and National Identity after 1989 (St. Martin’s Press 1999), and his articles have appeared in Public Culture, Theory, Culture and Society, Cultural Politics, Studies in Comparative and International Development, Geopolitics, and Philosophy and Social Science. In 2008 Bach also co-organized a series of events and conference on Shenzhen, "Shenzhen: On and Beyond China's Fastest Growing City"


Jonathan Bach, "Untitled ." October 28, 2012.
Jonathan Bach, "Untitled ." October 28, 2012.
Jonathan Bach, "Untitled ." October 28, 2012.

Relevant Links

"Shenzhen Noted" an insightful and informative ethnographic blog by Mary Ann O'Donnell

"A Walk in Shenzhen" a poety/photography project with Steven Schroeder and Mary Ann O'Donnell

"Fifteen Old Buildings Demolished in Shenzhen" in Guangdong (2005)

"A City Called Shenzhen" by Ou Ning

Urbanus, a socially-aware architechure firm

"La vida China: Shi Pai Urban Village" blog post by Brendan McGetrick

"Urban China: Informal Cities" at New Museum

"Growth in China" by Roger Cooper

"Density Atlas" a case study of Gangxia (Gang Sha) urban village

"Mapping of Urban Villages in China" (pdf) by Zhengdong Huang and Qingming Zhan, School of Urban Design, Wuhan University

"What exactly is an urban village, anyway?" blog post by Mary Ann O'Donnell on Shenzhen Noted blog

"Urban Village" blog post by Mary Ann O'Donnell on Shenzhen Noted blog

"Shenzhen: Moving-Out" Hai Zhang Photography

"Xian Village" blog by Peter Sack"Boom! Shenzhen Greedy Snake" video (part of the exhibition

"Boom! Shenzhen" at the 2011-12 Hong Kong Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism / Architecture)

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