Some Responses to Criticisms of Street Culture

  The English version of “Street Culture” was published by Stanford University in 2003, the Chinese translation version was published by Renmin University of China Press in 2006, and the second Chinese version was published by the Commercial Press in 2013. Peking University Press will publish the third edition. One of the reasons why this book has aroused widespread repercussions, I think, is that major changes have taken place in Chinese cities, and many ancient cities are disappearing day by day, which has aroused people’s worries. Although I studied Chengdu in the late Qing Dynasty and the early Republic of China, the conflicts between national culture and local culture, elite culture and popular culture involved in it are actually the problems we are facing today. Questions that history must answer. Although the research on the lower classes and daily life is still not in the mainstream in China, it has been recognized by more and more scholars and readers. I am particularly pleased to see that more and more young scholars have joined this camp, and “Street Culture” has played an active role in the process of promoting the study of Chinese history.
  After the publication of this book, there have been many book reviews in both Chinese and English academic circles. Reading these book reviews is also a process of encouragement, inspiration and self-reflection for me. “Street Culture” has also aroused discussions on some issues in the academic and reading circles. Next, I will further elaborate on some of the issues that have been discussed a lot, especially the issues related to the real society that I have been thinking about for the past twenty years. View. Some views were formed or improved after the publication of this book, and some were sorted out on the basis of discussions with scholars or media interviews.
  Jin Jun in “What is the public?” What is the public for? ——Wang Di’s Chengdu Research Discussion: “Wang Di only emphasizes the distinction between mass culture and elite culture and blurs the position of the state, which also weakens the power of the state or political power in the transformation of public space.” (” Reading, No. 12, 2022, p. 17) This criticism is fair. Indeed, in this book, the state is only a power hidden behind. If I discuss the state, at most it is the role of the police in the foreground. This is obviously far from enough to discuss the impact of state power on urban society. . The role of the state is not fully displayed in the foreground in this book, mainly because when I was writing this book, I focused on the interaction and conflict between the local social elite and the people. If the state is discussed too much, it may divert the focus of this book. Of course, I am also constantly thinking about how to handle this relationship better. That is to say, it is possible to focus discussions on the conflicts between elites and the masses, elite culture and mass culture, and at the same time better deal with the role and influence of the state in it. However, it may also be an attempt to make up for this shortcoming. Later, in “Teahouse: Public Life and Microcosm in Chengdu, 1900-1950”, I compared the role of the state and its impact on public space. Full discussion. Here, I would like to take this opportunity to further elaborate on the relationship between urban social autonomy and state power involved in the book “Street Culture”.
  Throughout the twentieth century, state power continued to expand and social space gradually shrunk, and citizens’ autonomy and self-government were also weakened. In the past, both urban and rural areas of China had their own organizations, such as the Youth Protection Association for Watching the Crops, the Red Gun Association for Self-Defense, the Land Association for Neighborhoods, the Charity Hall for Charity, the Guandi Association for the community, etc. social organization. But they all disappeared one by one under the control and crackdown of the state. When only the power of the state apparatus is left, when the state has some resources, it is inevitable that “involution of political power” will occur. As state power continues to expand and there are more and more officials, it is necessary to increase more income to employ more people. So what’s the path to increasing your income? Even with taxation, the people’s burden will be heavier, but the country’s management capacity and level have not improved accordingly, and even decreased instead.
  Pre-modern Chinese cities were almost all self-governing, with local elites, gentry, and ordinary people jointly managing the community, and officials played a limited role. In Chengdu, it was not until 1902 that a police agency was established and began to perform some of the original functions of the municipality. It was not until 1928, after the Kuomintang unified the country, that there was a municipal government. In the late Qing Dynasty, following the example of Japan and the United States, the police were set up to manage the traffic and sanitation of the city, and even where and when small businesses and hawkers could set up their stalls were all required by the government, and the later National Government was also promoting this process . In this process, traditional social organizations have been continuously weakened, and state power has penetrated into local society. But the problem is that no matter how big the government is, if it does not rely on citizens, society, social organizations, and the public domain, it will be impossible to take care of all aspects of society, especially in a country with a large population and a vast territory like China. The state cannot solve all problems.
  If a city is to be managed effectively, it should involve the society, which includes citizens and various social organizations. Governments should not be afraid of the widespread emergence of urban social organizations. In Chinese history, such as the Qing Dynasty, social organizations basically cooperated with the government, which is one of the reasons why the Qing Dynasty’s rule lasted for more than two hundred years. The view that as long as social organizations develop, they are confronting state power and plotting wrongdoing is not in line with historical facts, and it is also harmful in real society. In fact, the more prosperous social organizations are, the more help the government will get, and the more stable the society will be. With the development of the public sphere, people’s initiative will be mobilized and they will be able to actively participate in social management, as well as cultural and economic activities. Otherwise, the society will shrink. Every chain in society is connected together, and when a certain chain is artificially cut off, it will cause very serious consequences.
  Throughout the twentieth century, the government tried to regulate cities according to a unified model, and as a result, Chinese cities gradually became stereotyped. For a city, whether it is its management, its culture, or its appearance, diversity is its life. I mentioned in “Street Culture” that public space and public life are the most powerful expression of local culture, so how does the personality of the place shape the street and public culture? Looking at cities from a historical perspective, places in the past were highly regional and isolated, while modern society has a higher population flow, all of which will affect the culture of a city. Of particular importance is the corresponding model introduced for the development of modernization, including various standards, as well as the establishment of health, management, functional departments, etc., gradually changing the inner and outer aspects of each city. Since modernization is an irreversible trend, in the past we could see the local characteristics of various regional cultures in streets, markets, temples, etc., but now almost all cities in China are gradually becoming homogeneous. As a result of urban renewal, square avenues have replaced side streets and alleys, thus cutting off the basis for the survival of street culture.
  Under the current system, the state has a huge influence on the development of a city, and regulation is the main means of modern urban construction, including the public ownership of urban land, which has also given the green light for the city to be demolished and rebuilt. This kind of extreme modernist planning cannot be said to be completely characteristic of China. French architect Le Corbusier fully expressed his urban vision of “big is beautiful” in his “Glorious City”, even if If it is not in harmony with the original city, even the new plan will completely replace the original city. From the results, China’s urban planning almost reflects Le Corbusier’s modern features: rapid transportation, urban avenues, and the entire city is divided into commercial areas, residential areas, industrial areas and other functional areas. However, this kind of grand urban vision has caused great harm to the city’s culture in the process of urban development.

  In fact, there are many ways to develop a city. For example, the American urban planning theorist and historian Lewis Mumford (Lewis Mumford) believed in his “History of Urban Development” that a city should be alive, just like an organism, with life and death, and culture is its lifeblood , what he emphasized is to develop according to the cultural context of a city. Going a step further in Jane Jacobs’s “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, it is believed that the old blocks that have been formed do not need to be demolished or fully renovated, but gradually aimed at the community in urban construction. In refinement, the center of consideration is the convenience and safety of residents’ lives, rather than grand and beautiful buildings and streets. Standardization, as a kind of myth, is the result of excessive superstitious belief in the power of the state, ideology, culture, and policies under a single system, and the entire society has become more and more uniform, rigid, and lacking in vitality. James Scott’s “National Perspective” sounded the alarm for us. We are too superstitious about a certain power, and often the last thing we get is the opposite of what people expect. Therefore, we need to mobilize all the forces of the society more, and the joint participation of citizens is the normal way for a city and a country to operate. In the final analysis, the more voluntary organizations are more perfect, the healthier the social development will be.
  My emphasis on daily life is not to abandon the grand narrative, but to keep a certain distance from the grand narrative, because the macro is often invisible to the individual. What you see from a macro perspective is the distant view, like standing on a high mountain, or looking at a city in the clouds, how can you experience the thoughts, feelings and experiences of individuals in the city? When studying history, we must pay attention to people—people as individuals, and don’t always look at people as a group. “People” and “mass” are all group concepts, but they are all composed of individuals. A person’s happiness, anger, sorrow, and joy are all related to his own experience, so historical research should care about the fate of the individual. If the demands of individuals are ignored, then the so-called group is just empty talk. In the historical narratives of the past, when an emperor or a hero wants to create history, he is full of pride, but the people who are coerced into it are likely to flow into rivers of blood, countless people’s homes are destroyed, and thousands of lives are turned into dust. Who remembers their names, their stories? Ordinary people, who account for the vast majority of the population, have disappeared without a trace in history. Isn’t this a problem that historical research should reflect on? To study some small issues, in fact, there can be big issues behind it. The most direct one is how to treat individuals. I even think that how to treat individuals is the touchstone to test whether we really care about the fate of the people.
  There are two views of history in historical writing: imperial view of history and daily view of history. In the view of the former, the history of a country should revolve around dynasties and emperors, and the people have no value in writing. But I think that the common man and the day-to-day, day-to-day, day-to-day, as it relates to the problems faced by the vast majority of the population every day, deserves at least the commensurate attention of historical research. In fact, it not only involves how we view history, but also how people view themselves. When we look at history carefully, we will find that those emperors and heroes caused more destruction, damage to economy and culture. The development of our civilization to this day is created by thousands of ordinary people. I also want to emphasize that, in fact, every ordinary person, everything he does every day in his daily life is the greatest contribution to this society, and he should enjoy personality, dignity and rights. Those in power want to keep people’s lives on a daily basis, not torment them over and over again.
  Writing daily life is not an easy task, because daily life is hardly recorded in historical materials. Everything in the past becomes “history”; there is another kind of “history”, which is the history we write—reconstructing history by consulting limited materials, field investigations, etc. Reconstructed history can never fully reproduce the past, and the farther we are from history, the greater the limitations we suffer. Moreover, the materials we can rely on now are only a very small part of history itself. If we want to reconstruct history based on such a small amount of data, to what extent do they restore history itself? Although in many cases when we write history, we need to use “historical imagination” to fill in the gaps in the data, but this filling must have a historical basis. Historians are neither philosophers nor novelists, and they must be deduced under reasonable logic. And the writer must tell the readers that this is a reasonable guess made by the author after using limited data, it is just a possibility, not history itself.
  Regarding the materials, I don’t think that as long as they are found, they can be used casually. Because there is a lot of uncertainty in the information, how far is the story told in it from the real history? How to analyze these texts? I used to think that finding archives, newspapers, and diaries was equivalent to finding history, but now I don’t think so. These records are just a kind of text, and the text must be placed in the historical environment at that time, and its connotation can only be revealed after analysis.
  The lack of data is indeed a problem in the study of ordinary people and daily life, but the use of literary data is a possible way. In my opinion, writers and novelists write about the lives of their contemporaries, which is a kind of historical record. Chinese novelists have a tradition of collecting stories, such as going to the countryside to experience life, and recording the people and things they come into contact with, which is a kind of historical record. In fact, historical records are not necessarily more authentic than literature. Historians themselves also have limitations and prejudices. In the past, historical writing was fond of grand narratives. The biggest problem was the lack of individuals. Ordinary people have no place. Therefore, historians should not look down on literature too much. American historian Hayden White discussed the commonality between historical writing and literary writing in “Metahistory”, and there are also internal structures such as romantic dramas, comedies, tragedies, and satires. Traditional historiographical training disapproves of the use of literary sources, but I increasingly disagree. The description of the land reform movement in Mo Yan’s novel “Life and Death Fatigue” surpassed any historical writing about the land reform movement I have read; Lu Yao’s “Ordinary World” described the life stories of farmers on the Loess Plateau in the 1970s Very true. Therefore, literature can be used to supplement the lack of historical details. In fact, there is no clear separation between history and literature. History must be literary, and literature must have a sense of history. When there are no historical sources, literature can be judiciously selected to fill in the missing parts.

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