The Modern City in Asia: Interview with Kristin Stapleton

To mark the publication of new contributions to our Cambridge Elements in Global Urban History series, we will feature interviews with authors and share short excerpts from their work. Here, series co-editor Tracy Neumann interviews Kristin Stapleton, the author of The Modern City in Asia. Kristin Stapleton is Professor of History at University of Buffalo and the author of several books and articles on Chinese history. An excerpt of The Modern City in Asia follows the interview.

Tracy Neumann (TN): Your previous work has focused on China and Chinese cities, while your Element ranges more broadly to situate the development of modern Asian cities in global history. What was the biggest challenge in writing a relatively short piece with such a broad scope?

Kristin Stapleton (KS): My earlier work on China really made me aware of how attractive the vision of the modern city was to many Chinese officials and intellectuals in the years around 1900. That made me curious about whether the same was true in other parts of Asia. So I approached this project from the perspective of the history of ideas more than via social history methods. As a lifelong social historian that shift in approach was somewhat challenging. I love to get into the nitty-gritty texture of urban life, and the scope of this project made that impossible. As I note near the end of the Element, I hope other scholars will be inspired by the possibilities of Asia-wide comparisons and look in more detail at the historical connections across Asia and beyond. It’s a fertile field to cultivate, given the wealth of scholarship on the history of cities in particular regions of Asia. 

TN: You write that, in the decades before and after 1900, building – and critiquing – modern cities “brought Asian people together across national borders.” Can you talk a bit about how urban modernity was generative to pan-Asian movements?

KS: The concept of the modern city was presented in Asia as the fruit of “Western culture”: the modern city was a technologically advanced space that promoted economic development and rational, progressive governance. The nineteenth-century rulers of Meiji Japan, Qing China, and Siam adopted much of this vision of modern cities. But they attempted, more or less successfully, to assimilate it into their own political and cultural traditions and thus assert civilizational superiority over—or at least equality with—the European powers. Japan’s rapid industrialization and urbanization did not bring it the respect its leaders had expected in the “community of nations.” This contributed to the growth in Japan of different strains of pan-Asianism, which attracted attention elsewhere in Asia. These included appeals to Asian spiritual values, with arguments about the corruption represented by modern cities, as well as Japan’s imperialist expansion and the creation of Japanese colonial cities that rivaled European colonial cities.

In colonized spaces such as British India, indigenous elites were called on to fund municipal reforms and, as a consequence, began taking on significant roles in urban governance and demanding more say in colonial affairs. Many prominent Asian nationalists had experience in urban professions and urban affairs; the anti-colonial movements they promoted benefited from this expertise. In the early twentieth-century, such movements sought allies abroad within a pan-Asian or pan-Islamic framework. The global Communist movement led by the Soviet Union also attracted Asian adherents—although many, like Mao Zedong, saw Asia’s industrializing cities as strongholds of European imperialism and rejected the idea of the modern city as envisioned by liberal theorists.

TN: Elements are intended to be accessible to lay readers and their length makes them easy to assign in classes. How do you imagine your Element might fit into a university curriculum? Which classes might you assign it for? With what other readings would you pair it?

KS: I believe my Element is well suited for use in Asian history and world history surveys, as well as urban history classes, since it offers an interesting perspective on how concepts and technologies traveled around the globe in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It would also be useful for graduate reading seminars, since it introduces the rich literature on Asian urbanism. For an undergraduate world history survey, I would supplement it with first-person and scholarly accounts of life in Asian cities from a range of perspectives. Two books that do a great job of showing the cultural mixing that occurred in Asian cities in the centuries before 1900 are Leonard Blussé’s Bitter Bonds: A Colonial Divorce Drama of the Seventeenth Century and C. T. van Assendelft de Coningh’s journal of his experience of life in nineteenth-century Japan, translated by Martha Chaiklin as A Pioneer in Yokohama: A Dutchman’s Adventures in the New Treaty Port. The Phony Reformer, a popular novel published anonymously in China in 1906, offers a fascinating portrait of Shanghai at that time. It’s available in an English translation by Luke Kwong. I would also assign excerpts of the writings of the two most influential twentieth-century Asian critics of the modern city concept: Mohandas K. Gandhi and Mao Zedong.

TN: The Elements series aims at bringing global and urban history into a conversation. What are your favorite texts (classic, recent, or forthcoming) in global urban history? 

KS: In my field of Chinese history, William T. (Bill) Rowe made a big splash in the 1980s by directly challenging Max Weber’s characterization of Chinese cities as firmly under the thumb of imperial authority. His two studies of the important commercial city Hankow stimulated a lot of interest in Chinese urban history in comparative perspective and had a strong influence on me (Rowe used an older Romanization of the name, now spelled Hankou and part of the huge city called Wuhan). I was fortunate to be invited by Bill and the other editors of the Oxford Handbook on Cities in World History to contribute a chapter on twentieth-century Chinese cities to that book, which is a very rich and eye-opening collection. The thematic chapters of the Oxford Handbook, in particular, are a great place to look for insightful arguments about global urban history. Carl Nightingale’s Segregation inspired me to take on what seemed too broad a project by showing that an Americanist could write sensitively about Asian history (which Asianists tend to doubt!). In the “forthcoming” category, I would highlight my University at Buffalo colleague Katherine Zubovich’s Element on the history of socialist cities, from which I expect to learn much, particularly about cities in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. 

TN: What are you working on next?

KS: I’ve returned to a project I set aside when working on the Element—an English-language translation of a Chinese novel set in Chengdu, the Chinese city I know best, during WWII. At that time, Chengdu was a center for Nationalist resistance against the Japanese, and many American soldiers spent time there. But the novel is written by a local man, Li Jieren, who both wrote fiction and ran a paper factory, an unusual combination. Li Jieren’s fictional account of how the war was experienced in a Chinese city should be of interest, I think, to people who find WWII fascinating. I’ve also begun a collaborative study with a former student, exploring the history of a famous love story from the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) and how it has reverberated over time and space. At the same time, I plan to continue my reading and research in the history of cities across Asia. I’d particularly like to address a question that reviewers of my Element manuscript posed: how did ideas about cities and urban culture in early modern Asia, before the height of the industrial era, feed into what came to be seen as European conceptions of the modern city? I touched on that to some extent in my Element, but much more research will need to be done before it can be addressed fully.

The Modern Cities in Asia is available in paperback and as an e-Book; the e-book is free to download until August 5, 2022.

Excerpt from The Modern City in Asia

Throughout much of human history, the largest, wealthiest, and most techno- logically advanced cities in the world could be found in Asia. Asian cities have taken many shapes over the centuries, including as centers of administration, pilgrimage, and trade. Cities were integrated in various ways into broader polities and economic networks. Poets, historians, and travel writers celebrated their respective attractions. Political theorists and philosophers incorporated the phenomenon of cities into governance frameworks and idealizations of locality, world, and universe that evolved over time.

Beginning two centuries ago, Asian communities encountered a new and powerful conception of cities that had developed primarily in the context of Western Europe’s industrialization and then spread around the world. The emergence of the concept of the “modern city” resulted from worldwide developments in the early modern period. In the decades around 1900, though, the modern city was presented by its advocates as a special cultural product of a putative “Western civilization.” European, American, and Japanese imperial- ism promoted the spread of the new ideas about cities and urban governance in those decades, but new communication networks also allowed Asian activists to access such information outside of the direct control of imperialist authorities. Both “modern” and “city” being notoriously hard to define, what exactly constituted the modern city was always debated; nevertheless, as we shall see, it was a powerful concept linked to awe-inspiring technologies that transformed social and political life. In her study of Japanese “urban-centrism” in the 1920s and 1930s, Louise Young (2013: 18) writes that “the idea that modern cities possessed a kind of manifest destiny to expand their territory, power, and resources” was common in Japan and throughout the world during those decades. Alternative visions arose from within and beyond Asia to challenge urban-centrism to some effect, but, particularly in postcolonial Asian states, new governments often adopted development policies that perpetuated it.

This Element examines how the new conception of the modern city was received and contested, actualized, and transformed in various parts of Asia over time, focusing primarily on the past 150 years. I argue that this period witnessed both an unprecedented obsession with cities and the growth of city- centered politics in Asia. During the decades before and after 1900, entrepre- neurs and activists took advantage of the new significance of the city as an economic engine, cultural center, and site of governance to pursue a wide variety of goals. Thus, the concept of the modern city played an important role in Asia during a tumultuous era, despite much critical commentary on the
ideals associated with it. By the 1940s, the city yielded its political centrality to the nation, as decolonization efforts gained ground and new nations emerged from the ashes of WWII. Still, modern cities remained an important marker of national achievement during the Cold War. In recent decades, cities have continued to play a central role in economic and cultural affairs in Asia, but the concept of the modern city has transformed markedly, a process that continues today. Asian ideas about urban governance and visions of future cities are significantly shaping that transformation.

As is the case with cities throughout the world, ordinary people did almost all the work of building and maintaining Asia’s cities, in addition to shaping their cultures in many ways. This Element focuses primarily on how cities were conceptualized among elites who claimed authority over them or who led movements critical of them. As a result, the experiences of the majority of cities’ inhabitants are but lightly touched on. It is to be hoped that future contributions to this series will spotlight popular conceptions of the city and daily life in modern Asian cities.

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