The transformations in mainland China over the past two decades have
given rise to more than their share of hyperbole from all sides. The
statements of conservative Western free-market advocates and socialist
bureaucrats, for example, coincide with jubilant claims that the People’s
Republic of China (PRC) has at last discovered the true path to moder-
nity. The American media ceaselessly trot out images of fast food and
technology as evidence of a victorious penetration of the ‘‘bamboo cur-
tain.’’ For Chinese citizens who are actually living with these changes,
however, the transformation of the physical landscape, the virtual reorga-
nization of built space to reflect a new social reality, is a constant, some-
times jarring fact of daily life. Film critic Dai Jinhua describes an urban
world in which ‘‘the old cities—for example, Shanghai, which is a few
hundred years old, or Beijing or Suzhou, which are thousands of years
old—quietly recede into oblivion in the explosive transformation. If the
spaces of old remain the milestones of individual remembrance and of
regional history . . . then the prosperous, cosmopolitan, anonymous big
city already truncates its enduring visible history’’ (Dai 1997: 146). These
revised city landscapes have been produced through an uneven mélange
of local, regional, national, and transnational influences and reveal an
aesthetics and politics that overlap with the past.
This volume had its beginnings in the fall of 1995 in Beijing, when a
group of anthropologists met informally to discuss the di≈culties of
doing fieldwork in urban settings, chaotic and transitory as they are.
There, in a city that has witnessed two decades of upheaval as a result of
epic reconfigurations in the economy, we sensed an urgent need to reas-
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