This special issue on critical directions in Chinese architectural history is prompted by the opportunities for scholarly engagement that have opened up in postreform China. The opening is a result, not merely of China’s emergence as a geopolitical power, but also of the forms of knowledge production and exchange that the reformist desire for economic growth has spawned.

After a hiatus of several decades, scholars in China are again engaging with Western scholarship. Architects and planners from the West are handling major commissions in China, and Chinese architectural firms are returning the favor. Thousands of students, practitioners, and researchers are crossing political, cultural, and linguistic boundaries to learn and to share expertise. The expansion of architectural criticism in China beyond the aegis of the state bodes well for the future. Although only a small fraction of architectural research and criticism published in Chinese has been translated into English, the surge in English-language publications on Chinese architecture and urbanism signals the potential for scholarly debate in this field. The subfield of Chinese architectural history has come a long way from being characterized as static and marginal, “dangling precariously” from the lowest branch of Banister Fletcher’s Tree of Architecture.1 Now it is “change” that preoccupies scholars of Chinese architecture and urbanism.

The favorable conditions of communication take on an urgency as the pace of economic growth in China assumes sublime physical proportions, creating a gap between modes of conducting research in architectural history and the issues that have appeared critical in the midst of this landscape overhaul.2 The physical transformation of Chinese cities and rural landscapes—the destruction of historic fabric, the appropriation of agricultural land for urban expansion, the construction of massive infrastructural networks—has created a problem of description and historical caesura. China shares this phenomenon of transformation with many other countries in the global south, even if the scale varies, and even though the historical contingencies that have created these landscapes differ substantively. In China, the older distinctions between city and country have ceased to have sufficient explanatory power as market socialism creates unprecedented demands on space and labor, and mass migration transforms the peripheries of cities.3 Proliferating anxieties suffuse the descriptive terms for these mobile populations: serial migrants, repeat migrants, cyclical migrants, return migrants, permanent migrants.4 The kinds of historical imagination deployed to address these altered landscapes will define the critical contours of architectural history in China and elsewhere in the world. This involves both temporal and spatial questions—whether to privilege continuity or rupture, or to see historical landscapes as palimpsests, and time and space as networks resistant to unificatory paradigms and geographic confinement. The possibilities of historical imagination are lodged as much in the preparedness of the historian posing the questions as in the specifics of the case that demand a new analytic.

This “crisis” of history is viewed differently by different constituencies: those in mainland China and those outside the mainland, for example, may see different vistas of significance when they consider the historical landscape. It depends on how they experience those places, through inhabitation, or virtually and vicariously through various media. However, the problem is not one of insider and outsider—those terms are, after all, always relative.5 It is also unlikely that there will be a national scholarly or popular consensus on the specifics of the historical crisis, unless the state demands such a consensus. Indeed, for some it is not a crisis at all: it is the opportunity that has launched myriad profitable enterprises. History in architecture, construed as skin-deep simulacra of the past, need not heed the history of architecture: the Xintiandi effect in Chinese cities depends on historical disconnections to create desire.6

What kinds of historical imagination are possible, then, in dealing with China’s architectural history? For example, what is the guiding concern of the architectural historian: national integrity or historical integrity? The long intimacy of historicism, capitalism, imperialism, and the nation-state has made the question a difficult but critical point of departure for many historians, suggesting the need for “rescuing history from the nation.”7 However, faced with sociopolitical crises, not once but many times in the long twentieth century, Chinese architectural history has relied on an enlightened national feeling to launch its own validity. Liang Sicheng’s 1944 article, “Why Study Chinese Architecture?,” published here in English translation for the first time, is a reminder of the historical specificity of that trajectory of thought. Liang Sicheng sought in the kernel of patriotic consciousness the ability to restore the nation’s architectural history devastated by war and the logic of “improvement.” Architecture on one’s own “cultural” terms would restore the nation’s dignity. It is on this basis that Liang Sicheng argued for the importance of Chinese architectural history as preparatory to creating new works of architecture. As Delin Lai explains in his article on the design competition for the National Central Museum in Nanjing, this argument for historical relevance was a decisively creative move. A new narrative of Chinese architectural history that could compete with Western counterparts promised a modern Chinese architecture.

A similar historical consciousness marks Fu Xinian’s brief essay encapsulating the development of research in architectural history in twentieth-century China. His remark that “our decades-long experience tells us how little success we have had in continuing building traditions” is as much a critique of contemporary architectural production in China as an expression of concern that historical continuity, the backbone of Chinese architectural history, would cease to be relevant as a structuring device. In his view historical integrity and national integrity overlap, even if they are not one and the same. Here too, architectural history is seen as necessary for “solving” architectural design problems and reasserting the essence of the nation’s civilization. A century-long history of having to measure up to foreign forces and Western knowledge systems marks this lament/hope and also describes the close ties between architectural history and architecture as a profession in present-day China. Fu Xinian’s wish that decades of copious surveys and documentation of historic architecture in the country would in the near future lead to a theory of Chinese architecture is evidence of both an urge to move out of the realm of description to inferences that have significant explanatory power and a gesture that seeks to unify the regional and historical divergences of architectural production to produce epistemological stability. What constitutes Chineseness—and how to define its spatial limits, historically and in the global present, remains a vexed question.8

Nancy Steinhardt writes in her state-of-the-field essay in this issue that the narrative stability of Chinese architectural history derives from the imperial investment in maintaining architectural standards as marks of power and identity. The emphasis on stability and continuity that characterizes such historical narrative is not exclusive to architectural history; the “ultrastability” of the Chinese state system (and its resistance or immunity to change) is a contentious subject among present-day historians.9 The significant change Steinhardt predicts would occur in the expansion/reformulation of the canon as more research is conducted on hitherto marginal regions and newly acquired territories. In the concluding section of her essay she expands on this idea, noting that the calculations of domestic and international tourism by local authorities are likely to guide the understanding of the architectural past.

Telling the story of this latter phenomenon will necessitate reckoning with the instability of architectural meaning, beyond the original moment of creation and the creators, susceptible to the vagaries of political and commercial interests. It will require that we see the ordinariness of the exceptional monuments of the past, or how the form and meaning of a building or an ensemble change when viewed through the net of lived experience. Heng Chye Kiang, in his digital modeling of the residential wards of Tang Chang’an, offers a glimpse of what daily life in these wards might have been like. Reflecting on the destruction of the fine-grained urban fabric of Chinese cities today and their replacement by big-footprint buildings, he notes that the ordinary fabric of houses, courtyards, and street networks is far more critical than urban monuments in staging the possibilities of urban life. Renee Chow takes a designer’s perspective on this problem in present-day Shanghai to argue that the new object-like buildings that constitute the CBD are a gross misreading of the capacity of urban space. The new architecture, intended to brand the city and make it legible to global capital, assumes a model of legibility entirely different from the unique one offered in the twentieth-century city: in so doing it destroys the old neighborhoods—products of another modernity, as well as the formal resonances that echoed across the landscape between the row houses or lilong and the network of waterways in historic Shanghai.

Cary Liu and Max Hirsh further complicate the problems of a legible landscape. Liu, focusing on Shanghai and the perceptions of the city in the longue durée of the nineteenth century, asks some fundamental questions about historical transformation in a city that has been the vanguard of change in an ocean of architectural constancy. Liu challenges this narrow reading of Chinese urbanism and Westernization paradigm and asks that we review our understanding of what accounts for and counts as change. For example, why do architects and city authorities insist on the material durability of buildings when material durability has not always been regarded in China as indicating either authenticity or originality. Liu notes that traditionally, words, rather than the act of building, have bestowed the power of historical endurance as well as creativity. Liu’s methodological gambit, which problematizes the concept of durability, is based on the recognition that lived experience and varied encounters of the “kaleidoscopic city” cannot be explained by a West-East duality. The simple idea that a city is as various as people’s perceptions of it may be an important corrective to much urban history that assumes a panoramic gaze. It might also alert us to those layers of the landscape that are illegible because they are not marked by iconic architectural presence.

Max Hirsh takes up this problem of illegibility and suggests that if we wish to understand Chinese cities in terms of mobility and flow, we leave the realm of iconic architecture to fathom the “definitively banal” aesthetics of “transborder infrastructure.” Such infrastructures reside on the margins of the much-flaunted airport facilities of postreform China. These consist of airports and ferries that transport guest workers and businesspeople who lack the right citizenship credentials between Hong Kong and the cities of Guangdong province without going through Hong Kong’s immigration procedures. Transborder infrastructures distend and contract state boundaries to make political space correspond with economic space. In the process the cultural space spills over, creating new “contact zones” in these globalizing cities. The provisional nature of such spatial metamorphosis invites a different view of spatial occupation: impermanence becomes the template for a radical understandings of marginality, ordinariness, and the vernacular.

The banal aesthetics of transborder infrastructure, however, has a valence entirely different from that of the “ordinary architecture” espoused by the avant-garde or “experimental” architects that Guanghui Ding profiles in the field notes section of this issue. Unlike the transborder phenomenon, “ordinary architecture” speaks a language of stability and continuity and is useful for turning powerlessness into an aesthetic asset.

The articles in this special issue are not so much about representing a cross section of Chinese architectural history in the present, since many perspectives and voices are missing here, but I hope they will help us seek out, as a community of researchers, what is happening in this subfield, and thereby enable us to critique our own research practices and the questions we choose to ask in terms of global architectural history. I wish to caution that this is not a gesture that makes Chinese architectural history only useful “to think with about the West”; nor does it mean rescuing Chinese architectural history from Banister Fletcher’s epistemic tree to restore it to its rightful position in the center of a global discourse, but to question the presumptions of one’s centeredness or marginality. Such an effort must take the risk of spatial imagination.

I wish to thank Nancy Steinhardt for her advice and assistance in planning this issue, and Delin Lai, Yan Wencheng, Peter Sturman, Katherine Saltzman-Li, Vimalin Rujivacharakul, and Duangfang Lu for their thoughtful input.

For their dedicated service to the JSAH, my heartfelt thanks to the review editors whose terms close with this issue: William Littman, Jesús Escobar, Patricia Morton, and Kathleen James-Chakraborty. I am delighted to welcome Joanna Merwood-Salisbury, John Senseney, Steven Nelson, and Leslie Topp in their place, and Patricia Morton as the Editor Designate.



See Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt’s article in this issue, “Chinese Architectural History in the Twenty-First Century.”


See, for example, Xuefei Ren, Urban China (Malden, Mass.: Polity Press, 2013); Thomas J. Campanella, The Concrete Dragon: China’s Urban Revolution (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2008), 14–25.


John Friedman, China’s Urban Transition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), chap. 4; Ren, Urban China, chap. 4.


Friedman, China’s Urban Transition, 65.


See Liu Dong’s cautionary note on the insider-outside problem in “Revisiting the Perils of ‘Designer Pidgin Scholarship,’ ” in Voicing Concerns: Contemporary Chinese Critical Inquiry, ed. Gloria Davis (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), 90.


Xintiandi refers to Shanghai’s revamped historic district. See Cary Y. Liu’s article, “Encountering the Dilemma of Change in the Architectural and Urban History of Shanghai,” in this issue. See also Campanella, The Concrete Dragon, 275–79.


Prasenjit Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995). See Arif Dirlik’s comment on this point in Culture and History in Postrevolutionary China: The Perspective of Global Modernity (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2011), 185.


See Dirlik, “Timespace, Social Space, and the Question of Chinese Culture,” Culture and History in Postrevolutionary China.


Jin Guantao, “Interpreting Modern Chinese History through the Theory of Ultrastable Systems,” in Davis, Voicing Concern.