West Lake Story


Historically, this is the land of love stories, kings, heroes and mythical beauties (most famously war hero Fanli and legendary Great Beauty Xishi). Today, it is also known to be home of Ma Yun (aka Jack Ma), and the Alibaba empire and its affiliates.


The contemporary context brings skyscrapers to the preserved landscape. The historical architecture is preserved aesthetically as capital for tourism, while the original social fabric is completely disintegrated by the engulfing commercialism. A Starbucks sits by the West Lake inconspicuously in Chiang Ching Kuo’s former villa.


Drawing Near

The semester is ending and as my finals conclude one after another, my mind can draw more attention to my study that is about to commence. With advice from Professors Brian McGrath, David Leven and Lei Ping, I am in extremely good hands to execute my study of architecture, homeliness and homebuilding.

This is an issue that most native inhabitants of emerging economies are facing — the erosion of familiarity in hometowns. Places, whether they are villages, towns or cities in their own right, are superimposed with western iconography of a “modern city”. Concrete, steel and glass take over the landscape and engulf the local cultural integrity. As the identity is displaced, the home becomes unfamiliar.

Shophouses in Chaozhou

Shophouses in Chaozhou

A temporal comparison of housing would be quite adequate to bring out the contrast between local and the misguided sense of “modern”. I am also looking to see if the dichotomy between the two is a misconception. Perhaps progress and heritage are not mutually exclusive? Furthermore, in places that such a coexistence occurs, such as Hangzhou, what are the challenges that it faces?

Professor Brian McGrath, who is especially knowledgable about Hangzhou, has told me that the overwhelming tourism has torn the inherent social fabric. Professor Lei Ping has also shared that preserved landmarks such as Houhai, Tianzifang face similar problems. Tianzifang, an area of preserved Shikumen architecture, is no longer residential, as it was originally intended, but a commercial tourist hotspot. This is important to note and must be addressed in my study as well. For one, it may serve as an antithesis — that the heritage imprint may not preserve the sense of home if it becomes commodified and commercialized. However, it may also help my argument because the large attraction of tourism it draws suggests that heritage means a lot to people — the domestic Chinese and foreigners alike. If more places are able to preserve their cultural heritage, then there is less need to flock to officially protected landmarks to appreciate vernacular architecture.

It is not an easy question to answer and I can only hope to open more questions with my inquiries.

What makes a city a home?

What makes a city a home?

As I continue refining my research question, I begin to dig into the heart of the problems I was looking at — the tension of history and progress. And in my lament over the loss of historical markings of a place in its becoming a city, I discover that it is these features that make it a home.

The vernacular architecture of places are the inherited built environments that its people grow up with. These places are occupied, inhabited, lived, breathed, seen, touched, walked, heard, etc. etc. I recall returning home during the summer and winter breaks, and each time something changes. Or many things changes. New buildings constructed, old ones demolished, New roads paved, old streets cleared. The loss of familiarity was unsettling, as if I was losing my home.

Tying my topic of interest with my discipline, I wish to investigate and dissect the vernacular architecture of Chinese cities, and contrast those with the new built environments. Looking to the structure and program adjacency, I hope to understand how architecture creates a social identity.

At this stage of the project, I believe a fruit of this is a collection of analytical drawings and photos of housing in the cities I visit. As well as a contextual consideration of the community, and consider the differences between a city like Suzhou vs. Shenzhen.

In essence, this is a project that seeks to understand the notion of home. Chinese cities, facing urban migration and economic development, may begin to take new forms. Yet, should we let go of the local built heritage in face of this?

The Right To Hack The City?

Can the city be hacked like an iPhone can? If the city is already produced, then is this actually the best way for urbanites to reclaim agency, rather than fighting for their ‘right to produce the city’?

Clearly, Jordenn and I are still asking questions to try to get at the heart of our research question. In fact, after recently attending the Spatial Politics of Work weekend-long workshop with such an amazing group of scholars, researchers, and designers, I’ve only been asking MORE questions.

While on a FaceTime call with Jordenn, I filled him in on some of the major themes of the weekend, one of which being ‘hacking’. As I learned, hacking culture is huge in Shenzhen. This raised the question: what other than phones and computers can be hacked? A system? A building? What about the city?

This is right in line with our interest in the idea urban resistance, but we agreed that they are not necessarily one in the same. Nevertheless, this is the path we are taking for the time being.

Later that week, I received a few answers to my many questions in a thoughtful discussion I had with a friend I met at the workshop—artist, anthropologist, and longtime Shenzhen resident Mary Ann O’Donnell. When I told her about our desire to look at ways people are resisting, or hacking, the city of Shenzhen, she looked at me as if the answer was written on my forward. “The beauty of China is that its designed to be hacked.” She explained that so much of China—everything from cable TV to a water bill—is expected to be hacked into by its citizens, making it socially acceptable and common behavior. “Non-compliance is an art in China.” Mary Ann finished these statements by prompting me to consider how much of this is just “coping” rather than acts of resistance or defiance.

What a thought! This made me realize that we must question everything, even our own assumptions. Back to the drawing board for Jordenn and I…

NYU Shanghai Fellowship Opportunities

Two positions, at either the predoctoral (ABD) or postdoctoral level, for the study of intra-Asian interactions are
available at the Center for Global Asia at NYU Shanghai. These fellowships are for a period of four months,
commencing anytime between February and 1 May 2016.

Candidates working on any aspect or phase of intra-Asian interactions are welcome to apply, but topics related to
China-South Asia and China-Southeast Asia exchanges and Indian Ocean connections are of particular interest to
the Center.

Applicants for the predoctoral position must have completed all course requirements and should demonstrate
strong reasons for research in China. Those applying for the postdoctoral position are expected to hold a PhD,
preferably completed within the past five years (2010 and after).

For more information download fellowship announcement [pdf here].

New Pulitzer Center Book ‘Ecological Civilization in China’


New Ecological Civilization Book

As many of our readers know, ICI has been increasingly working more on issues related to religion and ecology in the Himalayas. So it is with great interest that we can share some news on this front from China. On June 16, 2015, academics, journalists, scientists, government, religious and business leaders from China, the US and other countries came together for the first time to discuss the environmental challenges facing China and the world—and the increasingly important role of religion and traditional cultures in finding sustainable solutions to the challenges we face.

Earlier this year the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, in conjunction with the Pulitzer Center and Communication University of China, hosted the “International Conference on Ecological Civilization and Environmental Reporting” in Beijing. Just this week the Forum on Religion and Ecology (FORE) at Yale released the proceedings of this conference, titled Ecological Civilization. The report, which summarizes most of the talks and content of the international conference, should be of great interest to any of our members working on environmental issues in China, as well as the intersections of religion and ecology in global environmental discourses.

Here is a brief excerpt from the opening pages of this report by Jon Sawyer, Executive Director of the Pulitzer Center:

It is easy to assume that China’s environmental challenges are China’s alone. The bad air or unsafe food or toxic rivers we read about have no effect on us, we might think, and nothing to do with the world’s demand for the flood of inexpensive, high-quality consumer goods that has fueled the Chinese economic miracle. But “China is a global factory,” says anthropologist Dan Smyer Yu of Yunnan Minzu University. “However you consume, whatever you consume, pay attention to the label ‘Made in China.’ So each of us has a responsibility for the environmental practices of China. China’s environmental issue is a global issue. We have to take responsibility, each of us.”

Smyer Yu was among an extraordinarily diverse group of specialists who gathered at Yale Center Beijing in June to engage an issue that is close to home for us all—the state of our environment. But they also addressed a dimension of this topic that is new, and significant—how our diverse religious and cultural traditions might contribute to assuring a sustainable, healthy world for generations to come.

You can find out more about the conference and the book at the Pulitzer Center.

Download and read the entire conference proceedings book as a pdf [here] or on iTunes [here]. The e-book is also available via Kindle and Atavist.


Tansen Sen on ‘Chinese lessons from Africa’


We’re excited to share the latest post from ICI friend and scholar Tansen Sen in the Times of India. In this post, Professor Sen discusses the role of China in Africa, scholarly efforts to look at Africa and Asia together, and the challenges and opportunities for both China and India in their engagement with African countries.

Here is a brief excerpt from his piece:

India is, compared to China, a latecomer to the geo-politics of the African continent. This is despite the fact that Jawaharlal Nehru had, even prior to Indian independence, launched several initiatives promoting Afro-Asian unity in the then decolonizing world. The cultural affinity that Nehru sought, however, made little headway as the African states became pawns in Cold War politics. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) also became engrossed in Cold War geo-politics as it competed with Taiwan for official recognition by African states. The political and subsequently economic inducements offered since then have led to the PRC winning over all but three African nations, Burkina Faso, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Swaziland. Mainland China is now the most powerful, admired, and, at the same time, one of the more despised foreign entities on the African continent.

You can read the entire article here.

ICI Secures $722,000 Grant from Ford Foundation


The India China Institute (ICI) was recently awarded a $722,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to support the development of a new, multi-year project called the China-India Scholar-Leaders Initiative. The initiative will support up to 18 promising young scholar-leaders who are using interdisciplinary research methods to grapple with complex questions related to prosperity and inequality in India and China, and want to expand their knowledge and research capacities in this area.

The Scholar-Leaders Initiative breaks new ground with scholars in India, China and the United States,” said ICI Senior Director Ashok Gurung. “We are developing a one-of-a-kind fellowship experience focused on supporting critical, interdisciplinary approaches to studying prosperity and inequality in the world today involving both young and established scholars worldwide.

This project builds on several successful project of the India China Institute, including the India China Fellows program, the India China Knowledge and Capacity Building Initiative, and the Emerging Scholars Initiative. It also seeks to foster the emerging field of India China Studies by supporting a new generation of Scholar-Leaders who are committed to producing critical new research, teaching and course development. The initiative will build strategic partnerships among select universities and research institutes in India and China, such as Peking University and Jawaharlal Nehru University that are well positioned to sustain and advance India China studies. These efforts will be linked through the creation of new courses built around a common research and teaching agenda of Prosperity and Inequality in India and China. ICI will partner with The New School’s Global Studies program to host some of these courses, and a group of former ICI Fellows from India and China will be important partners in helping ICI to develop this new curriculum.

The initiative focuses on supporting scholars from underrepresented backgrounds (e.g., first-generation college graduates, women, ethnic minorities) and aims to ensure they have equal access and opportunities to participate in global academic networks. By focusing on the theme of prosperity and inequality in India and China, ICI aims to further advance its commitment to research, teaching, and policy engagement that advances a focus on social justice and sustainable development. ICI is well positioned to focus on the development of young scholars through the issue of prosperity and inequality. By building on this work, ICI aims to strengthen these new scholarly networks and support interdisciplinary research that can promote better critical scholarship on inequality and prosperity.

To learn more about this new initiative visit the China-India Scholar-Leaders Initiative.


Tansen Sen on ‘China’s Coming Storm’

We are excited to share the latest “China Man” column by ICI friend and scholar Tansen Sen from the Times of India. In this latest piece, “China’s coming storm: But it will survive the current crisis as it has done many times before,” Professor Sen delves into the current political situation in China, and offers some of his reflections on the future. Here is a brief excerpt from his piece:

Predictions of an impending collapse of Communist China are a common pastime among a handful of foreign scholars and commentators. These soothsayers have made their dire predictions almost every decade since the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949. All have been proven wrong despite several disasters and political turmoil.

The Chinese leadership’s aptitude to institute prudent changes after each adversity seems to be a key reason for its endurance. Instead of a collapse, these changes have transformed China into an economic and geopolitical powerhouse.

Will President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang also respond to the current turbulence with prudent adjustments and prolong the rise of China?

You can read the entire piece online at the Times of India here.

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