Review of ICI Fellows Publication


We’re pleased to share a recent review of a new book out by our 3rd cohort ICI Fellows titled Environmental Sustainability from the Himalayas to the Oceans: Struggles and Innovations in China and India (Springer 2017). The book is edited by Shikui Dong, Jayanta Bandyopadhyay and Sanjay Chaturvedi. Along with Nidhi Shrinivas, Victoria Marshall and Lo Sze Ping, this group of scholars from India, China and the US were part of the final cohort of India China Fellows working on the topic of Social Innovation for Sustainable Environments (2010-13).

Here is a brief excerpt from the review in PrimePost by Vithal Rajan titled India, China Collaboration Needed To Protect Ecology.

While general public anxiety over our fast degrading environment has produced a plethora of books, none is better than this one, written with so much attention to detail, and history, making complex scientific facts easily accessible as much to the lay reader as to the scientist. The book is delightfully illustrated with carefully drawn maps and charts, and beautiful photos, which all aid the reader in understanding the threats to the fragile ecology of the Himalayan region, affecting both India and China.

A phalanx of authoritative scientists have authored this book, Indian, Chinese, and international. In the present cacophonous political atmosphere, the authors refreshingly argue, repeatedly throughout the book, for joint international action and joint regional bodies between India and China to help reverse ecological degradation in the Himalayan region, which is drastically eroding the quality of life for millions north and south of the mountain range.

The two principal authors, Jayanta Bandyopadhyay and Shikui Dong, go into the early histories and theologies of the two great Asian civilizations to highlight the ecological sensitivity embedded in their cultures. Shikui Dong starts his exposition of the present state of play in China with a conventional bashing of the Mao period in the 1950s and 1960s, a period when all governments were equally ignorant and irresponsible.

You can read the full review online here.

New Book by Former ICI Fellow Jonathan Bach on Shenzhen

Learning from Shenzen

The India China Institute is excited to announce a new edited book from former ICI Fellow Jonathan Bach, along with Mary Ann O’Donnell and Winnie Wong: Learning from Shenzhen: China’s Post-Mao Experiment from Special Zone to Model City. The book is published by the University of Chicago Press (2017) and is available now. Here is the book description from the publisher:

This multidisciplinary volume, the first of its kind, presents an account of China’s contemporary transformation via one of its most important yet overlooked cities: Shenzhen, located just north of Hong Kong. In recent decades, Shenzhen has transformed from an experimental site for economic reform into a dominant city at the crossroads of the global economy. The first of China’s special economic zones, Shenzhen is today a UNESCO City of Design and the hub of China’s emerging technology industries.

Bringing China studies into dialogue with urban studies, the contributors explore how the post-Mao Chinese appropriation of capitalist logic led to a dramatic remodeling of the Chinese city and collective life in China today. These essays show how urban villages and informal institutions enabled social transformation through cases of public health, labor, architecture, gender, politics, education, and more. Offering scholars and general readers alike an unprecedented look at one of the world’s most dynamic metropolises, this collective history uses the urban case study to explore critical problems and possibilities relevant for modern-day China and beyond.

To learn more about this book, or to read excerpts and purchase a copy, visit the publisher’s website here.

The authors will be doing a book launch in Shenzhen on January 14th, so if you are in China near the city, check out the event in person. Details in the poster below and here.

Former ICI Fellow L.H.M. Ling on New World Making by China


We are pleased to share another new post from former ICI Fellow L.H.M. Ling (2008-2010) in the Huffington Post. In her latest piece, “New World Making: China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ Policy”, Ling looks at China’s ambitious new “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) policy and what it means for the future of Asia.

It’s another Great Game!, critics charge. OBOR retells an old story: a newly muscular China is contending for hegemony with other great powers like the US, Europe, and Russia. Central Asia and the Indian Ocean constitute the “pawns,” “rooks,” and “knights” on the board. Local “kings” and “queens” may mark the game but only the Great Powers can play it. China’s claim of “mutual complementarity” and “win-win” scenarios under OBOR covers for a Sino-centric division of labor. China acquires what it lacks while selling what it has – none of which helps local development. In fact, critics imply, OBOR is repeating what the West has done to the Rest since the 15th century. We’ve seen this movie before.

But hold on. Why the Silk Roads? What’s the significance of these ancient, segmented trade routes for massive, contemporary investments of labor and capital, concrete and steel? What does it mean for China to revive, both economically and politically, those areas of the globe that have fallen into dusty neglect since medieval Europe re-routed the spice trade?

The Silk Roads, after all, lasted more than a millennia. They represented more than a strip of geography, a venue for commerce, barter and trade from long ago and far away. They also enriched our world-of-worlds with exchanges and flows, languages/religions/goods, despite frequent conflicts and contestations. The Roads brought merchants, pilgrims, monks, soldiers, and nomads in contact with princesses, nuns, shamans, scribes, and settlers. The long, arduous, scenic, adventurous, death-stricken, awe-inspiring routes mandated interdependence, and perhaps reverence for wisdom and insight, learning from the signs and the esoteric, and a basic degree of humility and adaptability that led to a non-individualistic, non-predatory approach to living.

You can read the full article here.

ICS-HYI Fellowship for China Studies – Apply Now


We are pleased to share some information from ICS and HYI about a new doctoral fellowship for Indian students they are offering. Applications are due by Feb 20th.

Applications are invited from Indian citizens for a multi-year doctoral fellowship in China Studies sponsored jointly by the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi (ICS) and the Harvard-Yenching Institute, Cambridge, Massachusetts (HYI). The Fellowship encompasses substantial support for developing language and pursuing research in India, China and Harvard. The applicants will be either already registered in a PhD programme in an Indian university or in the process of applying to a PhD programme in the social sciences or humanities including anthropology, archaeology, cultural studies, economics, geography, history, international relations, language and literature, legal history, philosophy, political sciences, religion, and sociology, and would have adopted a specific China focus in their studies.

More details about the HYI program and how to apply can be found on their website here.

Chapter Three: How We Accidentally Wandered into an Urban Village


After 17 grueling hours of flights and about another 5 of struggling to get our hands on a hotel room key, we had finally made it to our (temporary) new digs in Luohu, Shenzhen. By the time I laid my head down onto the feather and rice filled pillow it was 4 AM—or 4 PM in New York, where I had just travelled from. When I finally woke, I found Jordenn on his phone and light peering in underneath the curtains into an otherwise dark room. “Oh good, it’s still light outside,” I mumbled to Jordenn. “Yeah…those are streetlights.” It was 9 PM. Waking up to realize I had been asleep for 17 hours was one of the weirdest feelings of my life.

Jordenn and I spent the rest of the evening wandering our neighborhood in search for vegetarian-friendly dining, which lead us to a mango pizza lounge. Don’t ask. Afterwards we continued on our journey throughout Dongmen Subdistrict, a pedestrian street for shopping, without any destination in mind. We eventually came to an alleyway that seemed much more lively than the street we were on, so we naturally followed that path. In doing so, our night took a turn as well.




Instead of being surrounded by lightless H&M’s and unidentifable billboard advertisements, we found ourselves immersed in the vibrant night life of a busy Shenzhen side-street. As the road winded, the buildings inched back from the street little by little, eventually lending the sidewalk space to become full-on plazas consumed by small markets. People selling food from carts and live fish from tanks seemed to be the urban motif of the given area.

As we continued, Jordenn and I never asked each other which way we should walk—we just moved naturally through the space. The street got increasingly smaller as more and more food vendors set up shop in front of businesses that were closed for the night. The formal establishments may not have been serving anyone, but the urban space sure was.

Narrower and narrower the street shrunk, eventually becoming a corridor that packed just as many people, lights, and food as the wider part could. Vinyl canopies enclosed the space at a claustrophobic height, which, at 6’2″, I of course hit my head against a metal pole—not a single person winced or showed any sign of empathy. (A common theme for Jordenn and I thus far has been our ability to attract an incredible amount of attention, but hardly any sustained interest.)

After just a few minutes of walking along the smaller path, everything changed when we reached a fork in the pedestrian-road. The walls seemed to close in even more but the ‘ceiling’ finally opened up. There was no longer any room for food stands or even for more than a few people to stand shoulder to shoulder in the width of the space. Upon reaching an intersection, Jordenn and I stood still and consciously examined our surroundings for the first time. The buildings suddenly appeared more residential in nature with just a small shop selling convenience items every few yards.  It was much quieter—almost too quiet. Windows curtained from within and barred from the outside seemed to tell me something, but I didn’t know what. I looked for an answer further up the facade until my eyes met the top of the building, and suddenly I knew exactly where we were.

I had been reading about this urban condition for months in advance, which makes me quite embarrassed that I didn’t immediately recognize it. The ‘thin line sky’—a single streak of vastness created by two facades that nearly touch—revealed itself between the ‘handshake buildings,’ (named such for obvious reasons). By wandering Shenzhen, we had naturally and quite fluidly found ourselves in the middle of an urban village.



Contemporary History

The city of silk and beauties, Suzhou has a similar storyline to Hangzhou. Yet, I find it more serene than the latter. Probably because it is also easier to get around with the absence of a lake puncturing the centre of the city. I must acknowledge that I have an almost insensible fondness for Suzhou.

Indeed, with a museum crafted by I.M. Pei, one of my most respected architecture masters, it is quite understandable why it has an exquisite hold over me.

The museum exists harmoniously with its context. The structure reciprocates the rich history of Suzhou, looking to local architectural elements of 粉墙黛瓦 Fèn Qiáng Dài Wâ, (Pastel Walls, Ink Roofs). At the same time, its exhibits modernist characteristics with its sleek silhouette.

Prof. Pei considered the Suzhou context in his design and synthesized it with his creativity. It proves to be very successful, and the Suzhou Museum is an unmistakable, original Chinese landmark.

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?

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