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Of 土 and 海

The shadow of geography in modern Chinese thought is profound, for the understanding of a modern China above all relies on the interpretation of what China is. A population? A geography? A continental form of knowledge, modulated as cultural system? The interrogation of China’s two modern cities—Harbin and Shanghai[1]—reveals certain disparities in the approach toward geography and landscape, and the resultant subject position. Shanghai, whose name literally means “up against the sea,” and the soil of which is nearly entirely all the eroded dust from the banks of the Yangtze in the Chinese interior,[2] is the heir to the watery tradition of Jiangnan, the Yangtze region of water towns; Harbin, the frozen Siberian capital, was founded as an outpost in the middle of the “Great Northern Wasteland,” which has been tamed by the successive generations of labor fanning out from the transportation network of which Harbin is the center. Shanghai, then, has never been sufficiently solid or stable to be a capital; it errs on the avant-garde of flow, a slippery Atlantis. Harbin, with its gruff dialect, with its ripe and aged neighborhoods, with the earnest and clean faces glimpsed on the boulevards, is a city in which the earth has come to life.

Chinese literature and identity has always been construed through wandering—from the Shan Hai Jing,[3] through the work of Li Bai, a drunken wanderer whose reflections coagulated into canonical poetry,[4] through the modernist writing of Lu Xun and Mao Dun, and even the poetry of Mao Zedong. Gaining a fixity on a given space has always seemed impossible (of course, this is not a merely Chinese phenomenon; Joseph de Maistre’s famous contention that there was no such thing as a “motherland,” and that nature is not even a stepmother to us; Adorno’s incomprehension of nature[5] is also typical). If we truly felt at home on the earth, utopia would be a foregone conclusion; it is precisely the sense of homelessness that has created the need for collective actions and organizations. Since no home is afforded to us, we have no choice but to create one. At least, this has been the objective of Chinese modernizers. A central dialectic, one enforced by the Chinese landscapes themselves, and the distinction between north and south, is between 土 and 海, or land and sea.

Today, “土,” which literally means dirt or earth, has become an insult denoting the rural; nouveau riche mansions in the countryside are inhabited by 土豪 (rural tyrants), soul food is 土菜, accents of those newly arrived in the metropole are 土. “Earthiness” and connection to the terrain has become the ultimate slur in a country attempting to become pure flow. The intense desire to sever the self from a connection to the land (one that is not merely notional, but via the hukou registration system, a legal and biopolitical reality) is an ongoing project; one thinks of the 1988 documentary “River Elegy,”[6] in which the reformers who would be involved in the Tiananmen Square protests advocated a shift from an earthly, domestic, heimat form of knowledge to one regulated by flows of the sea, with its blueness, its emptiness and freedom, the economic model of trade and exchange, and above all, the endless repetition of time, of days organized in endlessly repeating patterns, tidal waves of work which swept populations along like so many drops of water. It is here that the metaphor offered by the soil on which Shanghai is built rises to true poetry: the eroded sediment from all over the country, dirt and trash, carried along by the Yangtze River to an outpost where scum transforms into a plateau for any number of activities.

Although the Chinese revolution’s ostensible goals were to eliminate feudalism and imperialism from the Chinese terrain (in which tasks it arguably succeeded), the deeper goal was always to take control of the Chinese natural environment.[7] In the deepest sense, the Chinese revolution (one which predates the Communist Party, and is a continuity of intellectual and political projects stretching at least to 1911’s Xinhai Revolution) has the objective of removing human communities from a symbiotic relationship with the natural environment, instead placing human communities in control of the natural environment (and therefore removed from a condition of animality, which could be understood as: existing in an ecosystem as one component among many). The objectives of Chinese modernity could then be understood as a tripartite process:

1. Creating a political authority that unifies “China,” a disparate set of geographies, from desert to tundra to rainforest to tropical islands, as being a single interior;

2. Activating the consciousness of the population in this terrain, in particular the ability to control this terrain and the ability to flow freely throughout this terrain;

3. A utopian terminal point in which all impediments—imperial, feudal, traditional, material—have been removed, and a population has universal freedom of access to a terrain that has finally become entirely materialized, no longer a mythical set of ancestral villages but rather an entire continent comprehended as real estate, as mines and farmland, as a storehouse of resources which can be used as a prosthesis to offer this population the wherewithal for the will to power.

The 1949 Chinese Revolution succeeded in the first objective, but gave a unified political authority control over a vast and sweltering continent, one in which the average lifespan was 35, illiteracy was widespread, and the bulk of the population lived in feudal conditions. When Mao Zedong said “The Chinese people have stood up”[8] on the dais in Tian’anmen in 1949, he was evoking a utopian future, not describing a present; by merely creating the category “Chinese people” as a political unity, his comments were revolutionary. This first stage found literary representation in, for example, Lu Xun’s parable of the iron house: a prison full of slumbering people soon to die.[9] The revolutionary question was: should one wake this dormant population, or merely let them die in peace. The ongoing revolution, internal to the state, which followed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, crashed different demographic and population groups against one another such as to form a unity of experience, and create the possibility of generic typologies (for example, economic typologies, architectural typologies, or media/spectacle typologies), and can be characterized as the second phase. After a population has been logocentrically created, by naming disparate groups as one, to activate that population; not only to wake up the group, but to watch them stand up. Mao Zedong’s poem “Swimming” could symbolize this era: from the aesthetic revolution of the 1930s, which simply described a utopia, one that was entirely external to lived collective reality, the political revolution of the 1960s sought to create a collectivity in shared struggle. From aesthetics to politics to the highest stage of materiality, economics; and in this, the final phase of the project of Chinese modernity, a population now unified, now activated, begins to flow across the continent freely, transforming the space into a homeland. Inverting Heidegger’s formula, thinking came first, after which living, and building only last (once the intellectual structures, a modern consciousness had been created, could the architectural structure of the city be created). A literature of the present would be one of generics; a map of the Chinese high-speed rail system, or the books of rules found in chain hotel rooms, would suffice to describe the contemporary Chinese condition.

In other words, from land to sea. The landlocked masses of the Chinese interior are therefore stigmatized precisely for their connection to the earth, to the homeland that has been discarded as passé.

In the 1930s, Shanghai’s belle époque, during which Shanghai really was the first colony of aquatic life in the Chinese mainland (with its foreigners, described in the argot of the time as being “ocean devils”), the streets famously flooded every monsoon season; László Kovács, art deco architect par excellence, constructed his masterpiece, the Normandie, on the model of an ocean liner, steaming elegantly down Huaihai Road, a main artery.[10] A young J. G. Ballard, wading through the floods of spring, retained the vision for his novel The Drowned World. Today, this riverine mentality has flooded all of China, offering a mentality that transcends the village—a sense of the activities of the collective, unified by generic typologies of movement, a feeling that is properly oceanic. The terrain of the past, the frozen north, is now stranded, crashed on the beach of the contemporary. And yet, resident in Shanghai, I have the unmistakable sense that the endless flow of time, which leaves nothing behind but waterlogged memories of the past, is not solid enough of a platform for a truly collective life; a reconciliation with the spirit of the earth is necessary. With this in mind, I intend to here commence a series of articles researching Harbin and Heilongjiang, in a journey to the center of the Earth; not the center of the terrestrial globe, but rather to the center of a mentality rooted firmly in the soil.


1. I describe the two as China’s modern cities for the simple reason that they were both founded in the modern period, whereas cities such as Beijing, Guangzhou, Chengdu, etc. all have prehistories. Shanghai and Harbin, however, both originate in the high period of modernity—Shanghai, roughly speaking, in the mid-nineteenth century as treaty port; Harbin, as a railway station founded in 1898.

2. The city is “built on ground so porous that one American engineer described it as not much more solid than dirty water.” Gregory Bracken, “Thinking Shanghai: A Foucauldian Interrogation of the Postsocialist Metropolis” (Ph.D. diss., Delft University of Technology, Delft, Netherlands, 2009), p. 58.

3. 山海经, or The Classic of Mountains and Seas, is an ancient work of geography-cum-mythology, describing the trajectories of ancient travelers; this format of picaresque discovery of the national geography repeats itself again and again, from the famous Journey to the West to Ma Jian’s Red Dust.

4. His dedication to the landscape was such that one evening, drunkenly staring into a lake and seeing his own reflection, he toppled in; indeed, in Chinese literature, a particularly characteristic form of suicide is to merge with the landscape entirely, to lose the self in the image of the land.

5. As analyzed by Sebastian Truskolaski in “Images Without Images: Adorno on Natural Beauty.”

6. In Chinese, 河殇.

7. See Judith Shapiro, Mao’s War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001).

8. Available here in Chinese is the text of the famous speech Mao gave on the complete victory of the Community Party in unifying China under their control.

9. “Imagine an iron house without windows, absolutely indestructible, with many people fast asleep inside who will soon die of suffocation. But you know since they will die in their sleep, they will not feel the pain of death. Now if you cry aloud to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making those unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you think you are doing them a good turn?” See Lu Xun, preface to Call to Arms, available here.

10. “Restoring a slice of Shanghai,” China Daily, September 8, 2008.

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