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Urban history in an urban world
Author :  Zhang Jie Source : Chinese Social Sciences Today 2016-08-25
Scholars in the field of urban history have broadened their scope beyond simply studying cities from a chronological perspective and now look at the lives of city-dwellers from a spatial dimension.
Urban history is now more important than ever. This historical knowledge is being integrated into urban development strategies, providing new ideas to drive China’s development.
Broadly speaking, urban history is a field of historical studies that examines the nature of cities and towns as spaces. The field previously emphasized urban political and economic history, but over the past 20 years the new multidisciplinary approach has incorporated fields like urban sociology and other social sciences. This has led to deeper and more detailed research, coupled with more monographic studies.
Li Xiaocun, a history professor from Peking University, said that early urban history focused on changes to urban localities over time, but in recent decades, scholars have broadened their scope beyond simply studying the cities from a chronological perspective. They now focus on the lives of city-dwellers and changes to their habits at various parts of history from a spatial dimension. This process gives a more complete image of how cities evolve.
Ren Jidong, a research fellow from the Institute of History at the Tianjin Academy of Social Sciences, said that urban history represents a major shift in historical research that breaks the limitations of long-standing political and economic frameworks, and focuses on concrete historical units as well as individuals. So the shift, which places this history into a wider system of urban development, is generating fresh impetus for historical studies.
Li Changli, a research fellow from the Institute of Modern History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, pointed out that urban history is becoming more diversified and detail oriented overall. She said that a strong awareness of obstacles in the field is aiding this process. There is no longer singular one political reform, and the scope has expanded to include urban management and social governance. So these new trends are consistent with the inherent logic of academic development, but also correspond to the realities of China’s urbanization reform, Li said.
Ren said that great progress has been made in such topics as social structure, urban population and cosmopolitan life, as well as case studies and comparative studies of different types of cities. Urban history has transcended boundaries and become a new and relatively independent discipline that is closely related to sociology, economics and other subjects.
But Ren also noted that urban history research faces two challenges. The field is restricted by the tendency to examine human history according to periods, and these divisions have resulted in gaps of knowledge between these generations. The homogeneity of the research is also a problem. In particular, the repetition of similar cases studies according to set routines is stifling innovation.
Li Changli pointed out some problems in the field as well. Most urban scholars focus on Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan and other metropolises, while there is much less attention given to small and medium-sized cities, especially small towns. She added that urban history lacks deeper applicable theories, and this is particularly obvious when examining urbanization reform. A relatively mature theory explaining the unique features of China’s path to modernization has not been established.
Urban history should take into account the real situation on the ground, Li Xiaocun said. For example, urban scholars should conduct research about urban locations, not only to examine history, but to raise better suggestions for city planning and development from these lessons.
Li Changli said that urban history should draw on the theories and methodologies from urban sociology and other related social sciences and conduct more problem-oriented research, especially the pressing problems in China’s urbanization, to enhance the link between history and reality. She added that more exploratory theories should be proposed to explain the changes in urban modernization in China and construct a localized theoretical system.
Ren offered two pieces of advice to improve urban history research. From the micro perspective, case studies of small and medium-sized cities, as well as groups such as the underprivileged and the marginalized should be consistently conducted for a longer time to obtain competitive advantages, while systematic research and summary of cities and regions at the macro level are also needed to show the main development trends, constructing a research system that combines long-term and short-term research, coordinates micro to macro research, and links case studies to integrated studies.