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City identity matters in a global age

Daniel Bell and his research

Author  :       Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2014-01-20

Daniel A. Bell, professor of ethics and political philosophy and director of the Center for International and Comparative Political Philosophy at Tsinghua University and Zhiyuan Chair Professor of Arts and Humanities at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, left a strong impression on WAN’s correspondents in a speech at the Wilson Center.’s recent symposium “The Spirit of Cities: Why the Identity of a City Matters in a Global Age”. Bell’s contribution in transmitting Chinese philosophy to the world is beyond measure.

In the Western tradition, the first political thinking emerged out of comparison between different cities and the values they represented. Bell pointed out that by contrast, during China’s Warring States Period,“Political thinkers roamed between different kinds of cities with different ideas for making the state strong and secure, and the main schools of Chinese political thinking emerged out of the ferment of ideas in Warring States cities.”

In numerous works, including The Spirit of Cities: Why the Identity of a City Matters in a Global Age Beyond Liberal Democracy: Political Thinking for an East Asian Context and East Meets West: Human Rights and Democracy in East Asia, Bell repeatedly develops the idea that a defining element of city in modern society is a unique “ethos” or “spirit” which reflects and embodies the different political and social values of a city. Calling it one of the most successful city slogans, he noted how “I love NY” has shaped people’s impression of New York. Cities, like people, have distinctive personalities, Bell maintains, noting that comparisons between the ways of life in different cities are commonplace, and that judgments toward cities are typically more open than those toward countries.

Bell observed that cities without an ethos are morally acceptable but less preferable. “Some people may prefer to live in homogenized communities where they can blend anonymously with the crowds. Others may prefer living in neighborhoods with particular characteristics even if the city as a whole is an incoherent mess. And some people may be attached to ‘characterless’ cities just because they are born and bred there,” he detailed. In his view, cities with an ethos are both more easily accepted, and create a more inclusive feeling among their residents. Elaborating on the difference between cities with an ethos and those without by sharing some details from his life, during which he has been closely connected to several cities, Bell explained, “When people hear that I have been living in Beijing for more than eight years, some just hailed that ‘you’re an old Beijinger!’ But actually nobody will call me Chinese and at most they will call me Chinese son-in-law since my wife is a typical Chinese.”

“In English, there is not even a word that captures the idea of urban pride, the idea that residents of a city are proud of their way of life and struggle to promote its particular identity.” To fill this linguistic gap, Bell has cooperated with Avner de-Shalit, director of the Department of Social Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, to nominate the word “civicism” to express the sentiment of urban pride. Bell’s research also focuses on the influence of globalization on cities, a phenomenon he believes is two-sided. For one, he observed that globalization has enabled cities to attract more pluralism and diversity in cultural ideas and alternatives than countries as a whole can. Additionally, globalization can promote the free movement of capital, humans and goods and an open minded attitude to foreigners and the “other”. “Therefore we defend only cities whose ethoses (sic) do not oppose openness and global solidarity.”



The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 535, Dec. 11, 2013

The Chinese link:



  Translated by Zhang Mengying

  Revised by Charles Horne

Editor: Du Mei

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