Course of civilization to inspire urban history studies

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-04-04

Civilization, in a broad sense, refers to all achievements of material and intellectual culture in human society. Resulting from comprehensive development of human politics, economy, and culture, the city has long been regarded a symbol of civilization. There is a traditional view among urban history scholars that urbanization is the main thread running through the development of human civilization.

In this light, civilization should be an important research perspective for urban history studies. At present, the framework of civilization has been widely adopted in archaeology. Researchers identify whether a settlement was urban based on a series of findings with symbolic civilizational significance and consider the emergence of the city as a mark of the origin of a civilization. 

In the field of historical studies, greater attention has been paid to urban history since the writing system was created. Compared with more primitive ages, the complexity of urban problems and abundance of textual materials have increased considerably. However, historians mostly confine their urban history studies to a single city, using dynastic evolution as the timeline, while focusing on specific issues in content.

With the deepening of dialogues between historical studies and archaeology in recent years, the research vision of civilizational history in the field of archaeology is likely to bring the relationship between city and civilization to the fore in the history community. As a broad concept, civilization has wider extension in its dimension, breadth, and depth. It has the potential to contribute to breakthroughs in urban history studies in terms of research approach, category, and path. 

Understanding city in system

Human society became increasingly sophisticated after entering the age of civilization. From that point on, civilization’s complexity grew rapidly. The construction and evolution of civilization was by no means completed by one single city. According to French theologian Jacques Ellul, the primary condition for the emergence of the city is to “depend no longer on nature.” A lack of self-sufficiency determines that the city could exist only in territorial relations. As such, researchers should cultivate a mindset of understanding the city within a system, whether out of the attention to the logic of the city’s existence or the relationship between city and civilization.

In recent years, research of cities along thoroughfares for civilizational exchanges has advanced our knowledge about the systemization of cities. In her monograph Cities and Society in the Six Dynasties, Shu-fen Liu, a research fellow from the Institute of History and Philology at Academia Sinica in China’s Taiwan region, said that there had already been an urban system which integrated domestic and foreign trade by importing rare commodities abroad from Guangzhou in Guangdong Province by way of Yongjia and Linhai in Zhejiang Province to Jiankang (present-day Nanjing of Jiangsu Province), the capital of the Six Dynasties (222–589). 

Professor Zhang Guogang from Tsinghua University pointed out in the General History of China-West Cultural Relations that overseas trade in the Song Dynasty (960–1279) led to a sharp increase of port cities and the systemization of intraregional cities.

At the same time, the addition of the Grand Canal to the UNESCO World Heritage List has catalyzed urban history studies along the canal. Zhang Xuefeng, a professor from Nanjing University, held that the Grand Canal facilitated the overland Silk Road with Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an in Shaanxi Province) and Luoyang (in Henan) as trade hubs, and the maritime Silk Road which had Mingzhou (modern-day Ningbo in Zhejiang Province) and Quanzhou (in Fujian) as central ports, to form a complete transportation sphere in the Sui (581–618) and Tang (618–907) dynasties. This requires researchers to revisit China’s role in, and contribution to, global civilizational exchanges in the urban system comprised of the waterways of Southeast Asia and the steppes in inner Asia. 

An emphasis on “system” thinking has gradually become a salient feature of urban history studies. The urban system is essentially about relations, including relations between cities, and between urban and rural areas. It is necessary not only to analyze these relations through the lens of politics, military, market, finance, industry, and culture, but also to explain the functions performed by cities of different sizes and types and their roles in the system, thereby deepening the understanding of the city amid changes in the landscape of civilizations.

Interpreting city through culture

Apart from systemic characteristics, civilization has strong cultural attributes. When discussing urban history over the course of civilization, culture should be incorporated to illustrate related research.

With the application of the new cultural history approach, urban cultural history studies were gradually enlivened and have achieved fruitful results. However, as research topics tend to concentrate in consumption, entertainment, and the like, historians are critical of such undesired phenomena as fragmentation and a lack of grand significance, worrying that these drawbacks will lead to an underestimation of the academic value of urban cultural history. 

Sociologists maintain that culture differentiates the city from other settlements. In English language, “order” and “principles” are used to account for the civilizational connotation of the city. With strong cultural attributes, on one hand, the two keywords stress that “enlightenment” on the cultural front is the core indicator from which to measure the city. On the other hand, they abstractly remind researchers of the need to construe urban culture on a higher level.

In traditional Chinese context, the word “culture,” wenhua in pinyin, is likewise profound. In ancient Chinese culture, greater attention was paid to social governance and social education which played a pivotal role in the evolution of the civilization. Thus, studies of urban cultural history should extract, from research objects, spiritual principles which will help drive urban development to summarize the value system that has decisive effects on the rise and fall of an urban civilization. 

Cultural exchanges between cities are a vital force that sustains civilization. The shaping of a civilizational system might be grounded in economic relations, or underpinned by military occupation and political control, but its sustainable development relies on the dissemination, acceptance, and identification of culture. The city is exactly a tool to effectively capture and spread the power of cultural universalization.

Making sense of city from society

Conventional definitions of the city emphasize its economic attributes. For a long time, Western scholars have negated the urban nature of Chinese cities, arguing that their political attributes outweighed their economic attributes. This has spurred Chinese urban history researchers to spend more time exploring economic factors of Chinese cities. However, to understand the city from the perspective of civilization, the principal criterion for determining whether a settlement was urban should be whether it had elements of an urban civilization.

Both “civilization” and “society” can generalize records of real life and history within a certain region, so British sociologist Patrick Geddes, French historian Fernand Braudel, and other scholars regard the two words as mutually indicative. In his work The Culture of Cities, American social philosopher Lewis Mumford pinpointed social attributes unique to cities as the nucleus of an urban civilization, saying “the nature of the city is not to be found simply in its economic base: the city is primarily a social emergent.” His view has inspired scholars of urban history to define the city from societal angles. 

If urban culture and exchanges between cities represent an urban civilization and power its development, urban society is the receptor of diverse cultures and incubator of urban culture.

In the foreword to his Chinese translation of Mumford’s The Culture of Cities, Song Junling, a research fellow from the Institute of Sociology at Beijing Academy of Social Sciences, called for attention to the important implication of “cultivation” underlying “culture” in Mumford’s work. 

In his research on Foshan town (zhen) in Guangdong Province [during the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties], Professor David Faure from the Chinese University of Hong Kong discovered that the social mentality of welcoming strangers played a key part in the transformation of Foshan from a town into a city, laying a critical foundation for the settlement to enter the age of modern civilization earlier than many other Chinese towns. This also suggests that academics should not rest on historical narratives of superficial phenomena in an urban civilization, such as new organizations and professions, but go deeper into the environment and mechanism responsible for the generation of a city’s civilizational elements through the lens of social history, while examining how these emergents advanced the progress of the civilization.

Moreover, efforts should be made to understand the city within the state-society relationship. With strong capacity for mobilization, the state has become the planner, organizer, and pacemaker of civilizational construction, while enriching the civilization by absorbing and blending local social cultures. By internalizing the will of the state into local society, the people make the region more civilized. 

Historical anthropologists have offered accurate portrayals of this interaction process from the angle of rural society. In traditional society, although the city pales in comparison with rural areas in terms of population and size, it can, as a political and cultural hub, unleash immense power in the process of civilizational construction, which the countryside cannot achieve. In such an advanced settlement as the city, the state and society would necessarily interact on more complicated levels and dimensions, which also makes the depiction of civilizational construction from urban perspectives more promising.

The history of civilization is not to direct urban history studies toward hollow macro narratives. Instead, it aims to provide a far-sighted dimension for urban history in time and space. If scholars of urban history remain engrossed in case studies, they will fail to give valuable, comprehensive responses to the fundamental question of what the city and urban history are, respectively. The approach of civilizational history can probably help researchers review and integrate existing research outcomes within the vision of total history, with civilizational evolution as the temporal unit and cultural communication as the spatial scope, to elucidate the significance of urban development to the course of civilization. 


Xu Zhena is from the School of Social Development and Public Administration at Suzhou University of Science and Technology.

Editor:Yu Hui

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