Traveling through modern Chinese cities at times feels a blur, the view from a bus or taxi window seemingly untethered from any past or even particularities of place. In one sense, everything everywhere looks the same; it's easy to feel a little numb. Another Sinopec gas station. Another KFC. Another new high-rise apartment block, curiously and often enough, in "Tuscan" or "Neoclassical" style. Another new airport. Another Carrefour. But this sense of déjà vu is misleading.
China's fast-growing megacities -- 43 cities of one-million-plus today, and a projected 221 by 2025 -- may at first blush look homogenous and interchangeable, but of course a metropolis is more than a collection of buildings, and foundations aren't only poured in concrete. With few exceptions, China's most significant modern metropolises have varied, lengthy, and winding histories. At a recent literary event in Beijing, the author and New Yorker contributor Zha Jianying was asked to explain if and how "history and modernity coexist" in China. Zha, who publishes in both Mandarin and English and is one of today's most insightful writers in explaining China to the West, and vice-versa, mused: "It depends on what history you care about. People care about living history -- the language, the cuisine. But architecture?" She paused. "Every new dynasty would burn the old palace and build anew. It's very different in that sense than Europe ... There's a long venerable history of destroying the old."
Beijing is an extraordinary and dynamic city, and my current home, but it's perhaps overrated -- at least as a prism for understanding China. For unlike many countries that at one time or another in history have laid some claim to being or becoming the new center of the universe, China has never long or truly been a nation dominated by one metropolis. Beijing is not like London, Paris, Rome, Madrid, Constantinople, Cairo in the sense of having been the constant seat of empire (China has had six historic capitals), or even as a bellwether for a civilization's fortunes. It has long been China's administrative capital, but not its central marketplace, site of religious pilgrimage, industrial hub, or even popular tastemaker. In France, a common saying sums up the centrifugal force of the capital: One is said to be either "from Paris or from the provinces" - from the nation's political and cultural center of gravity, or from the sticks. But in China, an old truism carries nearly the opposite meaning: "Heaven is high, and the emperor is far away." In other words, the center doesn't know about, or can't fully control, what happens throughout China's vast territory.
One way to visualize this decentralization is a remarkable map, first published in 1977 by the anthropologist William Skinner in an anthology of scholarly articles about Chinese cities. Skinner divided China into a map of nine distinct economic and cultural regions that functioned, in practice, semi-autonomously (10 regions, if you count the western hinterlands). The boundaries were logical and geographic, with regions divided by mountains and centered on river basins or coastlines, hubs of agriculture and transport. The economy of each revolved around a major city or cities that functioned as regional hubs. China is a vast country -- more than 3,700,000 square miles -- and historically, the difficultly and expense of overland travel limited the exchange of goods and ideas. Each region therefore developed distinct characteristics, cuisines, and urban hierarchies. This was not a national hub-and-spoke system, with Beijing at the center: "Fairly early in my research on Chinese cities it became clear," Skinner wrote, that "they formed not a single integrated urban system, but several regional systems, each only tenuously connected with its neighbors." Skinner gave each region names: "North China" for the area around Beijing; "Upper Yangtze" for the Sichuan basin, including Chengdu and Chongqing; "Lingnan" for the Pearl River Delta, including Guangzhou. After a long and distinguished university career, Skinner passed away in 2008, well remembered, and mostly remembered, among scholars.
But his map -- first drawn to illustrate late imperial China -- holds up fairly well today: It's still pretty much true that the areas around Beijing and Shanghai are respectively their own worlds, northeastern China (once known to foreigners as "Manchuria") is an economy and mindset apart, the less developed west is a distinct region, and areas centered around other key cities are to a degree regionally unique, economically and culturally. For all the sweeping changes in China since the liberalization of the late 1970s, in 2008, when Skinner and colleagues updated his map to reflect the present era, they found that the regional boundaries had changed only slightly and that the urban anchors remained the same.
In other words, even after all the wars, uprisings, occupations, and political and ideological reversals of the 20th century -- from the Last Emperor to Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping -- the old lattice of key cities was not significantly recast. China today has many more cities (and much larger ones), of course, but the most important ones -- that is, those regional hubs like Hangzhou, Wuhan, and Kunming, the ones developing as leaders in specific fields of the modern economy, such as Xi'an in aerospace or Shenyang in heavy industry, the ones forming direct links with the rest of the world, such as Guangzhou and Chengdu -- are mostly not overnight cities like Shenzhen, but often very old or ancient centers of power. So this brings us back to Zha's point: If the historical imprint isn't in the buildings, where is it?
If familiar names like Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong are China's "first-tier cities," then its next largest and next most important cities are referred to by government planners and marketing analysts as "second-tier cities." After that "third-tier." And then "fourth-tier." But don't let the Communist Party's vaguely Soviet-sounding naming system mislead you into thinking it's all centrally planned and orchestrated. Money flows from the center, but every city has its own planning department and frequently even the planning department isn't really making the plans.
In recent years, jousting and differentiation among Chinese cities has grown quickly. "There's wasn't as much regional competition before the 1990s," Tao Ran, a scholar at the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy, explained at a conference in Beijing earlier this year, "but the gradual privatization of industry has intensified cooperation for investment." Since the late 1990s, land sales have been a major source of city revenue, allowing an even greater degree of independence. Chinese cities have "a surprising amount of autonomy in terms of fiscal and legislative authority, even more than in the United States," explains Daniel Bell, a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing and author of The Spirit of Cities. He thinks the rivalry between cities can be a good thing, pointing as one example to how the historic coastal cities of Dalian and Tianjin have each upgraded their infrastructure and now alternate as host cities of the Asian World Economic Forum meetings, better known as "summer Davos." During the Soviet-influenced era, urban planning was more homogenous, but now "city officials are asking themselves: What are the values that make us particular and distinguish us from other cities?"