Invisible Cities: The Dark Underbelly of Modern China’s Urban Spaces

By Carlos Rojas

Yuan Muzhi’s (袁牧之) 1937 film Street Angel (馬路天使) opens with a three-minute montage that begins with a rapid sequence of nighttime images of Shanghai’s neon signs, and which culminates with a series of shots panning up Shanghai’s buildings. The first shot following this montage opens with the camera angled directly up to the top of one of these buildings. The camera then slowly pans down to the base of the structure; even even after reaching street level it continues panning downward into darkness. A line reading “1935 August” (一九三五年 秋) appears superimposed over the image, and as the camera rises to ground level an additional line reading “Shanghai underground” (上海地下層) appears at the bottom of the screen—and it is precisely the lower-class residents of this “underground” who are the focus of the main body of the film.

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Fig. 1 Yuan Muzhi, dir., Street Angel (1937)
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Fig. 2 Yuan Muzhi, dir., Street Angel (1937)

This opening sequence of Yuan Muzhi’s film nicely captures a key tension in the way contemporary Chinese cities have come to be perceived and represented. As recently as the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, less than 20% of China’s population lived in urban areas, but the 1978 Reform and Opening Up Campaign catalyzed a process of rapid urbanization under which the nation’s urban population reached the 50% threshold by 2012, and currently exceeds 60%.[1] This mass movement to the cities has had a variety of effects, some hypervisible and others virtually invisible. On one hand, China’s cities have expanded at breakneck speed, to the point that by one calculation the nation currently has over 100 “urban areas” with populations of over a million, including six megalopolises with populations of over 10 million.[2] In addition, the rapid development has helped make Chinese cities virtual sandboxes for architects interested in designing and building highly innovative structures.

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Fig. 3 Beijing National Stadium, Beijing (opened 2008)
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Fig. 4 CMG Headquarters, Beijing (opened 2008)
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Fig. 5 Piano House, Huainan, Anhui (completed 2007)

On the other hand, this same urbanization process has exacerbated the wealth gap between rural and urban regions, which in turn has encouraged a massive wave of migration from the countryside to the nation’s cities. According to government statistics, contemporary China’s “floating population” of rural migrant workers currently exceeds 288 million individuals, or one-fifth of the nation’s total population.[3] However, given that the vast majority of these migrants are unable to secure residency permits in the urban areas to which they traveled to find work, they therefore find themselves relegated to a shadowy “underground” existence in which they lack access to many of the social services that documented urban residents enjoy.

While the hypervisible aspects of contemporary China already receive considerable attention within contemporary visual culture, it is perhaps more interesting to consider cultural works that attempt to visually document this nearly invisible dark underbelly of contemporary China’s rapid urbanization. For instance, Ji Dan’s (季丹) 2011 documentary When the Bough Breaks (危巢) focuses on a migrant family living in a makeshift hut in a vast dumpsite on Beijing’s southern margins. Three of the family’s four children go to a nearby residential school but frequently come home to visit their parents in their hut. The parents’ abject living conditions whet the children’s determination to seek a better life for themselves, and much of the documentary revolves around one of the daughters’ frantic efforts to raise enough money to send her younger brother to an experimental private school, even as the documentary is haunted by the absence of the family’s elder daughter, whom we are told has already left the family to earn money as a sex worker. In fact, Ji Dan has revealed in interviews that it was only after learning about the elder daughter’s disappearance that she decided to make a documentary about the family (whom she had already met five years earlier).[4]

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Fig. 6 Ji Dan, dir., When the Bough Breaks (2011)
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Fig. 6 Ji Dan, dir., When the Bough Breaks (2011)

While in When the Bough Breaks the waste site is used as the backdrop for the work’s focus on the migrant family itself, Wang Jiuliang’s (王久良) Beijing Besieged by Waste (Laji weicheng 垃圾围城), which coincidentally was also released in 2011, focuses more directly on these waste sites themselves. A photographer by training, Wang Jiuliang decided in 2008 to follow garbage trucks in order to see where they were taking the city’s waste. After discovering that the trucks were depositing the waste in open-air dump sites just outside the city limits, Wang undertook a more detailed investigation of these waste sites. After logging more than fifteen thousand kilometres on his motorcycle and spending countless hours scouring satellite images of Beijing and its surroundings, Wang succeeded in identifying nearly five hundred of these garbage dumps—which formed an outer boundary around the city that he ironically described as Beijing’s “seventh ring road.”[5] The resulting documentary details Wang’s efforts to track down these open-air waste sites (which were literally hidden in plain sight), while also documenting the lives of the scrap collectors who live in these aggregations of refuse.

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Fig. 8 Wang Jiuliang, dir., Beijing Besieged by Waste (2011)
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Fig. 9 Wang Jiuliang, dir., Beijing Besieged by Waste (2011)

Other recent films attempt to chronicle the dialectics of visibility and invisibility that characterize China’s urban construction. For instance, Zhang Baogen, the protagonist of Shi Runjiu’s (施潤玖) 1999 film Beautiful New World (美麗新世界), is a young man from the countryside who has won a new Shanghai apartment through a newspaper lottery. When Zhang arrives in Shanghai to claim his prize, however, he discovers that construction is running significantly behind schedule and the building won’t be completed for another year and a half. After resisting the developer’s attempt to buy out his share in the apartment, Zhang proceeds to move in with a relative and wait for the construction to be completed. The result is that, for months, Zhang occupies an indeterminate position in Shanghai that combines the precarity of the city’s migrant laborers with the economic security of the city’s real estate owners—a stark contrast that is foregrounded during a sequence depicting Zhang’s first job in the city, working as a construction worker, during which he suddenly starts fantasizing about his future apartment.

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Fig. 10 Shi Runjiu, dir., Beautiful New World (1999)
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Fig. 11 Shi Runjiu, dir., Beautiful New World (1999)

If Beautiful New World revolves around a migrant newcomer’s fantasy vision of an urban residence that has not yet been constructed, Chen Kaige’s (陳凱歌) 2002 short film “Hundred Flowers Hidden Deep” (百花深處) focuses instead on a residence that has already been demolished. Filmed for Nicolas McClintock’s omnibus Ten Minutes Older, Trumpet—one of two international collections that collectively are composed of fifteen ten-minute vignettes that each reflects on issues of temporality and the human experience at the turn of the millennium—Chen’s “Hundred Flowers Hidden Deep” features an old Beijing resident who hires a local moving company to help him transport his belongings from his current residence to his new home. When the movers arrive at the specified location, however, they discover that the old man’s “residence” has already been demolished, and all that is left is an empty lot. Incredulous, the movers initially drive away, but upon further reflection they decide to humor the old man and help him move his non-existent possessions. They therefore return to the empty lot and proceed to help load the moving truck with the man’s (invisible) furniture. The short concludes by shifting from a realistic shot of the empty lot to an animated water-color recreation of what is presumably the old man’s vision of his former home.

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Fig. 12 Chen Kaige, dir., “Hundred Flowers Hidden Deep” (2002)
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Fig. 13 Chen Kaige, dir., “Hundred Flowers Hidden Deep” (2002)

A final example of this dialectics of visibility and invisibility in contemporary representations of urban China can be found in Hao Jingfang’s (郝景芳) 2012 novella Folding Beijing (北京折疊) (which was only the second Chinese-language work to win the prestigious Hugo Award for the best science fiction or fantasy works). Set in Beijing several decades in the future, the work describes a city in which the population has been divided by class into three distinct groups. The first group consists of five million of the city’s richest and most powerful residents, the second consists of twenty-five million of what could be viewed as the city’s middle class, while the third group consists of fifty million of the city’s poorest residents. These three groups are not only differentiated by class, they are also strictly segregated at a spatio-temporal level by an elaborate mechanism whereby the entire city folds inside out three times every forty-eight hours—such that the first group of residents enjoys full use of the city for half of those forty-eight hours, the second group occupies the city for sixteen of the remaining twenty-four hours, and the third group works one eight-hour night-time shift every forty-eight hours. During the period that corresponds to each group, the members of the other two groups are placed in space-saving hibernation pods—as a result of which each group remains virtually invisible to the others, and the relatively small cohort of upper-class residents enjoy a luxurious existence while the much larger group of lower-class residents are literally condemned to a life in the shadows, many of them working skeleton shifts collecting the garbage left behind by the other two groups. Given that Hao’s novella has a strong visual dimension, it is not surprising that plans are already underway to make a movie version of the work. In 2017, it was announced that Korean-American screenwriter Josh Kim would direct the work, but would change the location from Beijing to an unspecified fictional city.

Hao Jingfang’s 2012 vision of a hyper-segregated version of a Chinese city proved to be uncannily prescient. On January 23, 2020, which happened to be the same day the original version of this blog post was completed, the Chinese government announced that the entire city of Wuhan, in central China, would be placed under quarantine in order to stem the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. By the next day, the quarantine had been extended to include fourteen other cities in Hubei province, bringing the total number of people affected to nearly sixty million. As the nearly invisible virus continues to spread rapidly through China and around the world, it has brought into sharp relief the growing porousness of China’s urban and national borders. For instance, after the initial Wuhan lock down was implemented, the mayor of Wuhan (which officially has a population of around eleven million) revealed that five million individuals had already left the city for the Lunar New Year holiday, which for many migrant workers is the only chance they have to return to their hometowns. Also, although the outbreak has not yet been officially labelled a pandemic, by February 14 it has already reached twenty-seven nations and territories outside of mainland China, and travel restrictions had been implemented in nations on all continents other than Antarctica. Although the ultimate outcome of this particular crisis remains uncertain, it is nevertheless clear that the growing size and population density of urban areas in China and around the world virtually guarantee that this sort of infectious outbreak will remain an ever-present threat in the future.

Featured image (at top): Four scenes from 1937’s Street Angel (馬路天使) , courtesy of Shaoyi Sun’s Film Review Blog

unnamed-10Carlos Rojas is Professor of Chinese Cultural Studies at Duke University. He is author, editor, and translator of numerous books, including Homesickness: Culture, Contagion, and National Transformation in Modern China.


[1] China’s urban population was a little over 59% of the nation’s total in 2018, the last year for which the United Nations Population Division has figures. Given that it has been increasing by more than two percent per year, it is almost certainly over 60% today. By comparison, the world’s urban population increased from 40% to 55% during the same period, according to United Nations figures. See https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/

[2] The same date indicates that nearly one out of every five cities in the world with populations of over a million is located in China. See http://www.demographia.com/db-worldua.pdf

[3] http://www.stats.gov.cn/tjsj/zxfb/201904/t20190429_1662268.html

[4] See interview with Kevin Lee, for Degeneratefilms.com, a copy of which can be found at: https://listsprd.osu.edu/pipermail/mclc/2012-March/000385.html

[5] As the metropolitan area of Beijing has grown, the city has constructed new perimeter roads that each encircle larger and larger swaths of territory. Officially, there are now six such ring roads, but in 2018 construction was completed on the G95 Capital Area Loop Expressway, which is known informally as Beijing’s seventh ring road. For Wang Jiuliang’s description of the dump sites as a seventh ring road, see Wang Jiuliang, “Beijing Besieged by Garbage,” Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review no. 1: http://cross-currents.berkeley.edu/e-journal/photo-essay/beijing-besieged-garbage/statement

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