Commended in the RIBA President’s Awards for Research 2020, this research provides the first systematic account of the architecture of China’s people’s commune and argues for its lasting legacy
My work on China’s people’s commune really started when I encountered this 1958 propaganda poster, which rendered so lively a vision of modern China in the 1950/60s during the rising tide of national collectivisation. The collectivist lifestyle is made explicit, not only by a meticulously constructed scene of everyday life choreographed through a full set of public facilities, but also by the glaring absence of family and housing.
To dissect this intriguing vision, the initial questions I started with were: How did spatial design play a role in the process of the then newly established nation-state to transform an agrarian economy into an industrialised socialist society? To what extent were architecture and planning instrumental in the restructuring of social relationships and, in this sense, political disciplines?
In a nutshell, the architecture of the people’s commune was about spatialising collective subjectivities. More specifically, commune housing and settlement constituted the state apparatus to collectivise the socio-economic functions of dwelling, through, for example, the coupling of the abolishment of family kitchens with public canteens. In other words, the collectivist lifestyle was articulated and enforced through the spatialisation of a systematic arrangement of social roles in household management, service provision and agricultural production. This led to a radical transformation of the protocols and routines of everyday life, which then led to the destabilising of social ties formed in the extended family and the patriarchal clan system. Furthermore, housing and settlement design was coordinated with new planning strategies that brought about a drastic shift in scale and spatial organisation, or in other words, that physically changed the face of China’s rural territory. The cross-scalar spatialisation of collective aspiration and political consciousness formed the backbone of the people’s commune as an all-encompassing socio-political, economic and spatial model.
As a social and political institution, the people’s commune attempted to replace the deeply rooted family tradition and a paternal government founded on Confucian social norms and moral standards. For example, the substitution of clan authority with a new governmentality and state institutions was spatialised through the substitution of ancestral temples for public canteens. In this way, the pastoral power was in fact assumed and exercised by the modern state. Therefore, the people’s commune paradoxically resembled and renewed the traditional socio-spatial structures despite its attempt to destroy them. Through its two-decade implementation, with conflicts, resistance and readjustments, the people’s commune has become a constitutive part of China’s rural society today, for both the social realities it produced and its conception as a social project.
Through multi-year archival research, fieldwork, documentation and interviews with former commune members, this research provides the first systematic account of the architecture of China’s people’s commune across scales of territory, settlement and housing, building on multidisciplinary works from political history, sociology and anthropology, as well as a critical discourse of regional planning.
Revisiting the people’s commune is crucial, not only for a better, contextualised understanding of the social realities and spaces it has produced in relation to contemporary issues in China’s rural and urban transformations, but also for a critical examination of the core of China’s governmentality at its early formation: the correlation between the spatial, social and political units, particularly at the neighbourhood scale.
Moreover, constitutive to the non-canonical architectural histories, the people’s commune challenges preconceptions of Western modernism that are based on the construct of the individual and the nuclear family and their relationships with the civil society. Arguably, the creation and spatialisation of collective subjectivities, which are hinged on a social contract underpinned by social and work security, anticipate, to an extent, the on-going changes in contemporary societies, the integration of production and reproduction, intergenerational living, and non-familial social networks of care, among others.
It can be said that the architecture of China’s people’s commune is a largely overlooked non-canonical paradigm. In China, it is a loaded subject matter, due to its turbulent history and controversial legacy. In the West, the alternative epistemologies and imaginations it exemplifies are long foreclosed by Eurocentrism. In a broad sense, I see this work as constitutive to my commitment as a design researcher to unsettling the domination of all those constituted as others.
To conduct a research project of this nature, I find an anthropological approach of participant observation and design ethnography is essential. The empathic apprehension of the social and spatial memories of the collectivist lifestyle in the commune is invaluable for the research. I am greatly indebted to people who generously shared their life stories with me, especially members from the then Shigushan Brigade, Fenghuang People’s Commune. In addition, the documentation of first-hand materials, including survey drawings, systematic photographic records, footages of the built environment and daily life, would not have been possible without the collective effort by the Architectural Association (AA) Wuhan Visiting School, which I co-directed between 2015 and 2017, and the support of the School of Architecture and Urban Planning, Huazhong University of Science and Technology. Spanning my doctoral study at the AA and later time on the Collective Forms project at the Royal College of Art School of Architecture, the work has greatly benefited from insightful discussions with my doctoral supervisors and colleagues, especially, Sam Jacoby and Pier Vittorio Aureli.
Jingru (Cyan) Cheng is a transdisciplinary design researcher, whose practice traverses architecture, anthropology, and visual art. Cyan co-leads an architectural design studio (ADS7) at the Royal College of Art in London. Her ‘Alternative Modernism: The Architecture of China's People's Commune’ was commended in the RIBA President’s Awards for Research 2020