img(height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=2939831959404383&ev=PageView&noscript=1")

Research reveals how spatial design helped collectivise rural China

Words:
Jingru (Cyan) Cheng

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

Poster of the Hongqi People’s Commune, entitled ‘People’s Commune are Good’, 1958.
Poster of the Hongqi People’s Commune, entitled ‘People’s Commune are Good’, 1958. Credit: Designer: Guangting Rui. Publisher: Shanghai Educational Publishing House.

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.

  • Proposed masterplan of Xiaocaogang Settlement, Hongqi People’s Commune.
    Proposed masterplan of Xiaocaogang Settlement, Hongqi People’s Commune. Credit: Architectural Journal (October 1958); Redrawn and annotated by Jingru (Cyan) Cheng.
  • Pre-commune rural houses v.s. the proposed housing units for the Hongqi People’s Commune.
    Pre-commune rural houses v.s. the proposed housing units for the Hongqi People’s Commune. Credit: Architectural Journal (October 1958); Redrawn and annotated by Jingru (Cyan) Cheng.
  • The dining hall and children’s dining room in a people’s commune canteen.
    The dining hall and children’s dining room in a people’s commune canteen. Credit: In the public domain.
123

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.

Aerial view of Shigushan village with commune housing gradually replaced by contemporary family houses, 2017.
Aerial view of Shigushan village with commune housing gradually replaced by contemporary family houses, 2017. Credit: Architectural Association Wuhan Visiting School (2016–17).

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.

  • Selection of typical Shigushan commune housing facades, 2016.
    Selection of typical Shigushan commune housing facades, 2016. Credit: Architectural Association Wuhan Visiting School (2016–17).
  • Villagers chatting in front of a commune housing in Shigushan village, 2016.
    Villagers chatting in front of a commune housing in Shigushan village, 2016. Credit: Architectural Association Wuhan Visiting School (2016–17).
12

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

See the other winners of President’s Medals and President’s Awards

Latest

While there’s no doubt the housing market is undergoing huge changes, it’s not all simply due to Covid-19. Brian Green assesses the factors and future outlook

There’s more than the pandemic behind a changing sector

Nancy Sheung’s photographs reveal her hands-on construction experience, indomitable character and promotion of women in unlikely settings

Photographs reveal an unfazed woman in a man’s world

The Apollo Soteria Dimension Optical flush-mounted alarm comes in two versions - one for discreet aesthetics in residential and commercial settings; the other a secure solution for the care and custodial sectors

Apollo alarm comes in two versions - one for residential settings, the second for care and custodial environments

There are some quick fixes to make your building sustainable, but they can have high carbon costs that aren’t immediately obvious. Time is the key

Quick fixes make immediate impact but real sustainability needs long-term thinking

After 25 years of the RIBA’s top prize, what has it done for us? Tony Chapman has an emphatic answer

25 years of getting people to love modern architecture