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Review Article: Modern Chinese Architecture in Global Perspective

Ralph Croizier


Edward Denison and Guang Yu Ren, Modernism in China: Architectural Visions and Revolutions, John Wiley and sons, Chichester, U.K., 2008.

Jeffrey Cody, Nancy S. Steinhardt, and Tony Atkin,Chinese Architecture and the Beaux-Arts, University of Hawaii Press and Hong Kong University Press, 2011.

Jianfei Zhu, Architecture of Modern China: A Historical Critique, Routledge, New York, 2009.

Charlie Q.L. Xue, Building a Revolution: Chinese Architecture Since 1980, Hong Kong University Press, 2006.

     This is not the usual review article written by an expert for other experts. I am a historian of modern China with a special interest in cultural and intellectual history, not an architect or an architectural historian. This essay is a response to the visual manifestation of "the rise of China", largely a vertical rise in her urban architecture, and the spate of books on it in recent years.

     The location is China, mostly the major cities, but the focus is global and it is primarily intended for those who study and teach modern world history. If it helps in the main purpose of this forum, to strengthen the visual component in the conceptualizing and teaching of world history, then this "outsider's" foray into recent architectural history will have been worthwhile.

     The focus, then, is on architecture in China over the last hundred years; the purpose is to illuminate global processes and issues, especially the loaded question of what is specifically Western about modernity. It does so by pursuing a major theme in modern world history—the efforts of non-western societies and cultures to maintain or sometimes create their own cultural identities in a world in which Western cultural and political forces are predominant.

     In a sense, China serves as a test case, a very large test case, for what the Indian sociologist Dilip Parmeshwar Gaonkar has called "alternative modernities".1 The Chinese experience may help us understand, or at least begin to measure how "alternative", and how different, from the Western paradigm these "alternative modernities" might be. This is an issue is central to theorizing about modern world history, and to teaching it.

"The Four Books"

     The choice of four books may sound like an echo from the Confucuian canon of four books but is not.i Just four books here because out of the dozen or so books published over the last ten years, in English alone, four is the minimum number necessary to cover all important aspects of this architectural explosion and the maximum that can be addressed in the space of a relatively short essay. Rather than compile a bibliography, I will refer to some other important titles in the endnotes, but this is not an exhaustive bibliography for what has become a very active publishing field.

     These four books, and the limited number of illustrations I have been able to include, are intended as a representative package that can be usefully plundered for facts, ideas, and illustrations transferable to the modern world history classroom. This essay hopes to show how they can serve the needs of world history instructors who may wish to engage visually one of the more challenging topics before world historians: what is modernity and whose modernity is it?

Book One: Denison and Ren, Modernism in China.

     It was the word "modernism " in the title of the Denison-Ren book that originally drew my attention to the recent spate of publications on Chinese architecture. I have written on modernism in Chinese art 1 and more recently tried to globalize modernism in a paper at the 18th annual conference of the WHA in 2009.2 This paper employed a selection of ten 20th Century paintings from separate Asian-African countries (from Japan to Senegal) showing the influence of non-Western art on Western modernism ( Picasso, Mattise, etc. ), but it did not answer, even in art, deeper questions about "alternative modernities" as variations of a Eurocentric model or genuinely autonomous alternatives.

     The Denison book does not provide a clear answer to thse questions either, but it does show that in the case of 20th Century Chinese architecture, whether under the Nationalist or Communist Governments, building in China was certainly not autonomous.

     In the late Qing and early Republic, 1880s to 1920s, modern urban architecture was dominated by foreign capital, foreign taste, and foreign architects working in China, especially in Shanghai. Under the Nationalists, 1927- 1949, there was Government sponsorship and a conscious effort to develop a "national style", especially for show piece government buildings and monuments. But most of the first generation of Chinese architects were trained abroad, especially in the United States. Both they and their patrons were committed to modernity as much as to national identity. Western styles and fashions (and, of course, the technology behind them in the skyscraper age) continued to dominate the new urban landscape. Interestingly, very little of this penetrated the vast Chinese countryside where until very recently traditional building techniques remained unchallenged.

     How much of this was "modern"? All of it if we mean new; not much before the 1980s if we mean modern in style, "modernism".

     This is the period Denison concentrates on with just a passing reference to public buildings in the early years of The People's Republic of China . He provides a good survey and excellent photographs of public building in the "Nanjing Decade" ( 1927-1937) before the Japanese invasion interrupted the Nationalist Government's efforts at nation building. This was the high period for modern style architecture in China, before the very end of the Twentieth Century, that is.

     Both foreign architects working in China, such as the refugee Hungarian, Lazlo Hudek, and the American trained Chinese architect, Yang Xilu, designed significantly modern buildings in the heart of China's most modern city, Shanghai. Hudek's Park Hotel was the tallest building in the Far East, a skyscraper with significant art deco and even gothic elements.

     Yang's, "Paramount Ballroom", where Shanghai's smart set could enjoy the fashionable pleasures of dancing in couples, was even more contemporary 1930s in design. The city that was at the forefront of China's plunge into modernity could not lag behind in the pursuit of the new. In writing about modernism in Chinese literature in this period, one writer has called it,"The Lure of the Modern".3 Another, centers it squarely in that culturally hybrid city, calling it,"Shanghai Modern".

Figure 1
  Figure 1: Park Hotel (1934), Shanghai, formerly the Joint Savings Society building, designed by Lazlo Hudec, p.211, Edward Denison. Permission for illustrations 1, 2, and 3 generously provided by John Wiley and Sons, Publishers.  

Figure 2
  Figure 2: Paramount Ballroom, Shanghai, 1934. Designed by Yang Xiliu. Denison, p.193.  

     So China got some taste of modernism in architecture and other things before the war in Shanghai, or with what one writer calls, "Shanghai Modern",4 leading the way. But not just Shanghai. Other coastal ports too, especially those with foreign concessions such as Tianjin. Also the Nationalist Government's new capital of Nanjing and the southern city of Guangzhou. But most striking for their consciously modernist architecture and city planning schemes were the Japanese efforts in the far Northeast, before and especially after they established their puppet state of Manchukuo in 1932.

Figure 3
  Figure 3: JQAK Radio station (1936), Dalian, Denison, p.256. Journal of the Manchurian Architectural Association, vol. 16, number 11, 1936.  

     Part of the justification for this colonialist aggression was imposed moderniztion. Many of their building projects, from government offices to railway and radio stations, were more modernist in design than similar projects in China proper.

     Denison's cataloging and photographing these somewhat forgotten examples of colonially imposed modernity are one of the book's singular contributions to the emerging literature on Chinese architecture. "Chinese", because just like the foreign built and owned buildings on Shanghai's famous waterfront Bund, they were built on what had been Chinese soil, and would be again after 1945.

     In other ways, the book is less satisfying. It was written for the general reader and provides and thus provides much well known historical background, but it insults its intended audience though its use of stuffy, rather condescending language. There are some good insights, especially on basic architectural design, but these often miss the mark.

     After noting, disapprovingly from a modernist point of view, all the elaborate attempts to incorporate decorative elements from Chinese palace architecture into "national style" buildings, Denison singles out Yang Tingbao's rather simple four story office building for The China Merchants Steam Navigation company built in Nanjing in 1947 as incorporating the basic features of Chinese post and beam, horizontally compartmentalized construction into a modern functionally efficient glass and concrete building. However, while from an architectural point of view he is absolutely right, from a historical point of view he misses the point completely. The severely geometric and undecorated building does not look "Chinese" enough to satisfy nationalistic sentiment, either in the Nationalist Government or succeeding Communist era.

     Taken by itself Denison's book thus gives a somewhat distorted picture of Chinese architecture in the first half of the 20th Century . The mainstream of architectural design in that period was derived from more conservative Western models and attempted to reconcile this foreign import with visible reminders of China's architectural tradition. 5 The next book nicely balances Dension's over-emphasis on modernism.

Book Two. Cody, Steinhart, and Atkins, Chinese Architecture and the Beaux Arts.

     The term "Beaux Arts" needs some explanation. First, for what it means in architectural history. Second, for why it represents much, though not all, of Western influence in modern Chinese architecture.

     "Beaux Arts" is derived from the late 19th century French style of neo-classical monumental architecture centered in Paris' L'Ecole des Beaux Arts. At a time when French influence and prestige was at it height in art and architecture, it spread widely, notably to the United States especially prominent at the University of Pennsylvania School of Architecture.

     By a historical coincidence that was not entirely coincidental a majority of the first generation of professional Chinese architects studied atthat university. Alone among the great powers who had invaded China in 1900 to put down the "Boxer Rebellion", the United States used part of the indemnity imposed upon the Chinese Government to provide scholarships for Chinese post graduate students to attend American universities. Scholarship holders in architecture went mainly to Penn. There in the 1910s and 20s Chinese students were exposed to the French Beaux Arts style, which by then was somewhat dated in the West but admirably suited to the infant Chinese Republic in a period where modernization and Westernization were synonymous.

     Beaux Arts "grandeur" was also well suited to both the Nationalist and Communist Governments' attempts at nation building. Monuments such as the Sun Yatsen Mausoleum on the outskirts of the Nationalist Government's capital of Nanjing or the now much more visible "Mao-soleum" in the center of Tiananmen square are both basically built on Western neo-classical or Beaux arts' designs although with Chinese decorative elements. Note the gold tiles on the roof of Mao's final resting place.

Figure 4
  Figure 4: Mao Zedong Memorial Hall, Beijing, 1977.  

     There are several explanations for this remarkable continuity given the momentous political changes in mid century. For one thing, many of the same architects, trained in the Beaux –Arts tradition in America continued on in the People's Republic after 1949. There is not that much difference between the government buildings of the Nationalist's "Nanjing City Plan" of the 1930s and the "Ten Great Buildings" the PRC built to celebrate its tenth anniversary in 1959. Certainly, there was considerable Russian influence in the latter, but by another of those not entirely coincidental coincidences, Stalinist Russia had also opted for neoclassicism, although not with a specifically Beaux Arts pedigree. Ironically, modernizing revolutionary regimes in both China and Russia rejected modernist architecture in favor of more classical Western styles.

     The first essay in this book, by co-editor, Nancy Steinhart, an authority on historical Chinese architecture, provides further insight into the lingering influence of the Beaux Arts tradition in China when she writes: "… through Beaux-Arts principles of composition and decoration, one could express the kind of visual grandeur of the Forbidden City ( The Imperial Palace in Beijing)… a visual grandeur that was also acceptable among an early twentieth century, Chinese, educated elite." 6

     In other words, Western neoclassicism and the Beaux Arts style in particular were compatible with at least some aspects of traditional Chinese architecture, enough to suit the "national style" the Nationalists favored in their public buildings and the "national in form, socialist in content," slogan the PRC inherited from The Soviet Union.

     The architecture was Western in materials, design and construction. Therefore in some ways "modern", and suited to the more vertical building modern cities required, but it preserved recognizably Chinese features, even if in steel and concrete buildings the elaborately tiled palace roof was more ornamental than functional and the prominent red pillars no longer necessary for weight bearing.

     Steinhart provides some striking visual evidence for the strength of the Beaux Arts tradition right into the Peoples Republic when she shows side by side photographs of late Nineteenth Century French palaces and the first grand scale public buildings in Mao's China.

     All collective volumes are likely to be uneven in the quality of the essays but this one is very well edited. The Beaux Arts focus keeps it coherent but also constitutes a history of modern Chinese architecture in general. Of the four books selected for this review it is the one I would most highly recommend for teachers trying to find world history themes in modern Chinese architecture.

     One essay particularly relevant for this is "Between Beaux Arts and Modernism: Dong Dayou and the Architecture of 1930s Shanghai." The author, Seng Kuan, is Harvard trained. He writes about a first generation American educated architect and his work in prewar Shanghai. Dong Dayou was chief architect for the Nationalist Government's ambitious program to build a new "Greater Shanghai Civic Center." Built outside the still- foreign controlled center of Shanghai, it was to both reassert the new Chinese Government's sovereignty over modern China's greatest city and show China's modernity. Not all of it was completed before the outbreak of war in 1937, but what was, chiefly government office buildings, was impressive.

     In some ways it echoed, perhaps mimicked, that other great exercise of urban planning in early 20th Century Asia, the then recently completed plan for New Delhi as the seat of the British Government in India. Ironic, of course, because the Chinese effort in grand scale modern urban planning was anti-Imperialist in intent and hope to facilitate the removal of Western imperialism in Asia, not perpetuate it. The cross design was a rational layout permitting broad avenues and noble vistas with no intentional Christian symbolism.

Figure 5
  Figure 5: Bird's-eye view rendering of Greater Shanghai Civic Center, 1935. Cody, p.172. Permission generously granted by The University of Hawaii Press.  

     The completed structures, such as the Mayor's Building, were in a neo-classical palace architectural style. In fact, the jury for the project's competition had urged the architects to show " appreciation of the full possibilities of Chinese architecture" and make the project "monumental".7

     This apparently explains the contradiction between the ultra modernist style the architect favored in some of his private projects and the Beaux Arts, or neoclassical, fusion with Chinese architecture in these public buildings. Contrast the residence he designed for himself with a photograph of Dong's completed Shanghai Mayor's Building at the Civic Center in 1935.

Figure 6
  Figure 6: Dong Dayou, Residence, Shanghai. From Cody, p. 182. Permission generously granted by The University of Hawaii Press.  

Figure 7
  Figure 7: Mass Wedding Ceremony at Mayor's Building, Civic Center, Shanghai, 3 April, 1935. Cody, p.186. Permission generously granted by The University of Hawaii Press.  

     In the residence we see pure modernism; clean lines and no trace of ornamentation or national reference; the Mayor's building offers straight 'national style' with Chinese palace style roof, facade and stairway railings on the new concrete building. The "national style" was more in favor with government officials and conservative businessmen, even if some architects preferred the clean, unadorned lines of modernism.

     There are no human figures in the photograph of Dong Dayou's Shanghai home, but the steps of the City Hall has many young adults participating in what is simultaneously a personal and a public, state controlled function—a mass wedding under the supervision of the new Nationalist Government. Nation building in the architecture and nation building in the state supervised ceremony. The building is modern ("Western") in its concrete frame but Chinese in roof style and decoration. The newly married couples also combine the modern foreign (white Western wedding dresses) and the traditional (Chinese scholar robes on the men). Could the attempt to harmonize the new and the old be any clearer?8

     We will return to this in the section of this essay on using architecture to teach the history of global modernity. But two more books first. They are both by new, post Mao generation Chinese with experience in the West.

Book Three: Architecture of Modern China: A Historical Critique

     This is the least colorful and toughest read of my four choices. Why then include a book that has no color illustrations, is written in the critical discourse language its publisher, Routledge, is famous for ( notorious to those who dislike pretentious postmodernist bafflegab), and is a loosely joined series of essays rather than an overall history of modern Chinese architecture?

     First, it represents a contemporary Chinese voice but one who is embedded in Western academia (Faculty of Architecture, University of Melbourne). Second, its chronological coverage is the most complete, from The first Christian missionary designed palace buildings of the early Eighteenth Century to the postmodern skyscrapers of the 2010s. Third, he has some interesting things to say about East-West cultural contact that may be useful for anyone wanting to go deeper into the applicability of architecture for teaching world history.

     This does not mean that as a cultural-intellectual historian of Modern China, one with an unavoidably Western perspective, I agree with all his interpretations. For instance, Chapter 2, "Perspective as a Symbolic Form", overstates the impact of Jesuit artists and architects (the two categories were not so clearly defined then) on Chinese thinking in the late Qing. The vast majority of Chinese painters had not forsaken multiple point perspective in favor of Europe's post Renaissance fixed point linear perspective. It was an exotic plaything. Similarly, in building, the two thousand year tradition of horizontally oriented wooden post and beam construction remained unchallenged until the late Nineteenth Century. Qian Long's famous Summer Palace was a quirky royal fancy, not a challenge to China's built environment.

     But there is some value in this essay for the world history teacher looking for a lesson on East-West cultural encounters in Early Modern History and the global impact of Europe's "Scientific Revolution", or lack of it.

     And at the other end of his chronologically arranged essays we find material and insights into China's encounter with modernity and postmodernity in the last three decades. His term "super modernity" for some of the creations for the Beijing Olympics might be useful for those of us who have never really been comfortable with "postmodern." See especially Chapter 8, "Beijing, 2008".9

Book Four : Charlie Q.L. Xue, Building a Revolution: Chinese Architecture Since 1980.

     The past is important, especially for world history, but any short selection of works on modern Chinese architecture in its global context should include one book that focuses on the contemporary era—China in the last thirty years.

     This era has been the biggest building boom in world history if measured in terms of the square footage of construction and probably also the vertical footage. The amalgam of Beaux-arts formalism and traditional Chinese motifs, almost all associated with palace architecture, did not disappear. "Big roofs", the most obvious reference to past Imperial grandeur, could still appear on important public buildings, such as the new Beijing Railway Station and tiled roof garden pavilions could incongruously perch on the top of shiny new glass skyscrapers. After all, with the disappearance of Marxism and Maoism national pride and rapid modernization have become the twin bulwarks of the Communist Party's legitimacy.

Figure 8
  Figure 8: Beijing West Railway Station, Google public images. Permission generously granted by The University of Hawaii Press.  

     Tiled roofs appealed to nationalist nostalgia; modernist and even newer postmodern styles spoke to the even more pressing need for globalized modernity. No glazed tile roofs or red pillars for the new headquarters of that modern mass communications medium par excellence—The China Central TV headquarters in Beijing.

     Glass, verticality, and experimental styles with hi-tech materials and technique came to the fore as China met the world in the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai World Fair. In short, the new era features a melange of new building in new styles, albeit with occasional visual reminders of China's past greatness. Nationalism and cultural identity encounter modernity and cosmopolitanism. Is this theme unique to China in the age of globalization? Architecture is one of its most obvious visual manifestations.

Figure 9
  Figure 9: China Central TV Building, Beijing, 2008, Google public images.  

     The revolution in Xue's title is certainly not the socialist one long associated with Communist China. It is the architectural revolution transforming the face of China, major cities first but now no longer just urban. How good a guide does he provide for outsiders ?

     The writing, though not as fluent as that in most of the Cody- Steinhart volume, is easier reading than the academic theorizing in Zhu's book and less irritating than Dennison's English gentleman's style. The architectural information is clearly presented with enough social and political background to make it intelligible for the non-expert.

     Xue has the advantage of being an insider participant in this architectural "revolution" with enough separation and Western experience to give him some outside perspective. He now lives and teaches architecture in Hong Kong.

     In short, I found the book a good introduction, not only giving the big picture but with some amusing sidelights that the imaginative teacher might utilize. For instance, none of the other books consulted has photographs of the public washroom at Lotus Mountain near the instant city of Shenzhen. This planned and ultramodern city has paid attention to some of the humbler manifestations of modernity, such as imaginatively designed public restrooms in its parks. 10

Figure 10
  Figure 10: LOTUS MT. Park, Shenzhen, Public Rest Room. From Xue, p. 162.  

     Xue, Zhu, and some of the other Chinese architects writing in the Cody, Steinhart volume think that this kind of local based vernacular architecture might offer more to China's postmodern future than the grandiose projects in Beijing or Shanghai with their penchant for obvious reference to China's Imperial past or emphasis on hi-tech ultra modernity. Local references, local materials, and harmonious blending with their surroundings, they are often the creations of private small scale architectural firms now springing up in many areas of China.

     This takes us away from the grand national narratives we have been concentrating on in our attempts to place China's building effort in a global context. But the humble and local can also speak to world history concerns. Part of the value in Xue's book lies in its calling attention to these smaller projects and younger designers.

     Unfortunately, it is less useful as a source of images. There is a section with color photographs at the front of the book, but they are not very large or very clear. The numerous photographs in the text, such as our public restroom near Shenzhen, are all black and white. There are better sources for visuals, printed and online.

Applications for Teaching World History

     When the sayings of Chairman Mao were in vogue among student leftists in the USA as well as Red Guards in China, one of my favorites was, "Theory separated from practice is more useless than shit. Shit will at least make things grow."

     I would not carry his anti-intellectualism to that degree, but when editing a forum for a journal devoted to teaching world history I have kept the Chairman's words in mind. Classroom applicability has governed my selection of books and decisions on what to draw from them. The following pages offer some applications that can be derived from the four books reviewed which could be used at most levels of instruction once adapted to specific need and level. My email address is listed below above if you would like to exchange ideas on how best to do so.

     Application 1: The summer palace in 18th Century Beijing and the Spread of European Architecture and Science. Source: Zhu, Chapter 2, " Perspective as Symbolic Form." From my review you know I disagree with the author, but he has something interesting to say about European-Chinese cultural differences and the transmission of a post Renaissance European world view. Explained in more simple language, with illustrations, students might get it, or better yet, it might stimulate them to think for themselves.

     There are many good books on Catholic missionaries as conduits of European science to 17th and 18th century China. More important there are lots of images of the Summer Palace architecture these missionaries designed reproduced in books, including standard Western histories of China.11 Also try Wikipedia for some old photographs before the Summer Palace was destroyed in the Second Anglo-Chinese War in 1860. The present ruins and a model of the reconstructed central building (to be located in a tourist resort thousands of miles from Beijing) are available on Google Images.

     Application 2. Traditional Chinese Architecture in Global Perspective. Source: Source: Steinhart essay in Cody and Steinhart, pp. 3-22. Why does China, with the longest continuous cultural tradition in world history have so few ancient monuments compared to those left by the Roman Empire, the ancient Greeks, or the Pharaohs?

     Simple answer: the Chinese built with wood not stone. But there is more to it than that. See Steinhart's excellent survey chapter about architectural continuity in Chinese Architecture and the Beaux-Arts and, much less helpful and mainly about European perceptions of Chinese architecture, Dennison, Chapter 1.

     It is possible to convert this chapter into a comparative world architecture lesson or lecture perhaps focusing on political or religious monumental architecture. The two categories frequently overlap, of course. Show the contrast between Chinese palace horizontal grandeur and European vertical. But when we come to religious architecture, European steeples or church spires reached for the sky and so did Chinese-Japanese pagodas. Of course, the pagoda was an Indian import along with Buddhism but it was in East Asia that these sacred relic storehouses reached skywards.

     Finish off this traditional architecture lesson with a photo of the Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai, China's tallest skyscraper and for a while the world's highest building. Ask your students, after they have seen a traditional Chinese pagoda, what is "Chinese" about it. And, if you want to push the comparative aspect, include an image of the Burgh Khalif in Dubai, now the world's record holder for height. A secularized version of the minaret? How have the motives, and the means, for building very tall structures changed?

Figure 11
  Figure 11: Jin Mao Tower, 1998, Pudong district, Shanghai, Google public images.  

     Yes, going far beyond the Chinese architecture discussed in this article, but world history has no height restrictions.

     Application 3: Cultural Identity and Modernization in a Globalized World. Sources: All of the four books and then look for sources on modern architecture in other counties. This was my starting point in the introduction to this article. We took China through its architecture as a case study for the general dilemma of nations and cultures trying to modernize without Westernizing. How to teach that as a theme in a survey course that looks at one country or part of the world after another? Or in a comparative lecture, perhaps using Goankar's idea of "alternative modernities"?

     I would start with the congruence between Beaux-Arts, or more broadly Western neoclassical architecture, and the search for a national style drawn from Chinese palace architecture in the 20th Century. If an earlier world architecture lesson had compared the Roman Empire and Imperial China, so much the better. I would then highlight the tension between modernist design, with its promise of catching up with the very latest in the West and the "national style" with its palace roofs and ornamental pillars.

Figure 12
  Figure 12: New Building on Changan Boulevard, The Most Important Street in Beijing, Taken by the author, 2001.  

     Again, this is a lesson(lecture?) that could end up with the Jin Mao Tower, the Burgh Khalif, and, for a contrasting modern Western monument, the World Trade Center towers. Why was there no attempt to recall American, or even Western, culture there? Have its ruins now acquired a specifically American identity? Will its replacement have one or still be international modernism?

     The questions and possibilities, are endless. That, of course, is the excitement and challenge in teaching world history.

     Application 4: World Communism Through its Architecture. The stimulus and source materials for this theme come from all of the four books, but extend far beyond them. Years ago, in antediluvian times when there were no computers or digital images, using support from an NEH grant, I prepared a series of slide-tape lectures on art and architecture in the USSR and Communist China. They showed how much China took from The Soviet Union especially in the 1950s when following the Soviet lead in rejecting the International Style as "bourgeoise formalism" and Western decadence.

Figure 13
  Figure 13: Moscow State University, Google Images.  

Figure 14
  Figure 14: The Sino-Soviet Peoples' Friendship Hall, Shanghai, 1955, photo by the author.  

     Both Communist countries and the smaller ones in Eastern Europe and Asia accepted this essentially Western neo-classical model, especially since it allowed for modification with the slogan, "National in form, Socialist in content" providing justification for references to traditional architecture. The National Art Gallery in Beijing, built in 1959, is a good example of this. Note how much more "Chinese" it is than the Shanghai Exhibition Hall which was built four years earlier at the height of Russian influence.

Figure 15
  Figure 15: National Art Gallery, Beijing, 1959. Photograph by the Author.  

     A lesson or lecture on this topic would have to start with the constructivist projects of the radical artists and designers who flocked to the Soviet banner in the early years of the Russian Revolution. In fact, there is another lesson there. (See application 5). But here one would first show how Stalinism crushed modernist tendencies in the USSR imposing a conservative neoclassical style with a strong antipathy to what originally leftist modern architects such as Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier had created in the capitalist West. 12 Revolutions do devour their children and suppress their children's ideas. Yet another lesson to be smuggled into the World History course!

     So Communist China essentially inherited Stalinist architecture along with State Socialism, Five Year Plans, and the KGB. As we have seen, it suppressed the modernist tendencies in China and reinforced already dominant neoclassical formalism.

     A "slide lecture", or rather the 21st century successor power point or some kind of interactive format, could be built around the Russian –Chinese comparison. But it should be extended to include other Communist countries noting how in Asia ( mainly North Korea and Vietnam)the "national form" aspect was stronger. It should also be extended to the "post-socialist" period, evident everywhere except North Korea, to include the explosion of modern and postmodern building styles over the last twenty or thirty years.

     With the availability of internet images, there is no need for packaged lectures any more, or is there? It would have to be flexible and preferably interactive, perhaps as part of a World History textbook package.

     Our four books are a limited resource for this application. Denison has a few pages in his second to last chapter(pp. 304-307) with some good photos of major 1950s buildings in Beijing and Shanghai. Yung Ho Chang's essay in the Cody book deals with the projects of two important older architects in the 1950s and sixties. Zhu Jianfei's work includes an essay, "A Spatial Revolution: Beijing 1949-1959".

     Application 5: Monuments to the Age of Steel: Tatlin's Tower, Moscow 1919 and The Birdcage (Olympic Stadium) Beijing 2008.

     For this you would have to go outside our four books. It is a possible offshoot and continuation of the previous application. But only three images are required. The first, the "Eiffel Tower," sometimes regarded as the first monument to built modernity.13 The second, would be drawings of, or better, the wooden model built of the Russian constructivist ("take art into every day life!") for artist, designer, and inventor, Vladimir Tatlin's Monument to the Third International. Since it was never built, it is more often known simply as "Tatlin's Tower."14

Figure 16
  Figure 16: Tatlin with Wooden Model of his Tower, 1920, Google public images.  

The third would be Three, a good photograph of the actually built, on time for the Beijing 2008 Games, Olympic Stadium., "The Birdcage".

Figure 17
  Figure 17: National Stadium, Beijing, 2008. Greco, p.181.  

     The photos show what they have in common: structural steel—not hidden behind a decorative façade but in the open advertising its tensile strength and rugged beauty. Why these three? 1) Early Russian revolutionaries saw Communism as the successor to Capitalism and saw the Eifel Tower and its steel construction as the material manifestation of the modern capitalist era. 2)

     Steel, used in a dynamic spiraling form in a building taller than anything ever attempted before (about 4000 feet!) would be the herald of the new age of World Communism. A symbol, yes, but also eminently useful as headquarters of the new proletarian world government. It was never built. I taught it in my "Art and Revolution" course for many years. 3) Popularly called "The Birdcage" has twisting steel girders enclose and suspend the elliptically shaped stadium with a seating capacity of 91,000. It is a far cry from China's earlier sports stadiums, such as the one in Shanghai erected by the Nationalist Government, which generally followed the imported neoclassical style with Chinese decorative symbolism. Unlike post Roman Europe, China had no tradition of stadiums or amphitheaters. So this is modernism, naked and unabashed, something to make the world take notice, which it did. It was a joint design of foreign and Chinese architects including the famous artistic dissident Ai Weiwei. 15

     I like the comparison with Tatlin's tower, partly because there were artists with artistic imagination involved in both designs. But also because of the irony behind the completion of a monumental building-sculpture in a future so different from that which Tatlin and his comrades envisioned. One could also note that the tower as metaphor for reaching beyond what had ever been possible before has been replaced by a cage in a country that still occasionally arrests its artists.


     These applications are only intended as suggestions. It is up to the reader to design his or her own for use in the World History classroom or for student assignments. The internet has created access to all kinds of images and students are more visually oriented than ever. It is up to the teacher to make them think about the historical significance of what they see. If this somewhat eccentric review article and the other contributions to the Art and World History forum encourage that, I and its other contributors will be well satisfied.


1 Ralph Croizier, " Post Impressionists in Prewar Shanghai", in John Clark, ed., Modernity in Asian Art, University of Sydney East Asian Series Number 7, University of Hawaii Press, 1993, pp. 135-154 and " When Was Modern Chinese Art? A Short History of Chinese Modernism", in Josh Yiu,,ed., Writing Modern Chinese Art: Historiographic Explorations, Seattle Art Museum and University of Washington Press, 2009, pp. 24-34.

2 Paper presented at 18th Annual WHA Conference," Modern Art and Global Alternative Modernities", Salem, 2009.

3 Shih Shu-mei, The Lure of the Modern: Writing Modernism in Semi-Colonial China, 1917-1937, University of California Press, 2001.

4 Leo Lee, Shanghai Modern, Harvard University Press, 1999.

5 The same tension between more conservative Western neoclassicim and 20th century modernism in architecture was manifested in other art forms, notably painting where I have done some research. Unfortunately, the article where I most clearly describe this battle over which Western style was best for China is only available in a Chinese language publication from Taiwan, mostly in Chinese although my paper is in English. Ralph Croizier, "Modernism Versus Realism in Twentieth century Chinese Art', 文学文化与世变(Literature, Culture and Change) 第三层国际汉学会议文集学组(Collected Papers from the Third International Conference on Chinese Studies)台北:中央研究院中国文哲研究所 Philosophy,Taibei,2002, pp.651-683. (offprint copies available for the author by request).

6 Jeffrey Cody, Nancy Steinhart, and Tony Atkin, Chineses Architecture and the Beaux Arts, pp. 20-21

7 Cody et al., p.171.

8 Here is an excellent opportunity to illustrate and compare modernization and Westernization in Chinag Kaishek's China and Attaturks' Turkey in the 1930s. Compare this photo with the one of Attaturk with a Western dressed young woman in Mounkhall's essay. IIustration 4.

9 Zhu's small black and white illustrations don't do justice to some of the remarkable building projects of the last few years . Some, such as the gigantic glass elliptical of the new National Theatre next to the national style neoclassicism of the Great Hall of the People by Tiananmen Square, are designed by famous foreign architects. Others, such as the "Birdcage Olympic Stadium",by the new generation of Chinese architects, working by themselves or with foreign architects. There are several well illustrated books on the new Beijing. See Beijing Institute of Architectural Design, ed., Olympic Architecture: Beijing 2008, China Architecture and Building Press, Beijing, 2008. Also, for excellent color photos, Claudio Greco,Beijing: The New City, Skira, New York, 2008. And, for recent foreign architectural contributions, the English design firm ARUP's book,Solutions for a Modern City: ARUP in Beijing, Black Dog Publishing, London, 2008. Not all of the publications on the transformation of Beijing from a traditional architecture dominated flat city into a soaring cosmopolitan metropolis have been celebratory. See a more balanced evaluation in Zhang Jie," Chinese Urbanism Beyond the Beaux-Arts" in Cody, et al., pp. 333-360. Or, for a chilling critique of the Government's destruction of the old to make way for the new, the documentary film, "Fate of Old Beijing". This film could be used to provoke a classroom discussion, not just about Westernization in the process of modernization but some of the costs in human and historical heritage of the process, in China and elsewhere.

10 Xue, p.160

11 Spence 2cnd ed.,p. 132 ff.

12 There are a number of books on this conservative turn in Soviet art and architecture. One with a comparative dimension, though strongest on the USSR, is Igor Golomstock, Totalitarian Art, Harper Collins, New York, 1990.

13 Excellent photographs in Lucien Herve, The Eifel Tower, Princeton Architectural Press, 2001.

14Norbert Lynton, All Wood and Dreams, Tatlin's Tower: Monument to Revolution, Yale university Press,

15 There is a striking photograph of the Stadium and the Olympic Aquatic Center at night in Solutions for a Modern City:ARUP in Beijing,pp.92-93.


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