Re-envisioning the Chinese Cityscape: Tabula Rasa and Palimpsest

Jie Li, Princeton University

Yomi Braester, Painting the City Red: Chinese Cinema and the Urban Contract. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010. 405 pp. $26.95 (paper).

Chang-tai Hung, Mao’s New World: Political Culture in the People’s Republic. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011. 352 pp. $39.95 (cloth).

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In 1958, Mao Zedong famously compared China’s 600 million people to a “blank sheet of paper free from any mark,” on which “the most beautiful words can be written” and the “most beautiful pictures can be painted.” In his view, China’s vast landscapes and its people’s mindscapes were a tabula rasa awaiting transformation through his utopian blueprints. Since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) shifted its center of gravity from rural to urban areas in the late 1940s, however, China’s major cities have received the greatest makeovers, in both physical and visual terms. The two books under review in this essay present interdisciplinary inquiries into urban space and visual media in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), with a shared focus on Beijing. In Mao’s New World, Chang-tai Hung examines the forging of a brand new political culture and national identity in the 1950s, when the CCP remade the old capital as a tabula rasa to lay down its foundations. In Painting the City Red, Yomi Braester inquires into the symbiotic relationship between cinema and cities from 1949 to 2008, when city planners, writers, and filmmakers continually remade Beijing, Shanghai, and Taipei as urban palimpsests. . .