Tag Archives: infrastructures

The burlaks of the Yangtze (qianfu – 纤夫)


Photo taken at the Three Gorges Museum (sanxia bowuguan - 三峡博物馆)in Chongqing, in November 2013.

We will be publishing a series of articles dedicated to the city of Chongqing, the venue of the next UrbaChina conference, which will be held at the end of this month.  A good reason, therefore, to pay homage to the barge haulers of the Long river (or Chang Jiang(长江) in this article. The mighty Yangtze river, the longest in China and the third longest in the world, bends around the peninsula of Chongqing where the tributary Jialing River (嘉陵江)joins it at the tip of the horn. The city, surrounded by both rivers, was originally called Jiang Zhou(江州)or city of rivers, a label that continues to be used today(hecheng - 河城).

The Yangtze has played a crucial role in the development of Chongqing as the most important inland maritime port. Throughout history, the river has represented a formidable geographic (and sometimes political) barrier dividing northern and southern China. At nearly 3,000 kilometres long, the Yangtze did not have a single bridge crossing it until 1957 when the first one was built in Wuhan. Chongqing had to wait two more years to see its first (railway) bridge, in 1959. Thus, river trade was essential to the economy due to the poor network of roads and railways. Passengers travelling by train from Beijing to Shanghai and Guangzhou in the south had to disembark to cross the river by ferry, before continuing their journey by train. The river now counts more than 60 bridges and three tunnels, the majority of which were built during the 1990s.1

Sampan (from sanban, or three planches - 三版) and junks were the predominant means of transportation in maritime trade. Many of them were powered by the muscle power of the qianfu (tow-rope worker), especially when they have to negotiate the region of the three gorges. They pulled the boats from the river banks, pushing against the stream. It was backbreaking work, done mainly by peasants. Typically they performed the job naked, as clothing would hurt their skin and also because it would make them more vulnerable to illness since they were constantly getting in and out of the water.

The word “burlak” comes from Russian, where barge haulers became a sort of popular hero before the industrial revolution and well until the beginning of the twentieth century when they disappeared (in the nineteenth century there were about 600,000 burlaks working on the Volga and Oka rivers).


Illia Efimovich Repin – Volga Boatmen (1870-1873)

Pilots passed instructions to the harnessed qianfu with the beat of a drum that was played at different rhythms. Large junks required up to 400 haulers. Judy Bonavia and Peter Neville-Hadley give a compelling picture about the Herculean job in their book “The Yangtze River”, including an account by an American passenger and his wife who spent several weeks on a Chinese cargo boat in 19222):

“If the boat happens to turn about when it is struck by a cross-current, a call from the pilot
 brings all the trackers to their knees or makes them dig their toes into the dirt. Another call makes them either claw the earth or catch their fingers over projecting stones. Then they stand perfectly still to hold the boat. When it is righted, another call makes them let up gradually and then begin again their hard pull.”

There are still some haulers who pull tourist boats through some stretches of the Shennong stream(神农溪), another tributary of the Yangtze. Otherwise, traces of these brave men remain only in rocks along the Long River, the so-called  qianfu rocks(qianfushi-纤夫石)where one might observe rope marks, as well as their footprints.3

fd039245d688d43f86886dfc7d1ed21b0ff41bd5ad6e03a6 Qianfu rock (纤夫石)


  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yangtze_River_bridges_and_tunnels []
  2. The Yangzi River, Judy Bonavia, Peter Neville-Hadley, Odyssey Publications; 5th edition (July 1, 1999 []
  3. http://baike.baidu.com/view/953273.htm []

Miguel Elosua

Spanish qualified lawyer; PhD in Chinese Law. UrbaChina Research Officer. Has lived in China since 2006.

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Urban resilience, an integrated approach of urban reconstruction

Lixiong Liu, Yanliu Lin, Shifu Wang (2014),  Urban design for post-earthquake reconstruction: A case study of Wenchuan County, China, Habitat international (2014) 290-299.

How to reconstruct a post-earthquake area by protecting the safety system and creating public spaces while considering the involvement of different stakeholders in the process of urban design? In the case study of Wenchuan County in China, a top-dow integrated approach contributed to promote economic growth and to enhance the quality of life within the city in the long term, but it seemed that this rapid reconstruction driven by public authorities has lead to new issues between urban resilience and the dynamics of the real estate market, and between the daily need of habitants and the new open spaces.

Urban design is a matter of collaboration between various disciplines, resulting in three-dimensional urban forms and an enhancement of the quality of urban life (Waterman & Wall, 2009). The “quality of life” associated with the built environment includes not only the physical characteristics of the place, such as the diversity of open space (Allan & Bryant, 2010), but also the social attributes of the environment, such as the sense of neighbourhood (Chapman & Larkham, 2007), increased vitality and safety, available amenities and facilities (Carmona, De Magalhaes, Edwards, Awuor, & Aminossehe, 2001). Contemporary urban design theories are concerned with shaping city and urban spaces to encourage social activities within the urban fabric, create positive social interactions, satisfy ecological needs, mitigate the negative effects of urbanization and promote economic growth (Clancy, 2011). The key principles of such theories include places for people, enriching the existing, making connections, working with the landscape, mixing uses and forms, managing the investment and designing for change (Davies, 2007). Some recent urban design literatures also focus on vision development, strategy-making and the role of key stakeholders in the production of space (Lin and De Meulder, 2012 and Salet, 2006).


Weizhou Town was severely destroyed during the earthquake. In the process of reconstruction, priority was given to “higher levels of safety and earthquake resistance” that is one of the main concerns of urban design in earthquake-prone areas (see Ciborowski, 1982). As a considerable amount of arable land was lost and the majority of industrial facilities were damaged, how to promote economic development became a key issue of the town. Considering that there were many tourism attractions in the surrounding area (such as traditional Qiang stockade villages) and the town became famous after the earthquake, the development of tourism was thus adopted as a new strategy to promote economic growth. Consequently, three visions were proposed in the Urban Design for the Reconstruction of Weizhou Town (2009). Firstly, Weizhou Town was to be the ‘Sunshine Gokseong’ of Sichuan Western Qiang areas – a safe and ecological town. In order to realize this vision, a series of actions (e.g. the creation of three large evacuation squares and the recovery of the ecosystem in the surrounding mountains) were performed. Second, Weizhou Town was to be an important node of the Xiqiang Cultural Corridor. It was not only the memorial base of the earthquake, but also a cultural and historical town with traditional Qiang stockade villages. Third, Weizhou Town was comprised of a part of the Western Sichuan tourism system. The construction of memorials and tourism facilities and the improvement of the infrastructure fulfilled the demands of both tourism development and the town’s inhabitants. The three visions of the urban design project were related to the town’s long-term vision, namely to become ‘a provincial level historical–cultural site, a tourism town, a traffic hub, a political centre and an ecological zone’ (Recovery and Reconstruction Plan of Weizhou Town (2008–2020)).

Overview of institutional arrangements in the formulation of urban design project for the reconstruction of Weizhou Town. (Source: authors’ drawing.)

Full-size image (65 K)

Full article available on Habitat International, n°36.


Oriane Pillet

Intern at the CNRS, UrbaChina project. M.A. in urban local development (IEDES, Paris); M.A. in international development studies (Panthéon-Sorbonne, Paris - Utrecht University); B.A. in geography and law (Panthéon-Sorbonne, Paris).

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China releases plan to incorporate farmers into cities

The government plans to move 215 millions people from rural areas to cities by the year 2025. One of the results awaited by the Chinese government by sustaining urbanisation is the creation of a consumer culture driving Chinese economy and raising standard living. But this plan will generate side effects concerning the integration of farmers moved into cities such as the lack of infrastructures (transports, houses, schools, hospitals) and the restricted access to public services for the people who are still registered as rural residents while they live since many years in the city. 

“Currently, nearly 54 percent of Chinese live in cities, but only 36 percent are registered as urban residents (…). The plan calls for integrating 100 million of these second-class citizens, so that by 2020, 60 percent of Chinese should be living in cities, with 45 percent enjoying full urban status, the plan states”.

According to urban planners, to make this plan effective, the government will have to carry out two complementaries reforms which are taxe reform, in order  to give more financial capacity to local authorities for investing into infrastructures, and farmers’ land rights reform, in order to give them the choice to keep or live their land. Two major reforms still however in the planning phase, according to Tao Ran, the acting director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy


For more information, read the full article: Johnson, Ian. China Releases Plan to Incorporate Farmers Into CitiesThe New York Times, March 17, 2014. [Retrieved March 19, 2014].

Oriane Pillet

Intern at the CNRS, UrbaChina project. M.A. in urban local development (IEDES, Paris); M.A. in international development studies (Panthéon-Sorbonne, Paris - Utrecht University); B.A. in geography and law (Panthéon-Sorbonne, Paris).

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An underground city in Paris – The parisian sewer system

雨果曾在他的小说《悲惨世界》 里曾提到,下水道是一座城市的见证 (L’égout c’est la conscience de la ville),下水道系统的建立,不仅体现了一个城市发展程度,同时也关系市民的生活质量。巴黎的下水道系统是全世界唯一可以参观游览的下水道,也许可以提供中国城镇化发展时的一个参考。

巴黎的下水道系统是在1854年左右才开始大规模兴建,在此时期以前,大部分的废水都是直接排入塞纳河中,不仅造成了塞纳河的严重污染,还导致了1832年巴黎传染病的发生。因此在拿破仑三世时期,为了解决巴黎的水污染问题,委托乔治-欧仁·奥斯曼 (Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann) 执行巴黎改造计划,下水道工程师欧金·贝尔格兰德(Eugène Belgrand) 受命于奥斯曼,结合卫生学的理论开始将巴黎的污水管线进行改造。贝尔格兰德利用巴黎地势北方较低的特点,为了把污水排出巴黎市内,他将巴黎左岸的下水道管线聚集在爱而玛桥 (pont de l’Alma),并在塞纳河底建立一条水管,让污水引流到巴黎地势较低的克利希(Clichy)并且将污水净化。到了1895年,污水引流管线延长到更西北方的安歇尔(Achères),巴黎所有的污水也都排到的该地的污水处理场。为了确保塞纳河回归原来的洁净,政府在1894年立法规定禁止倾倒废水到下水道系统與塞纳河中,巴黎的水污染问题因此得到大幅的改善。


巴黎的下水道从1878年总长600公里发展至今约总长2400公里1,虽然已经拥有相当规模的地下排水系统,然而,却仍在1910年1月遭遇了大淹水,这场淹水使得当时20万巴黎人受到影响,2万间房间浸在水中,总长40公里的道路被水淹没。根据塞纳河上奥斯特利茨大桥 (pont d’Austerlitz)上水位标尺的记录,当时水位最高达8.62 m,超过正常水位6 m多。这场大淹水倒灌入巴黎地下的排水系统,并通过下水道、地铁等地下网络,进入了巴黎城区。因此,现阶段的巴黎下水道备有关闭水道闸口的设计,也因此可以防止海水倒灌。



  1. Bali shi zhengfu wangzhan, http://www.paris.fr/pratique/musees-expos/musee-des-egouts/visite-publique-des-egouts-de-paris/rub_9691_stand_5943_port_23931, accessed on 24 september []

Chi-Han Ai

Ph.D. candidate of EHESS ( École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris) focusing on regional economic development in China and Taiwan.

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A view of the Promenade Plantée in Paris

The Promenade plantée in postindustrial Paris

Heathcott, Joseph. (2013) The Promenade plantée : politics, planning, and urban design in postindustrial Paris. Journal of Planning Education and Research. Prepublished May, 24, 2013, DOI: 10.1177/0739456X13487927

La promenade plantée dans le 12e arrondissement de Paris, au niveau de la rue de PicpusAbstract This essay examines the Promenade Plantée in the context of the broader effort to remake Paris for a Postindustrial Age. It traces the political, social, and economic forces that shaped the Promenade’s architectonic form over time, from the production of a national rail system in the nineteenth century to the decline and dereliction of rail lines after World War II, to the reformatting of disused infrastructure in the 1970s and 1980s. Finally, the essay considers the mix of public and private interests that shaped the project’s design, adaptation, and use within the large-scale redevelopment of Eastern Paris.

Read full text on SAGE Journals Online (restricted access)


Monique Abud

Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris, France

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The Shanghai alleyway house: A vanishing urban vernacular

Bracken, Gregory. (2013) The Shanghai alleyway house : A vanishing urban vernacular. London : Routledge. 200 p. (Contemporary China series). ISBN 978-0-415-64071-8.

As a nineteenth-century commercial development, the alleyway house was a hybrid of the traditional Chinese courtyard house and the Western terraced one. Unique to Shanghai, the alleyway house was a space where the blurring of the boundaries of public and private life created a vibrant social community. In recent years however, the city’s rapid redevelopment has meant that the alleyway house is being destroyed, and this book seeks to understand it in terms of the lifestyle it engendered for those who called it home, whilst also looking to the future of the alleyway house.

Based on groundwork research, this book examines the Shanghai alleyway house in light of the complex history of the city, especially during the colonial era. It also explores the history of urban form (and governance) in China in order to question how the Eastern and Western traditions combined in Shanghai to produce a unique and dynamic housing typology. Construction techniques and different alleyway house sub-genres are also examined, as is the way of life they engendered, including some of the side-effects of alleyway house life, such as the literature it inspired, both foreign and local, as well as the portrayal of life in the laneways as seen in films set in the city. The book ends by posing the question: what next for the alleyway house? Does it even have a future, and if so, what lies ahead for this rapidly vanishing typology?

 More info


Monique Abud

Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris, France

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Cities of the future

In September 2012, the American review Foreign Policy published a special issue on Chinese cities. Ever since the 2010 World Exhibition in Shanghai, the international audience has shown an ever increasing interest in urbanisation issues in China, and several reviews have focused on this topic. The special issue of Foreign Policy can be seen as a response to a recent report published by the McKinsey Global Institute on the 75 most dynamic cities of 2025. According to this study, there will be more leading cities in China than in the USA.  Foreign Policy chose to focus on these Chinese cities, their infrastructures and the issues and opportunities created by their development. FP proposes several articles, interviews and picture galleries to help to understand the great urban challenges China is facing.
In 2011, for the first time, China’s urban population exceeded its rural population. Because of China’s large population and its continuous economic growth, new megacities are emerging, and Chinese cities are definitely cities of the future, as the title of the FP special issue indicates.  Wuhan and Chongqing are the next Chicago, or London. The growth of Chinese cities is a formidable impetus for change; several of the authors of articles in this issue have adopted a very optimistic and enthusiastic point of view regarding the massive urbanisation China is undergoing. Their articles explore the opportunities the new urban giants in China offer in terms of innovation and sustainable development.

  • For example, Dustin Roasa presents new inventions that may transform China’s urbanism, and place Beijing in the lead for sustainability.  Not only will Chinese cities house the tallest skyscrapers , but they will also become the cleanest and the most efficient cities, thanks to enormous investments in infrastructures. According to the author, China will surpass the USA in many innovative industries, with the result that Chinese cities will “affect the future of urban areas everywhere”.
  • The same enthusiasm, though with some reservations, is shared by Richard Dobbs and Jaana Remes in their comments on the McKinsey Global Institute’s index of the 75 most dynamic cities of 2025. Unexpectedly, China will have the highest proportion of leading cities, but, for the authors, issues of governance and speculation may threaten these Chinese cities’ capacity for world leadership.  Dobbs and Remes also give some recommendations with regard to sustainable development: basic infrastructures need to be improved in terms of building, shipping facilities and water supply, so that “a better China” may emerge.

Other articles are much more critical about China’s urbanisation. For most of these authors China’s urbanisation is still “a work in progress”, and improvement of infrastructures is not the most important challenge that Chinese cities will have to face. Rather, these authors consider political reforms to be urgently needed in order to sustain urban growth.

  • Isaac Town Fish regrets that Chinese cities are unpleasant to live in because of pollution and “sameness”.  He argues that the Chinese communist system must be blamed for these “depressing” cities.  Christina Larson disagrees with Town Fish on the sameness of Chinese cities. Although Chinese cities look similar because of their architecture, their “content” is very different; Larson made several field trips to three different Chinese cities: Guangdong, Urumqi and Shenyang. For the author, the economic reforms implemented in China over the last twenty years, have restored Chinese cities to their own pre-communist state: for instance Urumqi, a remote outpost from the 50’s to the 70’s, has now become a hub on the new Silk road.

Two articles deal specifically with Shanghai and Beijing, but it is to be regretted that there is no article covering the second tier cities, the ones that may become world cities in the next ten years.

  • According to Daniel Brook, Shanghai is not yet a global city, although it shows some of the characteristics of one. Shanghai deals with global commodities, offers global services, but still does not share global values, and so cannot stand up to comparison with New York, the most global city of all.
  • Michel Meyers’ Beijing may be seen as China’s centre, attracting millions of migrants, but even if Beijing is the seat of China’s political power, it retains some of the characteristics of a village, and is therefore not a global city either.
  • Ai Weiwei has said that Beijing lacks the freedom to become a global city. In an interview with Jonathan Landreth, this world renowned artist depicts Beijing as a “monster”.  Ai Weiwei strongly advocates for less state control, so that citizens can truly be part of this leading city, by making decisions, and so being truly involved in the city’s choices. Political reforms also need to be implemented at the local level, and municipal governments’ decisions need to be strictly scrutinised by both central authorities and local citizens.
  • Jonathan Kaiman makes this point in his article entitled “debt bomb”. Cities have carried out prestigious building programs for the sake of their “grandeur”, but as a result they are riddled with bad debts. The author warns against the possibility of the real estate bubble bursting in China, and blames the short term vision of municipal authorities.
  • But the future of Chinese cities may not be all that gloomy, for a new generation of political leaders is on its way. Geoff Dyer chooses to look at the emergence of a Chinese urban intelligentsia and focuses on the case of Wang Yang, the CCP secretary for Guangdong. According to the author, Wang Yang has achieved important political reforms in his province, promoting transparency and encouraging civil society.  Geoff Dyer hopes that this kind of leader will be nominated for the new Politburo.

At first glance, we may assume that the writers have not visited the same cities, since there is a clear distinction between those who consider Chinese cities a success, and even a possible model for European and American cities to follow, and those who feel that numerous political reforms need to be carried out if Chinese cities are to become sustainable. But, on closer inspection, it seems obvious that all the writers are all right. Chinese cities are dynamic, and Shanghai has woken up from a long, dreamless night. These cities offer huge opportunities, but at the same time it is only the beginning of their transformation.  These cities have the political will, the financial means (although they must get rid of bad debts), the economic growth and the demographic trends to become global cities and challenge the domination of New York, London or Tokyo.  However, they need to be open up to their own inhabitants.  That is why, as Ai Weiwei has said, democracy is needed. World cities have always been places where people can exchange ideas and concepts freely, and so let innovation thrive. New York, the most global of cities, has attracted millions of immigrants, not only for her economic dynamism but also for the freedom she has offered.




Sebastien Goulard

Ph.D. in political science (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in social sciences (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in international relations (IRIS, Paris), B.A. (Hons) in international political studies (ESE - Nottingham Trent University)

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