五湖四海:shenzhen’s symbolic geography

As Shenzhen continues to raze its past, investing more and more in the symbols of global urbanism, it become increasingly difficult to remember that the city was planned and built within the the symbolic world of Maoism. The manifest logic of building Shenzhen was that of the model city (on the order of Daqing), while the actual practice was that of rustification–shipping young people out of cities to the countryside in order to realize socialism.

The symbolic geography of Maoism included the natural world. During the 1980s, Shenzhen was famous for its “五湖四海 (five lakes and four oceans)”. The referent was a quotation from Mao Zedong, “我们都是来自五湖四海,为了一个共同的革命目标,走到一起来了 (we have come from everywhere [literally: from the five lakes and four oceans] to achieve a shared revolutionary goal.” Early shenzhen leaders mapped these five lakes and four oceans onto Shenzhen’s extant geography. The five lakes were: East Lake, Silver Lake, Xili Lake, Xiangmi Lake, and Shiyan Lake. The four oceans were the Big and Little Meisha Beaches, Shekou, Daya Bay, and Shenzhen Bay.

The thing about blunt interpretations of Maoism is that it opens the door to all sorts of ideological speculation. What does it mean, that Shekou and Shenzhen Bay have been completely reshaped through land reclamation? That the Meisha beaches are now high end real estate? That Daya Bay is the site of Shenzhen’s six nuclear power plants?

The transformation of Shenzhen’s coastline, notwithstanding, traces of Maoism remain more visible near the five lakes, perhaps because they were early on designated important sites and therefore more difficult to raze. Maoist traces in Shenzhen take several forms. First, scale. Maoist Shenzhen architecture is small scale, built for imagined city of half to one million people. Two, technology. Maoist Shenzhen architecture was built out of cement and required little technology to erect a building. these low buildings were framed by the environment. Indeed, Maoist shenzhen had an almost southeast Asian feel.Three, roads. Maoist Shenzhen roads were one to two lanes wide. Four, walking paths. Maoist Shenzhen walking paths meandered through gardens, reproducing original walking paths. Moreover, there were few if no borders within sites. Today, barbed wire and new walls. Five, landscaping. Maoist Shenzhen greenification was based on native plants that thrived even in the absence of aggressive gardening. In short, the Maoist aesthetic was also high modernist.

Yesterday, I visited one of the five lakes, East Lake Park. Established in 1961 as “reservoir park (水库公园),” in 1984, the Shenzhen municipal government changed the park’s name to “East Lake”. East Lake retains much that is Maoist and beautifully high modernist. Indeed, in an explicit reference to the establishment of the SEZ, the Shenzhen Art Museum was celebrating its 30th anniversary. Pictures of the museum give a sense of another aesthetic, which now reads as inscribed history.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s