historic ironies: the fanshen metro station, shenzhen

Fanshen is one of the recently opened Baoan District subway stations. Like Daxin (in Nanshan), Fanshen was the name of one of the Communes in Baoan County and now refers to the general area where commune headquarters once stood. Literally, 翻身 (fān shēn)means to turn over. In the context of the Chinese Revolution, fanshen referred to the liberation of peasants from feudal obligations by transferring rights to land and draft animals from local gentry and rich peasants. Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village by William Hinton remains one of the best introductions to the reasons for and implementation of Maoist land reform.

Along Fanshen Road, I also stumbled upon Anle Second Brigade New Village (安乐二队新村), a place name that melds traditional values (安乐 means peace and happiness), Maoist production (小队 small production brigades based on village divisions), and early Shenzhen reforms (新村 new villages were the first local incarnation of the household responsibility system; only as urban area spread to surround them did new villages become “villages in the city (城中村)”).

What’s more, the Fanshen area abuts the former Second Line / now just “outside the checkpoint” (二线/关外), reminding us that rural urbanization – specifically the integration of Baoan County into Shenzhen Municipality – made some place names passé long before the places outlived their usefulness. For example, I also came across the Guangdong Border Defense Hospital (广东边防医院) and the Old Baoan Customs Office (宝安老海关), both references to the time when the boundary between the SEZ and New Baoan County (新宝安县) functioned as an internal border checkpoint and Chinese citizens needed travel passes to enter the Special Economic Zone.

Finally, lest one forget the extent to which Reform and Opening remade the area, Deng era nomenclature proliferates. Anle is located along Xinghua Road (兴华路), which literally means “Vitalize China” Road. 兴 is a popular character in Shenzhen place names and companies. More interestingly, 华 is used to refer to China as a culturally defined space, rather than a politically defined place. Thus, “Greater China” is 华夏 or 大华 and Overseas Chinese are 华侨. A simple point, but one that brings us back to Shenzhen’s place in Deng’s China; a greater, revitalized 华夏 was one of the goals of early Reform and Opening.

A visit to the Fanshan area reminds us that even when buildings have been razed and crops uprooted to building manufacturing zones, leaving rather standard urban villages and handshake buildings, Shenzhen did not spring up overnight, but erupted out of Maoist collectives, Guangdong rural society, and Greater Chinese investment from Hong Kong. Indeed, place names suggest the complicated layering of reforms on top of revolution on top of semi-feudal counties and villages that went into making Shenzhen special and now need be forgotten in order to make Shenzhen urbane.

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