玉律–thoughts on the shifting cultural geography of shenzhen urban villages

One of the driving forces behind cultural preservation Xinqiao (新桥) and neighboring Yulv (玉律) is the 新桥曾氏仕贵公理事会, which for the moment I’m translating as the Xinqiao Zeng Surname Council, rather than Zeng Family or Zeng Clan. The reason I’m opting for literal translation of 氏 is that during the times that I have visited Xinqiao and now Yulv, the emphasis has been on the family connection, rather than on explicit kin connections.

In both Xinqiao and Yulv ancestral halls, I have been shown the list of generation names that are used by the big four surnames–Kong, Yan, Zeng and Meng (孔、颜、曾、孟四氏). The first generational names were given to Kong family descendants during the second year of the Ming dynasty (1369). Over time, more names were added. The ordering of the big four surnames reflects the status of the four sages in orthodox Confucianism. Kongzi (Confucius) is the utmost sage; Yanzi was his most distinguished disciple; Mengzi was known for his filial piety and was the teacher of Kongzi’s grandson, Kong Ji, who was the teacher of; Mengzi (Mencius), who is known as the “second sage” of Confucianism.

The Grand Ancestral Hall of the Zengs (曾氏大宗祠) in Shenzhen is located in Xinqiao; the Zengs of Yulv are a branch family. Unlike the Xinqiao Zengs, who live in an area that is explicitly Cantonese, the Yulv Zengs live at the historic border between Cantonese and Hakka settlements. Historically, they have been farmers with lychee orchards on nearby mountains. Although the village itself is inland, through relatives in Xinqiao, they had access to the Pearl River Delta. Although the Yulv Zengs have historically been wealthier than the Hakka who lived in the mountain valleys of surrounding Shiyan (石岩), nevertheless they were the poor relatives of the Xinqiao Zengs.

The relative wealth of Shajing, Xinqiao and Yulv reveal how access to the sea and coastal plains have shaped economic opportunity in the area during the modern era. Shajing and Xinqiao prospered with the large merchant ships that navigated the Fanshi Chanel from Victoria Harbor, Hong Kong to Guangzhou; Yulv Zengs prospered along with their relatives. However, after the establishment of the PRC in 1949, access to the sea was increasingly regulated by the state, such that by 1957 (more or less), only designated collectives (and as of 1958 communes) owned ships and sampans for navigating delta waters.

This is important: Limiting maritime mobility isolated inland villages from historic trade and commerce. In fact, the first modern road connecting Shajing to Xinqiao was not completed until 1989. In Xinqiao memory, Shajing’s 1980s boom is attributed to their ownership of ships and their connections with relatives in Hong Kong. Once National highway G107 was completed, inland villages and townships built industrial parks along both sides of the highway, jumpstarting their modernization efforts.

Again, however, location mattered. Xinqiao was closer to the roads than Yulv, growing faster than their cousins during the 1990s. The construction of Bao’an Expressway (in the early 2000s) again shifted traffic patterns, while in the late 2010s and early 2020s, the construction of subway lines in the outer districts has reproduced earlier inequalities, allowing Shajing to build subway adjacent rental properties much earlier than either Xinqiao or Yulv. Indeed, getting to both Xinqiao and Yulv requires either a moped or taxi ride. Indeed, as much of Yulv remained “rural”, the village was apparently still allowed to build handshakes into the 2010s, several years after informal construction was officially ended.

Yesterday, in Yulv, I was told that industrial parks have been required to upgrade, but this hasn’t been as successful as it might have been. Reasons given were that policies discourage renewing manufacturing of polluting or assembly industries, and; automated manufacturing requires new buildings, but only government approved corporations can build those new buildings.

The villagers that I spoke with were very aware that their economic agency had been reduced to managing rental properties. This insight is helping me think about how villages are mediating class tensions between homeowners and renters in Shenzhen, where dissatisfaction with the city’s unaffordable housing market is being conceptualized as a conflict between bad village landlords and everyone else. In an under-theorized nutshell, I see four steps coming together as villages are refute the imputation that they are the cause of housing insecurity in the city.

  • Top-down deindustrialization has made it so the only economic option remaining to them is property management;
  • This has meant that for many, the village itself is nothing more than an amalgamation of handshake buildings, which are despised throughout the city as low-end and poor housing options;
  • Villagers end up vilified as landlords and their concerns made unsympathetic relative to those of their tenants;
  • In turn, presenting villages as historic, moral entities has become an even more important task for village elders–they are traditional and loyal, and
  • Different surnames have different connections to the moral past. The Zengs, for example, are connecting with the Confucian tradition. The Wens, however, especially in a historic site like Fenghuang Ancient Village (凤凰古村) in Fuyong, emphasize their patriotism (a la Wen Tianxiang).

So, villages, which have benefitted and continue to profit from reform and opening policies have become a scapegoat for the housing insecurity that has emerged with Shenzhen’s rapid growth. The point, of course, isn’t that villages haven’t become rent-seeking entities, but rather, they are not the biggest beneficiaries of this system. (Looking at you Vanke and friends.) Moreover, alternative sources of income have been systematically taken away from the village enterprises, leaving them with no other option than property management.

Thought du jour: during the decades when Shenzhen focused on urban construction and manufacturing, villages absorbed the social costs of migration, allowing for the construction of the formal city. Today, they have become the scapegoat for the inequalities that were built into the foundations of that city. Formerly, they were a necessary evil–part of the city, but not treated as such. Now, I’m wondering how successful the impulse to completely (and not just ideologically) exclude them from the city will be. Impressions of Yulv, below:

3 thoughts on “玉律–thoughts on the shifting cultural geography of shenzhen urban villages

  1. very interesting view, seems like the voices of villagers and developers need to be heard more, in order to better formulate relevant renewal policies

    • Yes, housing insecurity is one of the most urgent issues in Shenzhen redevelopment. It is the larger backdrop for conversations about historic preservation, urban renewal, and policies for attracting and keeping talent in the city.

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