A Different Place in the Making

The Everyday Life Practices of Chinese Rural Migrants in Urban Villages

by Yan Yuan (Author)
©2014 Postdoctoral Thesis 359 Pages


The last three decades have seen dramatic changes in Chinese cities. While many tend to read these changes as the result of institutional reforms, macro planning, and top-down development, the author of this study focuses on the undercurrent at the bottom, from the margin, and without voice. Based on immersive fieldwork, she explores how a different place was created through the everyday life practices of rural migrants in two Chinese urban villages. Readers are invited to dive into a small, marginal, yet intricate and vibrant neighbourhood, where thousands of ‘rural outsiders’ found their settlement in the city. In this border space between the rural and the urban, place-making was not merely the government’s redevelopment plan that would sooner or later demolish the whole area, it was also a dynamic process unfolding through people’s everyday doing and living, such as their housing practices, street gathering, boiler house visits, public telephone calls, television consumption, and festival celebration. Featured by its cross-disciplinary horizon and intimate documentation, the present work exhibits an exemplary locale of a ‘progressive sense of place’ in contemporary China and provides original insights in how people’s everyday life acts as an alternative arena of the politics of place-making between multiple forces.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Re-grounding the Migratory Subjects in Place
  • 1.1 The theoretical approaches relating migratory subjects to their urban settlement locations
  • 1.2 Redoing place: from Being to Becoming
  • 1.3 A bifocal look into the politics of place-making
  • 1.4 Making home in migration
  • 1.5 Consuming in place and place-making by consuming
  • Chapter 2. The Politics of Place-making and the Geography of Migrant Settlement in Urban China
  • 2.1 Chinese urban space in transition
  • 2.2 The imagined ‘Other’ of the urban
  • 2.3 From banishment to advanced marginalisation
  • 2.4 The urban village: another place-making site in the city
  • Chapter 3. Doing Ethnography in Urban Villages
  • 3.1 Mapping the urban villages in the city
  • 3.2 Who are the villagers?
  • 3.3 Getting access to the field: sampling, timing, and data collecting
  • 3.4 Visualising self in the field
  • Chapter 4. Street Life in the Urban Villages
  • 4.1 The street in the making
  • 4.2 The boiled-water rooms: from the danwei compounds to the street
  • 4.3 ‘Telephone supermarkets’: bringing ‘here’ and ‘there’ together
  • 4.4 Dwelling in the street
  • 4.5 Street wisdom in the milieu of strangers
  • Chapter 5. Co-inhabitation and Transformation: Knowing the Locality through Housing
  • 5.1 Laoban (boss)
  • 5.2 The evolution of floor plans
  • 5.2.1 The reconfigured rural house space
  • 5.2.2 The fluid compound space
  • 5.2.3 The newness of the new housing
  • Chapter 6. Possession, Location, Connection: The place of television in home-making
  • 6.1 Possession
  • 6.1.1 The obligated and the operated
  • 6.1.2 ‘Secondhandedness’
  • 6.1.3 The two-set living
  • 6.2 Location
  • 6.2.1 From the living room to the inner quarter
  • 6.2.2 The nomadic set, the nomadic viewing
  • 6.3 Connection
  • 6.3.1 The poverty of the formal system in an informal neighbourhood
  • 6.3.2 A Do-It-Yourself cable network
  • Chapter 7. The Politics of Place in the Spring Festival
  • 7.1 The ‘position ordering’ through the festival reunion
  • 7.2 Position politics in the festival return
  • 7.2.1 The multi-sited reunion
  • 7.2.2 The returning site: from the roots to the nodes
  • 7.2.3 The sacredness of homecoming
  • 7.2.4 The gender boundaries
  • 7.3 The festivity in the urban villages: the spatial disjunction and reconfiguration
  • 7.3.1 Posting the contesting place identities
  • 7.3.2 Feasting the wandering souls
  • Chapter 8. A Televised Spring Festival and Its Consumption in the Urban Villages
  • 8.1 The rural migratory subjects in the theatrical space of the gala show
  • 8.1.1 An invented tradition of Chuxi
  • 8.1.2 Understanding the ideological scheme in ritual
  • 8.1.3 From the ‘rural outsider’ to the ‘peasant labourer’: the creation of a ritual catharsis
  • 8.2 The gala show in the festival space of the rural migrants
  • 8.2.1 Compulsory or voluntary?
  • 8.2.2 Positioning the icon in the festival-making
  • 8.2.3 Self-reflection via viewing
  • 9. Conclusions
  • 9.1 The emplacement of the mobile subjects in a progressive sense of place
  • 9.2 How do little things make a place different?
  • 9.3 More to learn and more to take place
  • Appendix: List of Chinese Terms
  • References


This book is a summary of my five years of research life in London as a PhD student (2006–2011). It tells stories of a group of rural migrants dwelling in a Chinese city, but between the lines is the sentiment derived from my own experience of living in a foreign country. I thank this experience for unfolding so many interesting encounters and serendipities, which largely extended my understanding of human empathy and love. I also thank it for bringing me into all sorts of struggles that are commonplace for every migrant, from unwilling and unpredictable house moving to never-ending and never-easy visa applications. Being constantly swung between unsettlement and settlement, exclusion and inclusion, I was forced to re-think many fundamental ideas that I would never have questioned in a sedentary life, such as place, space and home. Far away from London, these were also questions that dominated the lives of the people I studied in China. They might have been different from me in the form of migration they were engaged in and the daily struggles they were undergoing, but as travellers and settlers driven by the dream of the modern age and desperate for a sense of home and place in displacement, we were not that different. It was therefore such a privilege to meet them and have the opportunity to academically make sense of their lives and journeys, which worked as a perfect way to address the wonders and puzzles in my own journey.

Although my research was independent, my supervisor Dr. Roza Tsagarousianou played a crucial role in it. Without her inspiration, I wouldn’t have had the courage to go beyond the mediacentric view I used to hold, and thereby embrace insights across many disciplines such as human geography and anthropology. The great interest and confidence she showed in my work and her respect for my independent thinking have been the most important source empowering me to persist and progress even at the most difficult times.

Generous support also came from many other wonderful scholars. Professor Colin Sparks invited me to the University of Westminster as a visiting scholar in 2005 when I obtained a sponsorship from the China Scholarship Council (CSC). It was during that one-year ← 11 | 12 → visit and following his advice that I gained the chance to do doctoral research in the UK. I am also honoured to have Professor Anna Reading as my external examiner. She not only pushed me to think more deeply about many points I presented in the dissertation, but also encouraged me to adapt the dissertation into a book.

Throughout the years of my PhD study, I have benefitted greatly from the stimulating yet very friendly environment of the University of Westminster. I am particularly grateful for the support of the School of Media, Art, and Design and Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI), which gave me a full scholarship for three years. I would also like to thank my second supervisor Dr. Xin Xin, PhD Programme Director Anthony McNicholas, Research Administrator Erica Spindler, as well as many friends and colleagues who worked in the same institution.

The outline and some parts of this book have been previously presented at different events, including the Joint Doctoral Symposium of Four London-based Universities in 2007 and 2008, CUC/ICA Conference on ‘The Harmonious Society and Civil Society’ in Beijing in 2007, the Joint Symposium of the University of Westminster and Stockholm University in 2008, and the Annual Conference of China Media Centre (CMC) at the University of Westminster in 2009. I owe thanks for the valuable comments and criticisms from the chairs and audiences at each of these events.

My appreciation also extends to Professor Kun Zhang, the Dean of the School of Journalism and Information Communication at Huazhong University of Science and Technology, who against huge pressure preserved my lectureship in China while I was doing research in the UK and gave a sincere welcome to my belated return.

The last but most heartfelt thanks are for my family. The long-time separation between my husband Hanchang and me has been the highest price we both paid for this piece of research. But I am grateful that this physical distance has never stopped his self-giving love and wholehearted support. During the initial stage of my fieldwork, it was also his occasional company during my interviews that helped me to integrate into the community more easily.

Meanwhile, I was really blessed to have my daughter Pan’s love and company throughout all these years, shining sunshine and a sense ← 12 | 13 → of home on my otherwise very lonely life. The migratory life between the UK and China was in many ways even more difficult for a teenager than for an adult. But I am very proud to have seen her grow up day by day through this challenging experience. I hope the special strength and insights she gained from these years will illuminate her future as a successful human geographer. ← 13 | 14 →


← 14 | 15 →


From Hongshan Square, I biked northward along Zhongbei Road, the east section of Wuhan’s 28-kilometre inner-city ring road. After only some four minutes, I saw on my left hand side an eye-catching ad-poster hanging high in the sky at the entrance of East Lake Road West: ‘East Lake Hotel— A Place Where You Can Feel at Home.’ Following the ad, and at the end of the road I arrived at an international four-star hotel. Right outside the iron gate of the hotel, Xiao Fang was waiting for me in the autumn afternoon sunlight. ‘Where do you live?’ I asked. ‘There.’ she answered while turning her face to the west. Along her line of vision, I saw, immediately off the road, a narrow, winding street stretching forward through crowds of stalls and buildings, which led me to a different place….

Field note, 9 October 2006

What was recorded here was my first entry to Gaowang and Wujiawan, two of the so-called ‘urban villages’ in Wuhan, a unique geographical form where thousands of rural migrants like Xiao Fang made their homes in the city. Many years ago, 15-year-old Xiao Fang left her home village in Huanggang County and came to Wuhan to be my live-in babysitter. When my child turned four, Xiao Fang left my home and looked for somewhere else to live in the city on her own. After that, not having a city hukou or any special skills, all she could do was waitressing or cleaning, and for her accommodation she had to keep moving from one dormitory to another offered by different bosses. One day, Xiao Fang told me she was going to marry a chef who came from another rural village. They were going to live together in a rented room in Gaowang village. Although I had lived in the city all my live, I had hardly ever heard of the place until I asked Xiao Fang for a visit in 2006. It was then I realised that in fact it was less than a mile away from my home.

My previous blindness to the existence of the places like Gaowang and Wujiawan in my own city is not exceptional among normal urbanites in today’s China. The past thirty-six years of reform and opening-up have brought China breath-taking developments that at times shocked the world. With GDP persistently increasing at around 10 ← 15 | 16 → percent per year, the urban population in China is accordingly growing at around 4 percent per year.1 As one of the driving forces of such dramatic growth, the massive rural-to-urban migration since the 1980s has driven an officially estimated 12 million peasants to seek work in the city,2 forming probably the biggest population flow in history. However, what is even more astonishing is the invisibility of such an immense scale of mobile population in the mainstream urban landscape. As a work force, they have penetrated into every fabric of urban life, but as citizens, they are institutionally banished from the urban system. Under the prolonged rural-urban divide household registration system, those who come from the countryside and live in the city without an urban hukou are still not counted as urban population, nor even as ‘migrants’, but as ‘floaters’ or ‘outsider population’, who are perceived as temporarily sojourning in the city but still belonging to their rural origins. Such population control and social belonging regulation enable Chinese cities to make the most of the cheap labour of the rural outsiders without incurring the heavy costs of accommodating them, so that a highly ordered and good-looking image of a city can be maintained alongside its rapid growth. The idea has been crystallised into a manifesto overtly or covertly stated by many municipal authorities in recent years, praising China’s urbanisation as ‘urbanisation free of shantytowns’ (Zhang and Zhao et al., 2003: 931). In a sense, most of the cities in China seem to deserve this praise. Unlike what one might assume, the Chinese government’s strength in controlling the urban space has not been weakened by the prosperity of the market economy. Under the state’s pervasive governance deep into the neighbourhood life of the city, there is little room for the classical forms of shantytowns to be built and occupied by rural migrants as their urban settlements, as has happened in Lagos, Mumbai or other developing cities. There can be little doubt that the worldwide existence of shantytowns or slums represents the worst of urban poverty and inequality and has posed huge challenges to human ← 16 | 17 → society (UN-HABITAT, 2003). But the alleged non-existence of the shantytown in contemporary urban China is nothing to celebrate. Its purpose is to create an illusion of a one-dimensional city and top-down modernity where the challenges of population mobility in the process of urbanisation is dealt with not by including and integrating, but by suppressing and banishing. In this illusion, not only has the institutional inequality over rural migrants in formal systems been legitimised, but also the rights of rural migrants in seeking their urban settlements through informal approaches has been denied. Having been intoxicated with such an illusion for a long time, people tend to be reluctant to face a fundamental question: if there are really no shantytowns in Chinese cities, then where are the places that millions of rural migrants could live? How can such massive scale of population really be floating over the city without any place in which to settle down?

In this sense, my visit to Xiao Fang’s home in Gaowang and Wujiawan was rather enlightening. It broke the illusion and unearthed a covered facet of the city which I once supposed I had known thoroughly after having lived there for many years. It struck me not only with the distinctions of the landscapes between the place where Xiao Fang lived and place where I lived, but also with the fact that these two distinct landscapes, two different ways of life, could exist in the same city in such surprisingly close proximity without being recognised (maybe my personal relationship with Xiao Fang was also like this, both distant and close to each other at the same time). It was this paradoxical feeling between familiarity and strangeness, closeness and distance that generated my fascination with the two urban villages. This was not just a curiosity about a totally strange place inhabited by others, but an aspiration to visualise a close but unrecognised world as part of the city I live in.

To picture this hidden island in the city, I started my ethnographic work in Gaowang and Wujiawan. But my intention is not to picture it holistically, but more particularly from the perspective of their rural migrant dwellers. I chose such stance not simply because they are the residents who have made up the majority of the population in the area as the result of continuous influx during the past decades, but also because they are the group in the city who has been largely marginalised, and therefore whose voice could provide us with an alternative vision of the place and the city. But this stance ← 17 | 18 → does not point to the reduction of the place into an enclave of rural migrants, for I did not want to close my eyes to the constant encounters of rural migrants with the indigenous residents and other actors, who equally dwelled in the place and imprinted on the place their own investments and identities. Neither do I intend to isolate the rural migrants’ settlement practices in the two urban villages from the tidal transition both the city and the nation are undergoing in the post-reform age. This transition has, over the past decades, been underlying the transformation of the place from two rural villages to a migrant urban settlement site. It is also fundamentally determining the fate of the place in the future landscape of the city. Even for the rural migrants’ themselves, the classical image of enclave does not fit with their identification with the two urban villages, for their embedment into the urban villages is far from fixed or exclusive in their migration trajectory. Given such multiplicity and fluidity, it is out of my attempt to present a holistic picture of the place as an enclosed community or a cultural (sub-cultural) territory. What I attempt is to capture a snapshot revealing contingent conjuncture where a group of Chinese rural migrants have their trajectory of migration and settlement intersected with the shifting process of a small place in the transitional urban China of the recent past. I understand my exploration as a dual mission: to re-ground the rural migratory subjects to the place of their urban settlement on the one hand, and to re-value the people-place relationships in this locale on the other.

From the theoretical perspective, my research can be seen as a response towards one of the focal debates in recent academic enquiry joined by the multitude disciplines of social science, which sees a recent renaissance of the concept of place as a dynamic tool in re-asserting the geographical and spatial importance in the on-going dialectical process of modernity, a touchstone for critical social and cultural theories coping with the challenges posed by the growing power of networks on the one hand, and the springing voices of locality and authenticity on the other. In this context, the romanticised and essentialist notion of place once nurtured by the humanist geography has been put under scrutiny, while a progressive and dynamic notion of place is rising in academic thinking. Our ← 18 | 19 → imagination of place has turned from a status of being to a process of becoming, wherein place is no longer a fixed point bonded by geographic territories in the opposition against power of flow, nor an authentic identity exclusively pertaining to any singular insider. On the contrary, it is imagined as an arena where movements from various dimensions encounter, contest, and negotiate, an outcome of co-production by multiple social actors. It is this imagination opening up the richness of the concept, which allows me to reflect on the complexity, connectivity, and tension in the modernising Chinese society through observing and interpreting the social drama staged in a small place.

Yet, so far academic interest in this debate has mainly unfolded along a global-local nexus, overwhelmingly dominated by the phenomena generated by transnational movements. It is easy, but too hasty, to assume that the struggles and contradictions of place-making within a nation state is less tense or less complex, because the conventional modern geographies of the last two centuries of nation-state building are defined not only by boundaries between nations but also by those within. Particularly in a country such as today’s China, which is undergoing dramatic transition, the issue of place and place-making geared by internal movements (not separated from the global flows though) is equally urgent. Since the 1980s, the economic and institutional reforms in the country have broken down the walls between regions and work-units, industries have been restructured, the administrative system has been re-organised and the planning has been laid down for a new round of urban renewal and sprawl. New geographies of homogenisation and differentiation are fundamentally changing the landscape of both city and countryside. But they are only one dimension of place-making in today’s China. We should also be aware that under these epochal changes, the lives of 1.3 billion Chinese people are literally ‘on the move’ (Friedmann, 2007: 260). Either passively cast out into an unfamiliar world or spontaneously in seeking a better world, they are commonly experiencing spatial and social displacement and desperate to reorient themselves. In the process, life routines are readjusted, the sense of place is reconfigured, the belongingness to place is renegotiated, and mechanisms in space ordering and regulation ← 19 | 20 → are reinvented. Comparing with place-making at a structural level, which is well-planned and grand-styled, these practices are rather trifling and disorienting. But they interest me more, not only in that they are the constitutive strands in the grand turbulence of the transition, but also, I believe, since place is about both objective location and subject identification, no place-making can literally happen in reform schemes or blue prints, they have to be materialised through people’s everyday life permeated with personal feeling, experiences and sentiments. That is why when I entered the two urban villages, my intention was focused mainly on how place is sensed and shaped in people’s everyday life through their bodily experiences in establishing, sustaining and adjusting particular life patterns and rhythms.

Given the massive scale and particularities of the rural-urban migration in reform age China, it is not surprising to see a growth in academic interest in this field recently. Many scholars do not particularly base their studies on any spatial form that accommodates rural migrants in the migration, but mainly examine this population flow as an economic, political, and cultural movement that affords China a new engine of social conflict and transformation, such as the citizenship contest under the logic of the market (Solinger, 1999), the emergence of social and economic stratification (Li, 2004), the social reproduction of cultural identity and subjectivity (Jacka, 2006), and the relationship between urbanisation and the peasant labour market (Cai, 2009). Some scholars do focus their studies on particular migrant settlement locations including a number of urban villages in various cities, which shed light on the spatial and geographical dimension in rural migrants’ social struggles (Beja and Bonnin, 1995, Piante and Zhu, 1995, Wang, 1995, Xiang, 1999, Smith, 2000, Zhang, 2001, Fan and Taubmann, 2002, Gu and Liu, 2002, Wu, 2002, Xiang, 2005, Zhang and Hou, 2009). But most of them tend to exclusively examine the practices of rural migrants, while taking the locality of the urban village and the impacts from other residents in the place only as a background. At the same time, there is another strand of research that specialises in the indigenous communities in the urban village and the transformation they are undergoing with the diminishing of this unique landscape in Chinese urbanisation (Lan, 2005, Xie, 2005, Tian, 2008, Wang and Wang et al., 2009). Although studies in this strand ← 20 | 21 → acknowledge the influences caused by the influx of rural migrant population in the place, their interest is largely dominated by the tension between indigenous residents and the authorities, especially their confrontations during reconstruction campaigns. In none of the existing strands of research is the interaction between rural migrants’ settlement practices and the locality of the urban village directly documented. It is by gearing the quest on this under-documented nexus that the present research is distinguished from the previous ones. For the first time, the concept of place and place-making is used as a dynamic framework to capture the opportunities, struggles, and tensions in Chinese rural migrants’ settlement practices in the city. Questions are going to be asked not only about how these ‘urban outsiders’ create their settlement in the urban village, but also about how this creation engages in the place-making politics around this urban locale, both shaped by and shaping the locality.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (August)
macro planning development neighbourhood
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 359 pp.

Biographical notes

Yan Yuan (Author)

Dr Yan Yuan is an associate professor of media studies in the School of Journalism and Information Communication at Huazhong University of Science and Technology. She specializes in media geography and the politics of everyday life in contemporary urban China


Title: A Different Place in the Making
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362 pages