Superscribing Sustainability: The Production of China’s Urban Waterscapes

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Jesse Rodenbiker


This paper analyzes the linkages between urban waterscapes, nature aesthetics, and sustainability by delineating the re-emergence of shan-shui, translatable as ‘mountain-water,’ or ‘landscape,’ within contemporary urban China.  I show how this aesthetic concept, originally emerging in third century Chinese landscape poetry, is used to reconfigure and reimagine sustainability and contemporary China’s urban landscapes. I draw on original mixed methods fieldwork, including interviews over a two-year period, digital archiving, historical texts and discourse analysis. Through these methods, I detail the emergence of shan-shui aesthetics then draw on the concept of superscription, the historical process of layering symbolic meanings, to understand the contemporary superscription of shan-shui with urban sustainability through the writings of prominent Chinese scientists and urban planning experts. Their productive work generated a new imaginary of teleological urban modernity that superscribes shan-shui with urban sustainability as the “shan-shui city.” Through two primary case studies, Tangshan Nanhu Eco-city and Meixi Lake, I show how the production of new sustainable urban waterscapes is linked with place making practices, territorial processes, and localized entrepreneurialism. Finally, I point to the limits of superscription, by highlighting the significant disconnect between the state framing of urban space and the lived experiences of urban residents, which I conceptualize as the osculation of the state. The paper, thus, intervenes in literatures regarding the historical transformations of cultural symbols, aesthetics, urban political ecology, and the political economy of place-making in China.


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RodenbikerJ. (2017). Superscribing Sustainability: The Production of China’s Urban Waterscapes. UPLanD - Journal of Urban Planning, Landscape & Environmental Design, 2(3), 71-86.


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