Lesson: Urban China: Contemporary China

  • Grade Level: High School (9-12 grade)
  • Subject Area: Visual Arts, Social Studies, Design
  • Installation detail of "Urban China: Informal Cities," 2009.Installation detail of "Urban China: Informal Cities," 2009.
  • Installation detail of "Urban China: Informal Cities," 2009.Installation detail of "Urban China: Informal Cities," 2009.
  • Installation detail of "Urban China: Informal Cities," 2009.Installation detail of "Urban China: Informal Cities," 2009.
  • Installation detail of "Urban China: Informal Cities," 2009.Installation detail of "Urban China: Informal Cities," 2009.
  • Installation detail of "Urban China: Informal Cities," 2009.Installation detail of "Urban China: Informal Cities," 2009.
  • Installation detail of "Urban China: Informal Cities," 2009.Installation detail of "Urban China: Informal Cities," 2009.


Written by Avril Sergeon, Museum Educator

The exhibition “Urban China: Informal Cities” is an exploration and explication of the multidisciplinary intellectual practices of the magazine Urban China. Founded in 2005, the magazine’s target audience is the Chinese urban dweller whose life, actions, and concerns serve as its material. Jiang Jun, Editor-in-Chief, oversees the magazine out of offices in China’s capital city Beijing, and in the regional urban hubs of Shanghai and Guangzhou. A worldwide network of correspondents and collaborators also contribute to the monthly publication.

At the New Museum, the exhibition is dominated by a boldly designed, graphically rich wall that is meant to serve as a portrayal of the magazine’s pages and content. The design melds elements of photojournalism, graphic design, architecture, statistics, and geography to investigate China’s history, societal changes, and the effects of rapid urbanization. The gallery installation includes a retrospective ofUrban China_—each issue devoted to a single topic such as “Chinatown,” “Chinese Education,” and “Migrating China”—and computer kiosks which are portals into a rich portfolio of images of contemporary China.

This lesson uses the exhibition as a starting point to explore the issues behind rapid urban growth that is government controlled, and marvel at some of the ways in which the Chinese circumnavigate official strictures to live comfortably in their new metropoles.


  • Students will investigate the concept of urbanism, its characteristics, and its effects.
  • Students will be introduced to the creative solutions devised for quotidian problems in China and analyze consumer attitudes.
  • Students will become familiar with the design and architectural characteristics of Chinese cities.


Urbanism refers to the way of life of people who live in a city and to the study of city life.
City, architecturally and socially, is a large, dense, and usually permanent settlement of heterogeneous individuals.
Centralized refers to the people and systems of a nation being controlled by one source, usually the government.
Improvisation means making, providing, or arranging something from whatever materials or resources are readily available, or doing so on the spur of the moment.
Collective is a group of individuals who act together to achieve a common goal.
Informalism refers to acts or arrangements that aim to subvert the systems of the central agent of control while reconfiguring objects or said systems to suit current needs.
Migration is the movement of groups of people from one area or region to another within a country.
Heterogeneous means dissimilar or without common hereditary traits.
Homogeneous means similar or possessing a common trait.
Vernacular refers to the plain, the everyday, the ordinary.


“Urban China: Informal Cities” images from the digital archives
Urban China magazine
Urban China website
Maps of China
Projector and Screen

Lesson Strategy

Open discussion:
What is urbanism?

Before class, have your students read the classic work by the sociologist Louis Wirth,
“Urbanism as a Way of Life.”

Assess the essay’s relevance to contemporary city life globally. How does Wirth define modernity in human civilization? What are the major characteristics of urban life? How do urban conditions affect people and their relationships with each other? Do you think the experience of living in a city is the same in China and the USA? What might be some of the differences? Historically, how have cities developed? Have they been planned or evolved? Is China the only country where the placement and growth of cities is determined by a centralized policy-making authority?

A Personal Experience

Based on Louis Wirth’s description of urbanism, the interpersonal relationships, and movement patterns of people, describe your family’s experience in your personal environment. Is it urban, suburban, or rural? Why did your family migrate to that location? Or have they always lived there? How does your family interact with the community? Are you comfortable in your environment?

Open Discussion:
Chinese Cities

In speaking of the urban expanses that have been created with such speed, architect Yung Ho Chang concludes, “The present day Chinese situation is dynamic to the point of instability….” Chinese architects are forced to embrace a social context of permanent change as the cities become the destination of the most extensive and rapid migration in recent history. The following book is a comprehensive survey of urbanization and architecture in modern China.

Building a Revolution: Chinese Architecture since 1980, by Charlie Q.L. Xue
The book has been well reviewed in the Architectural Review, December 2007.

Have your students browse Chapter 3, “The Impact of International Architecture,” by Chang’an, Fragrant Hill, and Paul Andreus.
Compare the photographs in the book with images from the Urban China digital files. What are the major features of the new buildings in China? Do they incorporate traditional Chinese elements? Try to find similarities between the Chinese cities and your own. Does there appear to an international or global style of architecture?

In any country, usually the capital city and coastal cities are the most developed architecturally. Locate Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou on the map of China. Look at the photographs in Chapter 4 of the book Building a Revolution, “Survival Strategies: Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou,” by Charlie Xue, Chen Xi, and Wang Hongju.
How are these cities different from the smaller cities portrayed by Urban China?

External Architectural Influences

Have students study and write about their local built environment. Are the buildings homogeneous? Are there architectural influences from other cultures? Examples would be a mosque in New York City and Spanish-style buildings in Los Angeles. Ask students to document their findings.
In addition, ask students, based on their readings of the assigned chapters of the book Building a Revolution, to determine and name influences on the Chinese urban landscape. In the “Urban China: Informal Cities” Digital Archives, locate specific examples such as Colonialism which accounts for the placement of a Western symbol, the crucifix, on some religious buildings. In the Digital Archives, also locate ancient or feudal architecture and examples of socialist construction. How do the earlier buildings differ from contemporary structures?

Open Discussion:
Vernacular Design

In the pages of Urban China, “informalism” refers to ideas, objects, and life’s daily rituals that are unlinked from their intended usage or traditional patterns and mixed into new configurations. The idea of the “informal” is especially consequential in light of the rigorous order with which Chinese cities, their means of production, and society have been planned and regulated. The exhibition “Urban China: Informal Cities” presents examples of ordinary objects which the Chinese, working as a collective, have re-purposed to address current needs and situations. Let’s examine some of these, which have been documented and archived by the magazine’s editors.

Mutual Defence Bicycle
This is essentially a bicycle refitted to become an ‘”informal” police vehicle. A pole with a warning light similar to those seen on police cars has been attached to the bicycle. The light is powered by a battery anchored behind the rider’s seat. This design was popularized in the late 1980s and was the people’s response to minimal or nonexistent police presence in certain neighborhoods. Small communities pooled their resources to adapt the bicycles and staff them with private security guards. All of this was unofficial or “informal,” although the fleet of bicycles was painted blue and white to accord these vehicles with a semblance of authority. The bicycle is an example of people reacting to the reality of their daily, urban lives and reconfiguring available components as a solution for a problem not addressed by the official authority.

Furniture Kitchen
China, as a Communist country, would necessarily endorse the idea of communal living. One aspect of this is the traditional custom of individual families coming together for meals in a building’s communal kitchen. This has been changing as the society adapts to urban living and a felt need for more privacy. But apartments have been built without kitchens. The solution has been to install and hide appliances and cooking facilities inside cupboards or closets. The photograph juxtaposes images of standard facilities with diagrams showing possible modifications to create a private kitchen.

Water Bucket from “Urban China: Informal Cities” images from the digital archives
In many areas, water still has to be transported from public faucets to homes. This bucket is made from a basketball, one of the many products that China exports to the rest of the world, and is a response to the available quantities of defective basketballs and the waterproof property of the ball. A solution to the shortage of plastic or metal buckets is devised by removing a portion of the basketball, and attaching a rim and handles to create a serviceable new product.

Child’s Jacket
This jacket has a traditional Chinese design which is usually rendered in cotton, silk, or rayon. In this case, the material comes from another surplus commodity in Chinese society. Surgical masks are also produced in China, both to combat pollution at home and for export. Enterprising women have found a new use for the masks. They are reduced to squares of fabric that are then joined together to fashion articles of clothing. Women in Chinese society are putting to use their “Made in China” sewing machines and their handicraft skills to fashion needed clothing.

These examples of vernacular design illustrate the ability of the Chinese to integrate into their daily lives notions of social and physical well being, to absorb the realities of the urban environment, and to promote the idea of sustainability through repurposing.

Improvisation in the West

Have the students brainstorm a list of items which have been or can be repurposed. For example, on suddenly rainy days people may use a large plastic garbage bag, cutting a hole for the head, as an improvised raincoat.
Also, ask students to name or re-imagine examples of what Urban China magazine has branded “copylefted” products in a play on the legal term “copyrighted” whereby an individual or corporation has the exclusive ownership and right to a symbol or product. In China, examples of “copylefted” items are Ginger Cola—instead of Coca Cola—and Nice products, which directly reference Nike and its symbol. In the USA, imitations of the iPhone could be considered a “copylefted” product.
Examine the factor of consumer attitudes in the West and China, and discuss how differences in consumerism might influence the volume of ingenious solutions and “copylefted” manufactured goods.


The assignments in this lesson plan can be designated as homework instead of a classroom activity.


  • Evaluate contributions to classroom discussions.
  • Evaluate completed assignments.
  • Evaluate students’ understanding of urbanization and urban design as a global phenomenon.

Extending the Lesson

Chinese Calligraphy

The Chinese language, which is written and read differently from Western languages, is modernizing as the country changes. Chinese calligraphy consists of characters that are written beginning on the right side of the page, and downward instead of across the paper. In pre-urban China, calligraphy was considered an art form as well as a means of communication. It would take an individual many years of great discipline and persistence to produce characters using traditional brushes and ink. Not everyone could master the necessary skills.
As China modernized, there has been an evolution in the written language to close the gap between literacy levels in the cities and rural areas. Look at the examples from omniglot.com.
A change was needed to facilitate the assimilation of migrating workers needed in the urban centers. Urban China magazine is written in a simplified version of the Chinese dialect known as Mandarin. Language modification is another example of “informalism” as tradition gives way to society’s needs. Also, calligraphy felt pens have replaced brushes making it easier to write the strokes that make up a character or word. This Chinese Calligraphy Lesson from UCLA can be used by your students as an introduction to one of China’s visual art forms—the art of Calligraphy.

Additional Resources

New Museum Exhibition Web site
History of Modern China, Radhey Shyam Chaurasia, Atlantic Publishers, 2004
Instant Asia: Fast Forward through the Architecture of a Changing Continent, Joseph Grima, Rizzoli 2008
The Concrete Dragon: China’s Urban Revolution and What it Means for the World, Thomas J. Campanella, 2008
The Chinese Dream: A Society under Construction, 010 Publishers, Rotterdam 2008
In the Chinese City, Actar Publishers, 2008
China Design Now, Victoria & Albert Museum, London
China Design
China Today