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Remapping Chinese Cities: From Empire’s Political Centers to Battlefields of “Commercial Warfare”

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This article examines the late Qing urban transformation as a conscious effort by reformist officials, like Zhang Zhidong, to confront imperialist expansion and the challenges of the treaty port system during the dynasty’s last decades. It shows how “commercial warfare (shangzhan)” thought among the urban, reformist elite provided impetus for the radical transformation of traditional cities from military and administrative centers to battlefields of commercial warfare (shangzhan) against the West. No place better illustrates the urban structural changes in the late Qing dynasty than the tri-cities of Wuchang, Hanyang, and Hankou, the base of Zhang Zhidong’s late Qing reform in Hubei. Zhang’s daring urban modernizing efforts replaced the hierarchical structure of the three cities with relatively equal and symbiotic relationships. More importantly, Zhang Zhidong resurrected the concept of shangzhan (commercial warfare)—the idea that China could fight foreign expansion through commercial competition, which Zeng Guofan first used to address Western commercial advancement in the 1860s. This thought enabled Zhang to use the increasing global pressure and Chinese nationalistic sentiments to advance his reform agenda and break from the restrictions of the traditional urban ideal. Analyzing the intellectual foundations of late Qing urban reform is also crucial to understanding cities’ central position in Qing’s defensive global engagement.

Affiliations: 1: Department of History, Seattle Pacific University, Seattle, WA 98119, USA


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