Explaining a City in a Single Word or Phrase

In The Spirit of Cities, author Daniel A. Bell tries to capture a city's essence, in brief

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Flickr/psd

BEIJING -- Describe a city in a phrase. 

That's the task that Daniel A. Bell takes on in his new book, The Spirit of Cities: Why the Identity of a City Matters in a Global AgeBell, Canadian-born but a longtime China resident, and his co-author Avner de-Shalit try to define nine cities by their "prevailing ethos." At first glance, the list seems screamingly obvious (Paris is the city of romance? Jerusalem religion? Who knew?). But it gets a little more interesting when Bell dives into Beijing, Hong Kong and Singapore, all places he’s lived.

According to Bell, Asian cities take their inspiration from Confucius. Confucius advocated a "socially harmonius" society in which no state forced its power on the citizens. Confucianism "emphasizes rule by ritual and moral example rather than reliance on punishment, the pursuit of harmony rather than conformity, and a political ideal of a peaceful and borderless world," writes Bell, who teaches ethics and political philosophy at Beijing’s Tsinghua University.

That makes sense for Hong Kong. But it’s a whole lot harder to apply to a city that has at its core Tiananmen Square, an epicenter of punishment and conformity. When Bell takes on Beijing, he describes it as the heart of power of the Chinese Communist Party. It's a city full of national symbols, chosen by Mao to be the capital because, as he writes, "no other city could better symbolize political power and confer legitimacy on the new regime." This is the kind of city where the Stalinist architecture "has the effect of dwarfing the individual, making it easier for the state to make people believe that they should submit to the state and its 'great leader.'"

But Bell argues that Beijing is evolving. And their new ethos is more Confucian than democratic. "I know many high-ranking men of the party who are interested in Confucianism. There’s bound to be something in the future," he says. The next time students in Tiananmen protest, he writes in his book, "the galvanizing symbol won’t be the Statue of Liberty."

It might be a while before Confucian-style governance takes a real hold in Beijing. Last April, a 31-foot bronze statue of the philosopher was removed from its post at Tiananmen, having lasted there just four months. And Bell's book, which comes out in Chinese in the next year – will have the chapter on Beijing completely excised.

"In China, they don’t care what comes out in English," Bell says. "But when it comes to writing in Chinese, the censors come to speak. You get used to it."

His theory works better with cities like New York – where city pride is a vocal mixture of Yankees adoration, food obsession and the conviction that no one would want to live anywhere else. And Bell admits that Beijing is "too huge, sprawling, and polluted" for the kind of strolling that allowed him to uncover the delights of other cities like Berlin and Paris.
 

Still, he argues that citizens should embrace their home city’s spirit even if they don’t share every value embedded in that ethos, he says. He believes that city-love is a way to fight the homogenization caused by globalization, and the answer to what ails modern civilization. "I worry about the extreme forms of nationalism," Bell says. "If people become more attached to a city, they can resist the extremes of nationalism. There are many things a state can’t do that a city can do."

Photo courtesy of Flickr user psd.

About the Author

  • Debra Bruno is a Beijing-based journalist. She blogs at www.notbyoccident.blogspot.com.