The Parlour of the Metropolis: Public Parks and Open Space in the British Concessions of China, 1842-1937


Yichi Zhang

PhD defended at: 

University of Technology Sydney


By employing a rich variety of textual and visual sources housed in over thirty libraries and archives in Australia, Belgium, China, the U.K. and the U.S., this dissertation is the first comparative study of the historical emergence of parks, gardens and open space in all British Concessions in China: Shanghai, Tianjin, Hankou, Jiujiang, Zhenjiang, Guangzhou, and Xiamen. Rather than treating parks as simply aesthetic green areas, the research views emergent public parks in China as an integral part of urban development in China as well as a much larger British imperial-colonial system. It discovers political, social, economic and cultural contexts in which these designed landscapes, embodying natural values and desires for public sites for social encounter, wrote colonial modernity in stone. Many of these open spaces remain extant in the cities today and this dissertation contributes to their historical documentation.

The overarching rationale of this dissertation contributes to a curiously neglected important issue. The treaties that allowed foreigners to trade and reside in China did not provide for their locations—the actual places of foreign work and residence were all subject to negotiation. In contrast to the existing literature on the British concessions as emblematic of the hegemony of British imperialism in China, this dissertation focuses on actual Sino-British exchanges in the cities to reveal how iterative negotiation established settlement locations, directed their expansion and development, and shaped the social spaces into unique urban landscapes. Its interdisciplinary approach not only sheds light on the research of cities and built environments, but also highlights the potential of designed landscapes as a primary source of historical study.

The focus on the spatial practices of the British in the concessions yields new insights that contribute to explaining interactions between the British colonial government and local magistrates in China. Since the British forced open China’s gates with firepower, the existing scholarship both in the English and Chinese world focuses on the existence of the foreign settlements under the general theme of gunboat diplomacy. This research, being the first study focusing on the process of determining the space of foreign residence and trade, reveals that the Chinese did not allow themselves to be ordered by the British to give over preferred areas, but rather iteratively argued about the sites of British occupation as an opportunity to both limit the activities of foreigners and prevent interaction between foreigners and local populations. Through prolonged negotiations over boundary making exercises to establish spatial separation, Chinese officials induced the British to establish settlements in areas that the Chinese saw as valueless. Consequently, land became a valuable resource in the concessions and the public infrastructure in general – parks, open spaces, roads and streets – became the tools of British settlements to expand their territory. Through developing public parks and open spaces beyond settlement boundaries the British first gained access to new land, occupied it, and finally achieved control of the land, thus expanding their territories.

Adopting a perspective of new cultural history, this dissertation also reveals how the formation process of urban landscapes of the British informal empire connected to global trends. Through a new analysis drawing on recent scholarship about the influence of beaux art design of parks via Paris, and comparison of hundreds of archival documents, methodologically integrating historical documents with visual analysis, the dissertation examines the evolution of landscape aesthetics within the context of the settlers’ struggle to navigate between the triangulated identities of settler, indigene, and subject of the British Empire. It shows that the public parks, as settler spaces, diverged from imperial aesthetics, and merged with local affiliations and cosmopolitan styles, thereby moving from dependency on the imperial model and exotic representation of local motifs, to independent creation of hybrid designs and spatial plans that represented modern globalizing ideals. In the process, functions of the public parks transformed from ‘decoration’ of the concession to social necessity of the residents, staging the symbolic lives of city dwellers in the urban landscape. The Gardens Trust, in the British academy, awarded my essay based on Chapter 6, “From Decoration to Necessity”, the Mavis Batey 13th Annual Essay Prize 2017 for worldwide researches on garden history, within this essay ‘tackled a very interesting subject, largely new to a western audience, and its outline of the political, social and cultural context was thorough and offered a coherent and wide ranging narrative’.

By presenting all of the British concessions in a comparative perspective, this study not only studies the major Chinese cities, such as Shanghai and Tianjin, but also investigates the small treaty ports that have not received enough scholarly interest, such as Jiujiang and Zhenjiang. It thus presents a wide range of urban experiences in modern China. This moving beyond the narrative of Shanghai’s history monopolizing the story of treaty ports allows scholars to reconsider to what degree Shanghai was a special case through analysis of ways in which transformations in the smaller treaty ports demonstrate similar or unique practice.

In summary, this dissertation contributes to the understanding of modernization of urban landscapes in the British concessions, and in open port cities in China as a whole, which in turn contributes to understanding Chinese modernity that was undertaken in multiple, over lapping colonial dominations and the influence of colonial modernity. Significantly, the experiences of the parks in the British concessions also contributes to comparative international scholarship on historical landscape formation, modernity, and colonial and post-colonial research in Asia and beyond. Moreover, since China is presently undergoing rapid urbanization, a great number of historical monuments are facing the possibility of being redeveloped or destroyed. This study provides a solid historical and cultural foundation for better conservation of the historical urban landscape in these areas and throughout China.