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Revolutionary Real Estate:
Envisioning Space in Communist Dalian

Christian Hess


Figure 10.1

Siergou, a shantytown at the edge of Dalian. This was an area populated by migrant workers and their families, many of whom came to the city from Shandong in search of work on the docks, or in construction trades. This type of image might be used by colonial authorities to justify their own projects to build dormitories for Chinese workers, which offered cleaner living conditions along with more control. The CCP used such images as examples of colonial exploitation in which Chinese people are denied access to the city in which they work. Siergou was thus a focal point in the housing campaigns.

Source: Li Zhenrong, ed., Dalian mengzhong lai [Dalian comes from a dream]. People’s Fine Art Publishing House, 1996.

Figure 10.2

Dalian’s Xigang district. This area represents a developed, densely populated district of the colonial city populated by long-term Chinese residents. The photo, likely taken in the 1920s, captures a typical street scene. Such photos serve to reinforce an image of the city comprised of strictly segregated districts, in which the narrower streets of this largely Chinese district are contrasted with the wider boulevards of “Japanese” Dalian.

Source: Li Zhenrong, ed., Dalian mengzhong lai [Dalian comes from a dream]. People’s Fine Art Publishing House, 1996.

Figure 10.3

A typical Japanese colonial residence with a walled garden. Houses like these often featured gas appliances and telephones. These are the type of properties that were left abandoned as the Japanese civilian population returned to Japan after 1945. This is a contemporary image. These homes are now under threat from developers, but continue to represent part of the city’s architectural heritage.

Source: Nishizawa Yasuhiko, Zusetsu Dairen toshi monogatari. Kawade shobo shinsha, 1999.

Figure 10.4

Downtown Dalian at the peak of Japanese rule. Streetcars arrive from every direction under the watchful eyes of an elevated police box. Here, the celebrated colonial infrastructure of the city is clearly on display, as is the reality of colonial power here. Note there are a number of military and police personnel visible in the photograph.

Source: Li Zhenrong, ed., Dalian mengzhong lai [Dalian comes from a dream]. People’s Fine Art Publishing House, 1996.

Chapter Sample

Figure 10.3

Throughout the summer of 1946,  long before Mao’s final victory in 1949, thousands of poor Chinese families living in the overcrowded streets of the northeastern city of Dalian moved out of their dilapidated houses and into the spacious residences of the city’s former Japanese colonial masters. During the 1930s, Dalian had been one of the most important strongholds of Japanese power in northeastern China, or Manchuria. These families were the benefactors of one of the largest transfers of urban real estate ever carried out in a Chinese city. In less than one year, from July 1946 through May 1947, over 27,000 families moved from the city’s poorest neighborhoods into Japanese houses located in areas of the city that had once been off limits to the majority Chinese population.i Tales of entire neighborhoods moving into colonial homes filled the pages of local newspapers; they read like a socialist drama—the urban poor and working class, the masters of the new socialist society, rewarded with the homes of the former masters of colonial society. Even the local radio station covered the moves on a daily basis. One paper carried news of an overjoyed neighborhood that vowed to send pictures of themselves in front of their new homes to Mao himself.ii It appeared as if an urban version of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) socialist land reform was in full swing.

A few years later, in 1949, newspapers and journal articles throughout China praised the socialist transformation of what had been for forty years a major Japanese colonial port city, labeling Dalian “new China’s model metropolis.” At the core of this new definition of Dalian was an image of the city as a center of production modeled on cutting-edge, Soviet-style industrial polices. This vision of the city as production center would be the hallmark of the urban modernization programs carried out by the CCP across China in the early-to-mid 1950s.iii When taken to its extreme, the image of Dalian as a center of industry also took on a utopian dimension when the city’s experience was presented to the rest of China. Dalian had become, in one author’s opinion, not just a production base, but “in the last four years it has transformed itself into a worker’s paradise.”iv Indeed, with families from poor neighborhoods receiving the spacious former residences of the Japanese colonialists, it certainly seemed like a socialist paradise. Yet, was this image of an unfettered transition to socialism really so easy and rapid? Had Dalian, in just a few short years, made the transition from a city of Japanese colonial development to a new socialist metropolis? Or, as is often the case, was there more going on than meets the eye? Additionally, what was this urban “vision” of Chinese socialism, how did it differ from its much more well-known rural counterpart, and how did the new Communist regime view its relationship with city residents?

This chapter focuses on the transition from a colonial to a socialist political system in the port city of Dalian, located in China’s Liaoning Province. Like pieces authored by Charles Musgrove and James Cook, it analyzes the visual symbols contained within specific structure. More specifically, it seeks to shed light on the the critical issue of how a new regime handles the issue of how to manage social relations created by an earlier government. In cities, where populations are large, dense, and heterogeneous, this management issue can become particularly acute. Physical infrastructure and architecture represent their own set of dilemmas for the new polity. What, for example, would a dictatorial power who took over the United States do with the monuments in Washington D.C.? To take Iraq as an example, in present-day Bagdad much of what had served as the physical and architectural spaces of the Hussein regime’s power—Saddam’s palaces and prisons—function in much the same way as they had before. Many of Saddam’s palaces function today as the center of coalition military power. In the case of Dalian, after 1945, the Soviet military and the CCP took control of a city whose physical features—from buildings to transportation systems, shopping districts to parks— bore the stamp of Japanese colonial development. A key issue for the new socialist regime, then, was how to use this space, and re-frame it as part of the new “look” for a socialist city.

i These statistics are available at the Dalian Municipal Archive website: http://www.da.dl.gov.cn/xhsb/messageinfo.asp?id=343

ii Xin sheng shibao, September 1, 1946.

iii Chen Qiying, “Dalian—xin Zhongguo de mofan dushi” (Dalian—new China’s model metropolis), Luxing zazhi vol.23 no.11 (November 1949).

iv Li Zongying, Liu Shiwei, and Liao Bingxion ed., Dongbei xing (Travels through the Northeast) (Hongkong: Da gong bao chubanshe, 1950), 50.

Further Reading

Thomas Bernstein and Li Hua-yu, China Learns from the Soviet Union, 1949-Present. Harvard Cold War Studies Books, Lexington Books, 2010.

Chang-Tai Hung, Mao’s New World: Political Culture in the Early People’s Republic. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011.

Norman Naimark, “Reparations, Removals and the Economic Transformation of the Zone” in Idem, The Russians in Germany: A History of the Soviet Zone of Occupation, 1945-1949, 141-204. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Jordan Sand, House and Home in Modern Japan: Architecture, Domestic Space, and Bourgeois Culture, 1880-1930. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Lori Watt, When Empire Comes Home: Repatriation and Reintegration in postwar Japan. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, “1950: An in-between year,” in Idem, Global Shanghai: A history in fragments 1850-2010, 77-93. London and New York: Routledge, 2009.

Study Questions

1, How did the transformation of Dalian’s urban space reflect the ideology and goals of the Chinese Communist Party? Can you think of other examples of urban environments being transformed for political and economic reasons?

2. What made Dalian’s transformation specifically “socialist”? What did that term mean, both to Dalian’s new urban planners, and to those who gained and lost as a result of the shift from (Japanese) empire to (Chinese) national state?

3. How might historians make critical use of the photographs chosen to accompany this chapter? What realities do these photographs really convey? Who created them, and how might they have been used?

4. How did Chinese Communist Party urban administration differ from urban administration in post-1945, Soviet-occupied zones? To what extent did China “learn” from the Soviet Union, and in what ways did the two communist parties differ?

5. How did the legacies of Japan’s occupation of China shape realities in the post-1949 People’s Republic?