GEOGRAPHICAL RESEARCH ›› 2019, Vol. 38 ›› Issue (7): 1609-1624.doi: 10.11821/dlyj020180673

• Everyday Life Geography and Urban-Rural Leisure • Previous Articles     Next Articles

From "society of acquaintance" to "society of strangers": Square dance and publicness in urban China

Yanheng LU(), Junxi QIAN()   

  1. Department of Geography, The University of Hong Kong, Hongkong 999077, China
  • Received:2018-06-21 Revised:2019-05-10 Online:2019-07-20 Published:2019-07-12


Public space is a key arena for the unfolding of social interactions and cultural practices in cities. In the context of the modern city, the relationships between public space and its civic culture occupy an important place in theoretical debates. The primary context for such debates is the fact that modern cities are inhabited largely by strangers who are not acquainted with each other, and traditional communal and kinship ties have largely dissolved in the modern metropolis. In this context, public space is believed to be key to negotiations with strangers and the anonymous nature of social relations in cities. One theoretical perspective argues that ad hoc interactions and encounters in public space motivate urban people to recognise what roles they can play vis-à-vis strangers, and eventually realise that there is a separate realm of social relations and interactions beyond the cosiness of the private. A second perspective maintains that everyday life in public space can be seen as the transgression of the discipline of capitalist economy and market transactions. This article asks whether theoretical perspectives emerging from Western urban contexts are relevant to Chinese urban contexts in the reform era, and what kind of publicness has been constituted by social lives and cultural practices in Chinese cities. It focuses on square dance, a specific form of collective public leisure which has enjoyed remarkable media exposure in China over the recent years. Using data-mining techniques based on the Python programming language, this research systematically collected online public discourses on public space over the period of 2011-2015. This dataset is then analysed with the method of natural language processing. Overall, this article argues that publicness in reform-era urban China is comparable to Western cities in the sense that public space is heavily used for the purposes of social interactions and cultural expressions, while the right to public space is widely recognised by urban people, public discourses and the state. However, publicness performed in square dance is also distinctive in two ways. First, while public vibrancy is emphasised in the West for its contribution to the recognition of diversity and difference, the same is not so much underscored in the Chinese context as the aspiration for collectivism and collective social life. Practices of re-collectivization at a micro-level do not alter the general trend towards a “society of strangers”, but rather negotiate broader social changes. Second, while the existence of an urban public realm is widely recognised in the West and underscored by widely shared norms and codes of conduct, the notion of urban public is still vague for Chinese urbanites, and is instead an ongoing process of learning and negotiation about how to be public in an emerging Chinese urbanism.

Key words: public space, publicness, civic culture, square dance, society of acquaintance, society of strangers