Written by Marijn Nieuwenhuis.
I have spent two years in China, but I visited the country on three separate occasions. The first time, in 2006, was as part of a field trip with the University of Manchester’s Institute for Development. We visited the famous wonders of industrialisation that comprise the so-called ‘Pearl River Delta.’ It is difficult not to be overwhelmed by the size and pace of development in and of cities such as Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Dongguan. The vertical architecture dominating the city skylines left a lasting impression on me and my fellow postgraduate classmates. Most of us grew up in provincial Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa where height is more often than not the long process of geological evolution. Mountains in the ancient Greek world constituted the natural boundaries between different political spaces. Cole (2004: 13) writes that the “delineation of political space was expressed more forcefully by military defence of cultivated plains lying between mountains than by control of population centres.” The geographic imagination of and fascination associated with the mountain seems in contemporary China to have been transplanted by an imagination that privileges the politics embedded in the verticality of the skyscraper. The verticality of the skyscraper is one that is different from that of the mountain. The skyscraper’s human-designed architecture, ultimately unhumanly proportioned, serves an immediate and instrumental political purpose in contrast to the natural formation of the mountain.
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