Public Space in the Yangtze River Delta: Conversations between Disruption and Continuity

Teresa Hoskyns, Siti Balkish Roslan*, Claudia Westermann

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The cities of Suzhou and Shanghai in the Yangtze River Delta have recently seen a huge expansion of space that appears to be genuinely public as it is seemingly open for a wide variety of practices by the communities. In contrast, in many Western civilisations public space is dismantled through neo-liberal policies of privatisation. There is a paradox, as in the West, public space has been theorised for centuries as democratic space. In the paper ‘Public Man and Public Space in Shanghai Today’, Anthony Orum, et al. state “if residents are able to freely occupy public space then this is a testimony of the fundamental and free and democratic nature of the city.” One could argue, that such public spaces exist in China today. However, a recent White Paper published by China’s State Council Information Office entitled ‘China: Democracy That Works’ predictably has received much critique from Western media.

With the aim to explore the participatory nature of public space, the paper will explore the development of two practices that come with allusions of disruption. It will trace the Yangge Dance in public space through its history and counter it with a parallel study of a much younger skateboarding practice. While the Yangge Dance [Chinese: 秧歌; pinyin: Yāngge; lit. 'Rice Sprout Song'] is a particularly Chinese phenomenon that existed as a folk dance for a long time before it became a revolutionary dance promoted by the Communist Party, skating was imported to China in the late 80s as a rebellious practice. The two practices are very differently rooted. Yet, both practices appear to move through cycles of disruption and appropriation, followed by affirmation of governmental rule, (possibly) returning to disruption for the sake of continuity.

As the Yangge Dance, a popular dance of China’s Northern regions, was appropriated in the 50s as a state-sanctioned revolutionary dance by the Communist Party, its performance of disruption is different from the disruptive performativity linked to skateboarding. In Western societies, the performative act of skateboarding is commonly theorised as being rooted deeply in the act of rebellion against any form of authority challenging the intended use of public space. The counter-culture translates to an attitude of disruption at the beginning of skateboarding’s emergence in the streets of China in the mid-1980s. Yet, like the Yangge Dance the Chinese government appropriated skateboarding. It became a ‘sport’ with billions of CNY in investment for new state-of-the-art skateparks when the 2020 Olympic Games hosted skateboarding for the first time in history.

The paper will present case studies of Suzhou and Shanghai that analyze skateboarding and the Yangge Dance as participatory practices that test out to what extent public space can be freely occupied.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)51
JournalTraditional Dwellings and Settlements Review
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2022
EventIASTE 2022, Rupture and Tradition, International Conference - National University of Singapore (NUS), Singapore, Singapore
Duration: 14 Dec 202217 Dec 2022


  • public space
  • China
  • common
  • squaare dancing
  • skateboarding
  • Suzhou


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