Engineering Shanghai: Water, sewage, and the making of hydraulic modernity

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Shen, Xincheng
Lu, Hanchao
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This dissertation explores the water technologies in Shanghai from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century and in what ways the infrastructures – the drainage system, the water supply, culverted rivers, the water closet, and the water-carriage sewer system – played a role in the shaping of the cityscape, economics, and politics of Shanghai. While previous scholarship has engaged the social aspect of city water engineering, especially with respect to hygiene and its relation to growing state intervention, this dissertation focuses on the engineering work itself, indicating that the concept of being modern might be an aspiration, but it was the material and practical aspects of water engineering that laid the ground and set the rules for government intervention. Only within the spatial and economic limits allowed by the engineering feasibility could the authorities materialize political influence. Following the Introduction, Chapters 2-5 discuss components of the engineering system in Shanghai – drainage, waterworks, culvert, and sewage treatment. An exhaustive look at the technical details provides us with better explanations as to why foreign technologies were accepted and in what context decisions were made by authorities. Despite these works being the embodiment of state-of-the-art Western knowledge, what facilitated their local adoption were practical and mundane concerns. Chapters 6-8 discuss how economics competition and political struggle prior to WWII played out in the context of growing engineering sophistication between actors such as corporations, consumers, political authorities from the city to the state, and from Chinese to foreigners. Chapter 9 offers a criticism about the ill-fitting, conventional concept of modernity for China studies and calls for a new theoretical framework within which the question of development could be answered in light of the incremental improvements in engineering practices. The thesis of this research is to propose the concept of hydraulic modernity. The contention here is that practical aspects of the technocratic-engineering system of city water dictated the pattern of engineering works and consequently influenced how political and economic capital were organized for the system to achieve greater capacity and homogeneity, the two criteria used to measure the development of a system in this dissertation. The former indicates the maximum output of an engineering system and the latter points to the reduction of the number of heterogeneous interest groups inside a technocratic-engineering system in order to lower the risk of malfunction. Modernization of Shanghai was not driven by top-down infusion of knowledge, etiquette, and ideology, but a process of meticulous interconnection of layers of technocratic-engineering systems, upon which further institutionalization of social actors was able to come into being.
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