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Shijing (市井), on the Debris of Shijing

Yixuan_Shijing (Fig 1)

Author's own photograph, 2021.

Nostalgia about the 1980s-2000s in Contemporary China

This paper aims to analyse the nostalgia about the 1980s-2000s in contemporary China by tracing the semantic change of a single word – Shijing (市井) – in an urban context. As a noun, shijing refers to an urban area where commercial spaces are mixed with residential spaces of ordinary people, full of the hustle and bustle.[1] As an adjective, according to the orthodox dictionary Da Cihai, it is used to describe philistine, vulgar and despicable people in the city.[2] Conversely, in everyday use, it denotes an urban culture with renqingwei (human touch; 人情味; literally, the taste of human feelings) where the desires and emotions of ordinary people outweigh grand narratives.[3] The contradictions and ambiguities of this word reveal the tensions between the elite and the ordinary, and the grandiose and the everyday over the right to the city.

Marked as roughly the first twenty years of China’s reform and opening up (from December 1978), the 1980s-2000s are mourned as a lost golden era. Users of the networking website Douban gather on the social media group ‘pretending to live in the 1980-2000’ to share their memories and photos.[4] ‘It was a golden age spiritually,’ ‘it was full of hopes,’ ‘it was slow, more real, less commercial,’ ‘it was more open and more inclusive,’ ‘it was full of renqingwei,’ they sighed.[5]

Based on the premise that social relations have a spatial form, I approach this nostalgic elegy by unfolding its spatial frame.[6] To be exact, I will use the dining complex Wenheyou (文和友), known for its vintage-themed ambience of the 80s and 90s, as my primary study site of nostalgia. Situated at the high-end shopping mall Hisense Plaza in Changsha city (the capital of Hunan province), Wenheyou claims that they preserve the shijing culture by duplicating shijing streets, buildings, and food in the city core.[7] For them, shijing is a bridge between a past with renqingwei and a current-day without.[8]

Designed by and for Hunan Wenheyou Culture Development Group, this project has attracted widespread public attention since its opening in 2019. Three years on, it serves an average of 20,000 customers a day and has expanded two more branches to Guangzhou and Shenzhen.[9] Furthermore, it is recognised as an exemplary case of Wanghong (Internet Celebrities; 网红) economy, with 108,000 posts written about it on the popular lifestyle social networking platform Xiaohongshu (RED; 小红书). Among these posts, ‘Recommended locations for taking photos’ and ‘Photo-shooting strategies’ are heated topics. Thus, the spread of photos is crucial for Wenheyou’s commercial success – photos by influencers attract real-life customers, who in-turn post images of their visit online.[10] Alongside its business success, Wenheyou is nominated for the ‘city for humanity award’ by the influential Sanlian Life Week magazine due to its promotion of ‘the social values and humanitarian concerns in Chinese cities.’[11] The nomination speech highlighted the need to shift architecture’s role in the ‘age of consumerism’ – ‘Super Wenheyou in Changsha rejuvenates the diversity of urban street life by representing historical imageries with the ‘sense of authenticity,’ and it also rediscovers the architectural typology in the age of consumerism.’[12]

Previous descriptions reveal that shijing plays a significant role in the spatial frame of nostalgia. It is simultaneously regarded as a part of the irreversibly lost ‘golden age’ (in the urban dimension) and a feasible cure for this loss (in Wenheyou). I define shijing as an urban area where ordinary middle- and lower-class people dwell. At the junction between urban nostalgia and nostalgic building, shijing can be employed to scrutinise these contemporary nostalgias. And, more explicitly, I regard shijing as an evaluative tool to read people’s right to the city. In doing so, I problematise the acclaimed ‘authenticity’ of nostalgia in Wenheyou by questioning its authorship and readership – that is, who defines the nostalgia, to whom does the nostalgia belongs, and how does this nostalgia retain or redefine the right to the city?

Relying on visual materials I gleaned from my field trip and social media, I build my argument through visual analyses. I concentrate on how visual encounters between viewers, images, and surroundings represent collaborative acts of interactive meaning-making.[13] Film forms a site of meaning production in this dissertation study, and the formation of a fictional flaneuse’ journey searching for shijing in Wenheyou. The film represents multiple, changing authorship in a series of visual encounters, and generates plural dialogue.

The following texts are the extracted scripts from the video:


So, what is ‘shijing’ exactly?


A feeling.


… …

The opposite of rules, the opposite of grandeur.

文和友展示了这一切, _

Wenheyou shows all this.

然我知道,这都是虚假的。 _

Yet, I know that it is all false.

这种虚假感首先从边界向我坍缩、将我包围。 _

This sense of falsity first collapses towards me and envelops me from the boundary.

… …

在虚假与真实的世界之间游走, _

Moving between the world of the fake and the real,

往复于市井与非市井的辖域。 _

In and out of the precincts of shijing.

虚假催生的首先是一种晕眩。 _

Falsehood spawns, above all, a dizziness.

… …

晕眩,是一个中性的词汇。 _

Dizziness is a neutral word.

… …

晕眩在真与假之间产生, _

Dizziness arises between the real and the fake,

指向一种不确定的自由状态, _

pointing towards a state of indeterminate freedom

使人游离在束缚、枷锁与压迫之外。 _

that makes one wander beyond bondage, chains and oppression.

而一旦晕眩成为被凝视的对象。 _

… …

And once dizziness becomes the object of the gaze,

其本身就又落入了一种确定性。 _

It falls back into a determinacy in itself.

… …

它不会再发出沉重的悲鸣。 _

It no longer utters a heavy mournful cry.

… …

当我想用英语来解释’市井’的时候,我发觉语言是无力的。 _

When I try to explain ‘shijing’ in English, I find that words become feeble.


This feebleness comes not so much from a retreat as from … _

是一种极速的甩荡。 _

a kind of swirling swing.


I cannot find the right words to describe -

街道被一句私语唤醒, _

How the street is awakened by a whisper,

一张脸在热馄饨的蒸汽中消失, _

a face disappeared amid the steam of hot dumplings,

一阵答答的脚步声。 _

and the sound of footsteps, tip-tap, tip-tap.

在一阵被时代变迁甩荡后产生的眩晕中, _

In a dizzying hallucination after the swirling swinging of our times,

深夜回望 _只洒下点点光影。 _

A late-night look back, spilling only a little light.

有谁被遗忘? _

Has anyone been forgotten?


Name: Shijing, on the Debris of Shijing

Duration: 05:12

Narrator: The Flaneuse




[1] Shifen Zhou, Shijing (市井) (Jinan: Shandong Pictorial Publishing House (山东画报出版社), 2003), p. 15.

[2] Da Cihai - Yuci Juan (大辞海 · 语词卷), ed. by Zhili Chen and Zhengnong Xia (Shanghai: Shanghai Lexicographical Publishing House (上海辞书出版社), 2011), p. 3170.

[3] Yang Li, ‘‘The Dream of Empire’ and ‘Urbanity.’ The Chinese Story in Along the River during the Qingming Festival (‘帝国梦’与’市井情’:《清明上河图》中的中国故事; ‘Daguo Meng’ Yu ‘Shijing Qing’: Qingming Shanghe Tu Zhong de Zhongguo Gushi),’ Journal of Chinese Literature (中國文學學報), 2 (2011), pp. 85–96 (p. 89); Tao Jiang, ‘On the Rebirth of Shijing Literature and the Discovery of Modernity in the ‘Shijing Tradition’ in the Early 1980s (论80年代初市井文学的重启与’市井传统’的现代性发现; Lun 80 Niandai Chu Shijing Wenxue de Chongqi Yu ‘Shijing Chuantong’ de Xiandaixing Faxian),’ Journal of Yantai University (烟台大学学报; Yantai Daxue Xuebao), 31.01 (2018), pp. 62–72 (p. 64).

[4] Jia Li, ‘Why This Group of Young People Pretend Living in the Past (这群年轻人为什么假装生活在过去; Zhequn Nianqingren Weishenme Jiazhuang Shenghuo Zai Guoqu),’ China Youth Daily (中国青年报), 5 February 2021 <>.

[5] ‘Why Do Our Group Members, Who Are Predominantly Born in the 1990s and 2000s, Feel Nostalgic about the 1980s and 1990s? (为什么组内90 00 居多,却对千禧前二十年间有怀恋的感觉呢?; Weishenme Zunei 90 00 Juduo, Que Dui Qianxiqian Ershinian Jian You Huainian de Ganjue Ne?),’ Douban (豆瓣), 2020 <> [accessed 27 July 2021].

[6] Doreen B. Massey, Space, Place, and Gender (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), p. 120.

[7] 长沙文和友 _(Changsha Wenheyou), WeChat <> [accessed 29 July 2021].

[8] 长沙文和友 _(Changsha Wenheyou).

[9] Peiyin Yu, ‘Revealing Wenheyou: How to Create Queues with Queues (揭秘文和友:怎样用排队创造排队),’ 2021 <> [accessed 13 June 2021].

[10] Yu.

[11] Sanlian Life Week Magazine, ‘City for Humanity Awards ( 人文城市奖; Renwen Chengshi Jiang)’

<> [accessed 6 August 2021].

[12] Ran Jiang and Yiwu Zhang, ‘‘Number 60,000’ Proves the ‘Mode of Wenheyou’ Is a Convincing Urban

Innovation (‘6 万号’证明’文和友模式’ 是有说服力的城市创新),’ National Business Daily, 2021

<> [accessed 6 August 2021].

[13] Olga Belova, ‘The Event of Seeing: A Phenomenological Perspective on Visual Sense‐Making,’ Culture

and Organization, 12.2 (2006), pp. 93–107 (pp. 104–5) <>.

Copyright of image: © Yixuan Chen

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