Hui settled in Dafen Cun in Shenzhen after studying art in Guangzhou and travelling to Hong Kong and the USA before returning home. He described how he once worked on the production line of an oil painting factory in Dafen, copying old masters and modern classics before setting up a studio and small gallery space from where he now markets his own work. In Dafen today you can buy a crate of Van Goghs or Picassos; the oil painting city is a global hub of ‘original copies’ that decorate the walls of hotels and convention centres across the world. Dafen is one of China’s chengzhongcun (villages in the city) that have attracted much recent academic and architectural attention. They warehouse migrants, sometimes in notorious ‘handshake apartments’ (woshou feng), so close together you can lean out of your window to shake your neighbour’s hand. In the words of one member of Shenzhen planning office, they function as city sponges, saturated with migrant labour in boom times and squeezing people out of the city when not needed.

Their prosperity and flexibility depend on and reflect the rural property rights they sustain. Unlike urban land, where full ownership is reserved by the state with limited use leases sold on the market, villages in the city held on to their facility to own, develop and trade property. When Shenzhen became one of the first Special Enterprise Zones in Deng’s 1978 reforms, 250-300 ‘clans’ or villages developed into semi autonomous economic units, commonly organised as joint stock companies, with families holding formal shares. In Shenzhen, one of China’s fastest growing cities, it is in these villages where most migrants live.

And so one day in 2008 in another chengzhongcun –Guanlan – in the northern district of Shenzhen, we drove to the edge of the village (cun). In the space of a few hundred metres the landscape moves seamlessly from dense residential blocks to a field of barely visible crops and back to brick. We talk about where the cun ends. Sherlock Holmes laughs. Sherlock (his ‘English’ nickname for himself) works for the cun’s management committee. His father had been elected to the committee that month, turning over an old regime in the nascent democratic arrangement of village affairs. He tells a story about the cun’s boundaries that is hard to provenance but revealing.

At the time of Deng’s ‘reform and opening up’, the villages in the city in Shenzhen and other parts of the south were encouraged to develop their own economic growth strategies. Government inspectors had been sent to turn reform principle into economic practice, confirming the cartography of local landholdings. The inspection based cadastre was to regularise those privileged in the first wave of Special Economic Zones. Guanlan itself lay outside the old boundary (guan nei) that separates inside the zone (guan li) from the outside (guan wai) and is still marked by old, barely used forms of passport and identity control. It sits half way to Dongguan, a city famous for the autonomy of its local government, prompting several interventions from Beijing to rein in local government affairs in the 1990s and 2000s. However, proximity to the growth area meant the village had potential to attract investment in manufacturing and the facility to accommodate workshops and factories, a large migrant population, and sweated labour.

The border of the village defined the territory for Guanlan’s potential development, the limits to the property rights of the village ‘clan’. Before the days of GIS and satellite technologies, in the wake of moves to experiment with the growth of Shenzhen, the cadastration process was mapped out by inspectors who stayed as guests of the village’s committee. Because the boundaries of villages owed more to tenure than secure landholdings, each cun was to be defined by the limits of its cultivable area. So according to Sherlock the elders would take the inspector out to formulate the map of the cultivation based on a particular lychee tree. After a long lunch and hospitable dinner the inspectors went to sleep, at which point local families went and dug up the lychee trees in one set of plots and created a new landscape of lychee trees in a different sector. They moved from north to west to south and east, ensuring on each occasion that the cun made a land grab based on the fictitious cultivation of the lychee. And that is why – Sherlock boasted – the boundaries of the cun are so extensive in comparison with most other villages in the region.

The story may be apocryphal but it invokes the balance between local solidarities and suspicion of central authority, and valorises the wit of the local to fool the state bureaucrat. It captures the sense in which Guanlan sees itself as a site of propensity, the possibility of generating affluence resting on the authority to develop, transact and leverage the potential of the land.

The chengzhongcun has become an iconic urban form of contemporary China, bringing together property rights, urban fabric and migrant demography. The particular assemblage of housing supply and cultural flux allows the city to accommodate simultaneously extraordinary flows of migration and the dynamics of urban change, and to allocate the externalities of demographic change through a particular configuration of the metropolis. The villages accommodated massive flows of people into the city, but migrant status is conditional and qualified. The costs of sustaining the migrant driven change (the welfare externalities) are largely displaced to rural districts where children left behind and sometimes wives or (less often) husbands sustain family ties and reproduction at a distance in home towns (huijia).

In Dafen the original villagers were so successful that they moved out of town altogether, creating Da Fen Xin Cun four kilometres away, a gated community with swimming pools, gym, tennis courts and penthouse apartments. Functionally, the chengzhongcun generate an institutional form mediating between the planning needs of Shenzhen and the instrumental drivers of the economy: the joint stock companies that characterise most villages in the city. As Helen Siu puts it in a study of the ‘uncivil urban spaces’ of post reform China, ‘their main livelihood, as a villager puts it, has shifted from cultivating crops (gengtian) to cultivating real estate (gengwu)’ (2007).

On the surface, chengzhongcun have become exemplifications of a flexible city celebrated in the vernacular characterisation of ‘Shenzhen speed’. But the map of property rights can make this surface legible through another calculus – one that sees implicit trade offs between the rational city and instrumental self interest, the logic of the individual joint stock company, the rights of the migrant and the needs of the metropolis; these are the formalities of governance and the informalities of migrant urbanism, China style.


Keith, M., Lash, S. Arnoldi, J. and Rooker, T. (2014) China Constructing Capitalism: Economic Life and Urban Change, London; Routledge

Siu, H. (2007) ‘Grounding Displacement: Uncivil Urban Spaces in Post-reform South China’, American Ethnologist, 34b (2): 329-350

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