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Starter Kit


Infrastructure is by definition invisible, and it becomes visible only when it breaks down. Susan Leigh Star’s (1999) assertion is well-known to the students of critical infrastructure studies. As Brian Larkin (2013) notes, however, invisibility does not adequately describe infrastructure as a whole. There is in fact a wide range of visibility for infrastructure, from invisibility to the spectacle. The pronounced visibility of infrastructure has been an integral part to the modern states whose legitimacy lies in their ability to proffer basic infrastructure for collective living. The fact that public utilities fade from our sight signifies only a particular relationship of governance, where public decisions can be safely left to the technocrats and professionals. In other scenarios, infrastructure would be the means by which a state proffers representations, symbols, and promises to its citizens and asks them to take those signs as social facts. Infrastructure thus performs an ostensible socio-political role that involves the performances by various state and non-state agents.

What sets Chinese socialism apart in this narrative is the way in which it intentionally blurs the line between the supply side and demand side of infrastructure. This starter kit aims to draw meaningful and provocative connections between infrastructure studies and modern China studies. It supplies scholars interested in infrastructure with historical practices in China and challenges the standard views that see infrastructure as merely the support for collective living. Rather, it theorizes the mutually constitutive relationship between infrastructure and human agency, and at the same time cautions against its utopian promise. On the other hand, it supplies China scholars with various theoretical entry points to a much needed material approach to reflect on the persisting aesthetics and political-economy that involve environmentally destructive grand infrastructures.

In the socialist China, infrastructure is everything all at once: the bright future, the benevolence of the state, the achievement in self-reliance, and the utopian human connectivity hitherto withheld from the workers and peasants. In short, the state’s call for people to become masters of their own lives materializes in its picturing of infrastructure. Ideally, it is for the people, and by the people. However, the tensions between top-down initiative and bottom-up agency persisted throughout the Socialist period of China (1949-1979). The agency infused in infrastructure for a progressive history, ironically, takes the people as its own infrastructure. It reproduces its own visibility, and refuses to become invisible, receding to the corners of serviced neighborhoods. The legacy of infrastructural capitalism is still, if not more visible in today’s China. Carrying over promises for nation-building, it transforms into financial ventures and imperial outreaches.

Foundations: Agency, Poetics, and Ideology

Latour, Bruno. “On Technical Mediation.” Common Knowledge 3, no. 2 (1994): 29–64.

Bennett, Jane. “The Force of Things: Steps toward an Ecology of Matter.” Political Theory 32, no. 3 (2004): 347–72.

Humphrey, Caroline. “Ideology in Infrastructure: Architecture and Soviet Imagination.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 11, no. 1 (2005): 39–58.

Larkin, Brian. “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure.” Annual Review of Anthropology 42, no. 1 (2013): 327–43.

The People and the Commons

Simone, A M. “People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg.” Public Culture 16, no. 3 (2004): 407–29.

Amin, Ash. “Lively Infrastructure.” Theory, Culture & Society 31, no. 7–8 (December 1, 2014): 137–61.

Wilson, Ara. “The Infrastructure of Intimacy.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 41, no. 2 (December 9, 2015): 247–80.

Berlant, Lauren. “The Commons: Infrastructures for Troubling Times.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 34, no. 3 (June 1, 2016): 393–419.

Labor, Reproduction, and the Body

Andueza, Luis, Archie Davies, Alex Loftus, and Hannah Schling. “The Body as Infrastructure.” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, 2020.

Henke, Christopher R. “The Mechanics of Workplace Order: Toward a Sociology of Repair.” Berkeley Journal of Sociology 44, no. 1999–2000 (1999): 55–81.

Cowan, Thomas. “The Village as Urban Infrastructure: Social Reproduction, Agrarian Repair and Uneven Urbanisation.” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, 2019.

Rosenberg, Gabriel. “Signs of the State.” In The 4-H Harvest: Sexuality and the State in Rural America, 1–20. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

Agricultural Modernism

Schmalzer, Sigrid. “Agricultural Science and the Socialist State” in Red Revolution, Green Revolution: Scientific Farming in Socialist China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016, 27-46.

Shapiro, Judith. “Grainfields In Lakes and Dogmatic Uniformity: How ‘Learning from Dazhai’ Became an Exercise in Excess” in Mao’s War Against Nature Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001, 95-138.

Water Resources, Dams, and Reservoirs

McCormack, Gavan. “Water Margins: Competing Paradigms in China.” Critical Asian Studies 33, no. 1 (March 1, 2001): 5–30.

Crow-Miller, Brittany, Michael Webber, and Sarah Rogers. “The Techno-Politics of Big Infrastructure and the Chinese Water Machine.” Water Alternatives 10, no. 2 (June 1, 2017): 233–49.

Pietz, David Allen. Engineering the State: The Huai River and Reconstruction in Nationalist China, 1927-1937. New York, NY: Routledge, 2002.

Tilt, Bryan. Dams and Development in China: The Moral Economy of Water and Power. Columbia University Press, 2014.

Shapiro, Judith. “Population, Dams, And Political Repression: a Story of Two Environmental Disasters and the Scientists Who Tried to Avert Them” in Mao’s War Against Nature Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001, 21-66.

Mertha, Andrew C. China’s Water Warriors: Citizen Action and Policy Change. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010.

Byrnes, Corey J. Fixing Landscape: A Techno-Poetic History of China’s Three Gorges. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

Media Infrastructure and the State

Johnson, Matthew D. “Beneath the Propaganda State: Official and Unofficial Cultural Landscapes in Shanghai, 1949–1965.” Brown, Jeremy, and Matthew D. Johnson. Maoism at the Grassroots: Everyday Life in China’s Era of High Socialism. 1st ed. Harvard University Press, 2015, 199-229.

Li, Jie. “Cinematic Guerrillas in Mao’s China.” Screen 61, no. 2 (June 1, 2020): 207–29.


King, Richard. “Hao Ran on ­the Golden Road: Transformations in Rural China” Milestones on a Golden Road: Writing for Chinese Socialism, 1945-80. UBC Press, 2013, 111-135.

Volland, Nicolai. “The Geopoetics of Land Reform in Northeast Asia” Socialist Cosmopolitanism: The Chinese Literary Universe, 1945-1965. Columbia University Press, 2017, 39-61.


Images of the Ming Tombs Reservoir: Past and Now

From Google Maps Satellite Image

Image from Beijing Water, 2016.

Image from Wikipedia

The Promise of Infrastructure: Ballad of the Ming Tombs Reservior (1958 film).

Learning from Dazhai: Model as Infrastructure

Mediating the Nation-State: Film Projection and the Reach of State Propaganda

Images of the State Projectionists from the 1950s-1960s

Film Projection in the Countryside

From The Heroic Little Guerrillas (1961). In the place of broken infrastructure, the guerrilla children hold hands to create a telephone line for the army intelligence unit.

Additional Bibliography and Filmography

Short Stories and novels


Wang, Bin, dir., The Bridge. 1949. Hegang: Northeast Film Studio.

Wang, Ping, dir., The Eternal Wave. 1958. Beijing: August First Film Studio.

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