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An awful mark: symbolic violence and urban renewal in reform-era China

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This article investigates the relationship between forms of public writing and power, physical violence and symbolic violence in the context of urban spatial transformation in China. Specifically, it examines the widespread phenomenon in China of painting a big character (chai, meaning 'to demolish') on the walls of old buildings that are designated to be demolished. Even though this sign carries a definite semantic meaning, its power is more significantly derived from the form and context of its presentation, and it acts upon, rather than simply communicates to, its intended audience. Inspired by John Austin's concept of speech acts, the author calls this and other similar forms of powerful writing 'text acts'. He argues that the chai phenomenon exemplifies the ways in which authorities resort to forms of powerful writing to effect desired perceptions, to interpellate certain kinds of subjects and to exact accommodating behaviour from these subjects in reform-era China. His case study focuses on the destruction of old courtyard-house neighbourhoods in central Beijing.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 1, 2008

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