Get access

Public Man and Public Space in Shanghai Today


*Correspondence should be addressed to Anthony M. Orum, Department of Sociology (m/c 312), University of Illinois at Chicago, 1007 W. Harrison Street, Chicago, IL 60607;


Public space is a topic of great interest for urban scholars and urban planners. Such space, like parks, sidewalks, and plazas, it is argued, can provide the common grounds where the inhabitants of a city meet, exchange ideas, even engage in a variety of cultural performances. This article reports on fieldwork about the use of public space in Shanghai today. We find a great diversity of uses, ranging from vendors who sell their wares to people who engage in heated and extensive political discussions to performers of Beijing opera and ballroom dancing. We also find that the local authorities use a light, and sometimes covert, hand in their oversight of inhabitants in such spaces. Finally, we discover that powerful social differences and inequalities between native inhabitants and working-class migrants, which have emerged during the period of economic reform and market transition, are now actively in evidence in the quality and use of public space in Shanghai. The article puts these findings within a broader theoretical context, concluding in the end that for many—though not all—inhabitants public man is alive and well in Shanghai.