Rubbles, Ruins and Abandoned Spaces in Urban China: Ethnographic Explorations

Dr Judith Audin, researcher, CEFC Hong Kong, chief editor of China Perspectives

Dr Katiana Le Mentec, researcher, CNRS, CCJ (CNRS/EHESS/UdP)

Call for abstracts for a panel (EACS 2020, 25-29 August 2020)

Call for abstracts for a publication project (China Perspectives, 2021)

Rubbles, Ruins and Abandoned Spaces in Urban China

Ethnographic Explorations


Urban ruins constitute ubiquitous spaces in contemporary China: from neighbourhood and areas undergoing urban demolition to newly-built “ghost towns,” from industrial wastelands to forgotten buildings and abandoned theme parks in various states of disrepair… The familiar strangeness of Chinese urban rubbles and ruination spaces has been mostly looked upon as “ruinscapes.” Yet the topic deserves to be studied through other angles, especially focusing on the people inhabiting and/or practicing such places.

Most published works on the topic concentrate in the fields of art history (Wu 2012), geography and architecture (Wu, Zhang, and Webster 2013; Ren 2014; Sorace and Hurst 2015; Woodworth and Wallace 2017), and visual studies (Lam 2013a; Ortells-Nicolau 2015). Urban exploration – the visit and documentation of derelict man-made structures and abandoned places – also developed in recent years and inspired various research projects in social sciences (Garrett 2014a, 2014b; Offenstadt 2018). This alternative approach has proven useful to infiltrate undocumented places but also to access new fields of knowledge and offer a critical understanding of the Chinese city (Lam 2013b; Audin 2018). In the Chinese case, existing studies on abandoned places and spaces tend to exceptionalize urban ruins, seen as “anomalies” (Shepard 2015), to romanticize them as aesthetic objects (Wu 2012; Ortells-Nicolau 2015; Nieszczrzeweska 2015), or to consider them as specific “landscapes”: the notion of “ruinscape,” like “landscape,” refers to a subjective social construction mostly associated to mechanisms of perception (Cauquelin 1989; Escande 2005). This call for abstracts seeks to go beyond the external normative lens in order to explore ethno-sociological processes at play in these peculiar places, taking into full consideration the complexity of their historico-ontological contexts.

Recent empirical approaches have proven useful to understand issues of contemporary Chinese ruins (Chu 2014; Ulfstjerne 2017), grounded in specific contexts with a focus on the ways local communities interact with ruined spaces. Ethnographic explorations participate in a critical understanding of urban development by highlighting economic, political, ecological, social and cultural processes embedded in these places. More broadly such methodology allows an acute analysis of the ways in which ordinary people practice, use, think, and shape abandoned or derelict spaces. Such material and social contexts of abandonment stimulate socio-cultural creativity and adaptation. Hence, considering the ubiquity and the various forms of abandoned places and urban rubbles in China, ethnographic studies can help consolidate not only knowledge on contemporary China but also related to the field of anthropology of space and territory. By encouraging ethnographic studies, this panel aims at bringing out new perspectives on how local communities and people interact with rubbles, derelict buildings, and abandoned spaces in urban China.

To examine dereliction and ruination, one has to fully consider spatiality and temporality (Augé 2003; Garrett 2011). We invite potential contributors to be attentive to these perspectives. How situated inhabitants or visitors produce, live and feel various spatialities when interacting with situated processes of urban decay, rubbles, abandonment, disrepair or failed architecture? Ethnographies may rely on people familiar with these places before their ruination state or who appropriate them durably or temporarily after they enter in the stage of transformation. The analyses can explore issues of memory and nostalgia, or other affects such as fear, revulsion, fascination, indifference…. Exploring the processes of vanishing, as well as the presence (or absence) of traces (Ginzburg 1980) can reveal how people envision these spaces and their trajectories of decline. Ethnographic contributions can focus on social representations of derelict buildings and urban ruins (myths, legends, ghost stories or rumours). The social construction of Chinese “ruinscapes” might also be stimulating to explore: how the visual space of ruins and rubbles can be seen as a valuable, legitimate, or stigmatized “landscape” by various social groups. Proposals may also examine cases of people involvement or even social mobilisation around ruined spaces. In this aspect, research on decline (Mah 2012), resistance (Ho 2013), and resilience (Vale and Campanella 2015) in Chinese cities can shed light on the social processes behind derelict sites. Contributors may also focus on the social “afterlife” of such spaces. How does dereliction contribute to (un)making places, and (un)making communities? Papers can bring out how ordinary people (re)create communities, lifestyles, social practices and economic activities in semi-abandoned or half-demolished neighbourhoods, or how they even produce new systems of value (Davidov 2016), from artists inspired by the ruins to waste pickers making a living out of scrapping in such spaces (Wu and Zhang 2019). Papers can also question how do marking practices of specific social groups turn such places into marginal, socially invisible places for others (Huang and Yi 2015)?

This panel welcomes contributions in social sciences showing a strong ethnographic angle on urban ruins, abandoned places and derelict buildings in different Chinese contexts (although the main focus will be on the PRC, we welcome case studies involving Hong Kong, Macao, and/or Taiwan).

If you are interested in joining this EACS 2020 panel and/or the publication project in the journal China Perspectives, please send a title and an abstract (250 words) with a short bio and contact info, and indicate which projects (panel and/or publication) you are interested in. Please also send us an extra paragraph with the following information to help us situate your work:

  • disciplinary field.s of research
  • domain/object of research
  • methodological and theoretical approach
  • dates, duration and place of fieldwork
  • social characteristics/groups of people interviewed/observed (approximate number)
  • context of the case study (which space, context of ruination, …)

Paper proposals should be sent by email to and

Abstract proposals for the panel are expected by Monday 30 December 2019 at the latest. Participants to the panel will be notified by 4 January 2020. The panel will be registered on the EACS website by 6 January 2020 at the latest.


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