Xincheng Shen PhD Defense

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The School of History and Sociology presents Xincheng Shen’s dissertation defense titled:

Engineering Shanghai - Water, Sewage, and the Making of Hydraulic Modernity
March 11, 2019, 10:00am
Old Civil Engineering Building, Room 104

This thesis explores the history of city water technologies in Shanghai from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century and in what ways these infrastructures – drainage system, water supply, culverted rivers, water closet, and water-carriage sewer system – played a role in the shaping of the cityscape and the politics of Shanghai. While previous scholarship has been engaging the social aspect of city water engineering, especially with respect to hygiene and its relation to growing state intervention, this thesis sheds light on the engineering process itself and suggests that it was the material and practical aspects of water engineering that laid the ground and set the rules for government intervention. Only within the spatial and economic limits allowed by the engineering feasibility could the authorities have its political influence materialized.

The first half of this thesis reveals the engineering history of city water projects in Shanghai. Each chapter discusses one component of the system – drainage, waterworks, culvert, and sewage treatment. These works might be the embodiment of state-of-the-art Western knowledge in science and medicine, but what facilitated their adoption in Shanghai were most mundane concerns. Accurate scientific reasoning did not have to predate the engineering of the city. Rather, engineering tended to be governed by its own logic, which was founded on practicality, multifunctionality, and cost efficiency of the schemes.

The second half of the thesis discusses the influences a variety of authorities intended to impose either on the city water infrastructures or on the society with the help of water infrastructures, including the councils of the two foreign concessions, early Republic provinciality and entrepreneurs, the Nationalist government, the Japanese imperialists, and the Communist regime. The systemic, centralized, legible physical nature of the infrastructures enticed politicians into a vision where the society was to be run in a similar way. That is why all authorities mentioned above made attempts to achieve sovereign control over the water system and over the society in general. They succeeded to varying degrees through measures like licensing, epidemic control, hygienic campaigns, and banishing private ownership.

The thesis puts forth the idea of hydraulic modernity, which means that practical aspects of the technocratic system of city water, like scale, physicality, and financial sustainability, dictate the pattern of engineering works and consequently impact the way government and market are organized. Engineering works are not the manifestation of power relations, but the blueprint politicians borrowed for their vision. This thesis traces the development of hygienic modernity by measuring two criteria: capacity and homogeneity. The former is the indicator of maximum output of an engineering system and the latter refers to reduction of the number of heterogenous interest groups inside a technocratic system in order to lower the risk of malfunction. The more capable and homogenous water systems are, the higher level of hydraulic modernity. The higher the level, the more profound impact it has on the pattern of government, market, and society.

Through the lens of hydraulic modernity, we will see that technology transfer from the West to Shanghai did not lead to immediate displacement of old practices because the new and the old each bring their own capacity to the final output. The growing state intervention might be conducive to new values and practices, but meaningful change only happened in places where engineering works had advanced to and in places where the systems had been homogenized. In the areas beyond the reach of state, it took time for changes to happen because this thesis contends that localization of technology was a bodily experience. It was not about transplanting a novelty from one nation to another, but about local users forgetting where the technology came from and beginning to take it for granted as an integral part of mundane daily life.

Committee Members:
Hanchao Lu,  Professor, History and Sociology
John Krige,  Professor, History and Sociology
Laura Bier,  Associate Professor, History and Sociology
Joe Brown, Assistant Professor, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering
John Tone, Professor, History and Sociology


  • Workflow Status:Published
  • Created By:Kayleigh Haskin
  • Created:03/05/2019
  • Modified By:Amy D'Unger
  • Modified:03/05/2019


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