Huangpu River: Between the East and the West

“Water implies a series of connectivities between the body and the city, between social and bio-physical systems, between the evolution of water networks and capital flows, and between the visible and invisible dimensions to urban space…….

Matthew Gandy, 2004

The Huangpu River flows through the middle of Shanghai, dividing the city into “Puxi”, the traditional city centre and “Pudong”, the new financial heart. This river (and the city’s strategic location) is the reason for Shanghai’s connectivity with the rest of the world as she is a prime location for trade flows. However, beyond the surface of this river lie the depths of uneven water systems. Just as this river divides Shanghai’s East and West, the notion of “sanitary” and its relevant systems has come to divide the society.

Ongoing in China is a ‘Toilet Revolution’. The overhaul of the unsanitary toilet system has been lauded for helping lower the incidence rate and spread of diseases, until worries regarding the spread of COVID-19 through the use of public toilets came to light.

Comparing the uneven sanitation systems in Shanghai.
Picture 1: A worker collecting waste from a neighbourhood toilet waste station in Shanghai.
Source: Deljana Iossifova (x)
Picture 2: Smart public toilets are able to monitor air quality and make sure it smells good.
Source: SCMP (from People’s Daily) (x)

This is a prelude to uneven sanitation systems in Shanghai. Within this city, there are very different experiences of using a toilet. On one hand, there are people who consider reading books in the comforts of public toilets, as technology adjusts smell and air quality for the user. On the other end of the scale, there are citizens who worry about using the right shower head, so that the correct meter reading is used to record the family’s total water usage. For the latter, these shared washrooms are considered an upgrade and many are appreciative of it over the traditional chamberpots, which can still be found in Shanghai’s older neighbourhoods.

Understanding this disparity starts with the evolution of “toilet” in Shanghai.

The Evolution of “Toilet” in Shanghai

The design for a sanitary city is inherently Western and has been adapted as Shanghai ‘modernizes’. As Xie (2018: 2) comments, the global connection has allowed ‘the Western way of life [to gain] more and more ground in China [and] Chinese traditions have [waned]’. The modern toilet was hence introduced as the city developed and has been accepted as the norm for sanitary, urban Shanghai.

However, it is misguided to believe that this has seamlessly permeated the lives of all citizens. Even back in 19th century Shanghai, the introduction of Western regimes of public health ‘[revealed] the varied responses of Chinese of different classes [and] the different habits of mind’ (Goodman, 1989: 817). Indeed, I believe that this can be found in the varied cultural dynamics experienced in contemporary Shanghai. 

Against the backdrop of inequality, different perspectives towards sanitation can be recorded:

  1. The more ‘modern’ citizens are disgusted by backwards sanitation systems (namely, traditional chamberpots), whilst the ‘traditional’ citizens think that the new system leads to a waste of good, organic fertiliser
  2. The poor view sanitation as an unnecessary luxury whilst the well-off consider it a basic amenity

“……water is at the same time a brutal delineator of social power which has at various times worked to either foster greater urban cohesion or generate new forms of political conflict.

Matthew Gandy, 2004

In the first distinction, the diverging ideals of sanitation has divided the older and younger generation. The avoidance of the traditional ‘toilet’ has led to social exclusion – the ‘modern’, younger children are unwilling to visit their parents who have no “proper” toilet. It is heartbreaking to see that clashing hygienist discourses has affected familial relations and has resulted in a vulnerable group of citizens isolated. Yet, it is inevitable with the modernization of urban Shanghai.

The second divide lies between the urban poor and rich. Despite governmental attempts to reconcile the gap by funding free “1m2 bathroom” in the households of Shanghai’s older neighbourhoods, they are met with resistance on both structural and social fronts. Structurally, engineers face complicated pipelines and mouldy buildings – they are structurally unsound and its state requires a better solution for sanitation beyond “1m2 bathroom”. Even as engineers work to fit the small bathrooms into their homes, the urban poor reject the idea of modern toilets. They are deeply suspicious of the renovations and are plagued with worries that it will inevitably lead to a rise in rent or a missed opportunity for relocation. Worse still, some suspect that they might have to pay for the renovation after its completion, a notion that is growing amidst the increasing lack of faith in the state. As I elucidate here, the urban poor view sanitation as a luxury that is secondary to potential opportunity costs. 

In Shanghai’s waterways, we catch a glimpse how water might connect a city with the rest of the world. Simultaneously, it connects the visible and invisible city: the lenses of historical context, socio-economic organization, and governance overlap, presenting a complex picture of urbanisation in Shanghai. 

However, in these water systems, the myriad of issues surrounding sanitation are brought to light as the material world is reflected in the differentiating needs and attitudes of Shanghai’s citizens. Beyond even the best engineers, architects or urban planners lie a generation gap, class difference, and growing mistrust in the government, that needs to be addressed alongside her sanitation system.


Gandy, M., 2010. ‘Rethinking Urban Metabolism: Water, Space and the Modern City’, City, vol. 8, no. 3, pp. 363-379. DOI: 10.1080/1360481042000313509

Goodman, B., 1989. ‘Review: The Politics Of Public Health: Sanitation In Shanghai In The Late Nineteenth Century’, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 23, no. 4, pp. 816-820.

Xie, Y., 2018. Understanding Inequality In China’, Chin J Sociol., vol. 2, no. 3, pp. 327–347. DOI: 10.1177/2057150X16654059

4 thoughts on “Huangpu River: Between the East and the West

  1. Its’ been incredibly eye-opening to discover that buckets are still used in a city so often associated with ‘progressive’ urban planning and an abundance of technology. This itself is a testament to how both quality of life and equality, are not necessarily a result of a cities economic growth, or technological innovation. The story of night buckets reminds me strongly of Carl Marxs’ study of the ‘night soil’ – where once this physical flow of material is distributed, the natural metabolism between us and nature is shaped if not broken.

    A strong factor here seems to be a balance between the cultural and financial. Though there is a health issue of using buckets, it’s interesting to put into question what we value as a quality of life in cities, and how this has changed over time. Given the technical benefit of waste for agricultural fertility, perhaps those who are of the older generation or based in the suburban rural regions have a greater appreciation for the relationship between us and the land. Increasing migration to central cities in search of jobs associated with progressive societies and a lush high rise apartment shows the shift towards a neoliberal underpinning of values, as mentioned by David Harvey, which has, in turn, let to a divided perspective between us and nature.

    Reading through this post – it’s also interesting to notice how my perspectives of sanitation are rooted ina western-centric idea of sanitation.


    1. Thanks for the comment! Happy to have provided you with a different perspective. Yeah – I think Marx’s metabolic rift & Harvey’s idea of shifting values do come into play here. They explain and provide a different perspective on the urbanisation process. I think it was also interesting on my end when I consider how the process of changing the environment to suit new ideals/discourses has created various (maybe clashing) perspectives in society! (‘:


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