The Power of Spectacle


  • Anna Greenspan New York University Shanghai, China



Shanghai, spectacle, urbanity


When people say Shanghai looks like the future the setting is almost always the same. Evening descends and the skyscrapers clustered on the eastern shore of the Huangpu light up. Super towers are transformed into giant screens. The spectacular skyline, all neon and lasers and LED, looms as a science fiction backdrop. Staring out from the Bund, across to Pudong, one senses the reemergence of what JG Ballard once described as an “electric and lurid city, more exciting than any other in the world.” The high-speed development of Pudong – in particular the financial district of Lujiazui – is the symbol of contemporary Shanghai and of China’s miraculous rise.

Yet, Pudong is also taken as a sign of much that is wrong with China’s new urbanism. To critics the sci-fi skyline is an emblem of the city’s shallowness, which focuses all attention on its glossy facade. Many share the sentiment of free market economist Milton Friedman who, when visiting Pudong famously derided the brand new spectacle as a giant Potemkin village. Nothing but “the statist monument for a dead pharaoh,” he is quoted as saying.

This article explores Pudong in order to investigate the way spectacle functions in China’s most dynamic metropolis. It argues that the skeptical hostility towards spectacle is rooted in the particularities of a Western philosophical tradition that insists on penetrating the surface, associating falsity with darkness and truth with light.

In contrast, China has long recognized the power of spectacle (most famously inventing gunpowder but using it only for fireworks). Alongside this comes an acceptance of a shadowy world that belongs to the dark. This acknowledgment of both darkness and light found in traditional Chinese culture (expressed by the constant revolutions of the yin/yang symbol) may provide an alternative method for thinking about the tension between the spectacular visions of planners and the unexpected and shadowy disruptions from the street.


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How to Cite

Greenspan, A. (2011) “The Power of Spectacle”, Culture Unbound, 4(1), pp. 81–95. doi: 10.3384/cu.2000.1525.12481.



Theme: Shanghai Modern: The Future in Microcosm?