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THIREAU, Isabelle. 2020. Des lieux en commun. Une ethnographie des rassemblements publics en Chine (Places in Common: An Ethnography of Public Gatherings in China). Paris : éditions EHESS.

Translated by Peter Brown
p. 75-76

Full text

1Reviewing research whose subjects echo one’s own work is a fascinating and stimulating exercise. Des lieux en commun resonates in fact with two ethnographic studies I carried out in Beijing, one in the mid-1990s on the collective dance of yangge (秧歌), and the other more recently on the controversial renovation of the district of Gulou. Isabelle Thireau’s volume deals with Tianjin. Based on an immersive fieldwork, the author presents two distinct experiences of public gatherings. The first is the daily meetings in Shengli Square, a space used for group physical exercise as much as for socialising among its members; the second is for activities relating to the protection of the cultural heritage of historic Tianjin. What the experiences have in common is the mutual presence of several social actors, who come together in a more or less structured way, and a sharing of know-how related to their engagement in urban space and civil society.

2The focal point of her study concerns the modalities of “doing things together” and the capacity of action of those taking part in these gatherings. The author emphasises with great finesse the close connections between knowledge and action, and the importance for citizens of making visible a public history of the urban and social changes of which they are at once witnesses and actors. The comparisons made between these two situations are ingeniously documented via several significant entry points for the communities concerned. They reveal not only the differences between these two forms of public gathering, which both fall along a continuum of participatory initiatives, but also the respective issues at stake and the fragile legitimacy of their actions in a relatively uncertain sociopolitical context.

3Divided into two parts, each of which contains extracts from interviews as well as ethnographic descriptions, the work relates in meticulous detail the common experiences of an apprenticeship in and a familiarisation with public action carried out by those participating in the gatherings.

4The first part delves into the daily “keep healthy” meetings on Shengli Square in the district of Heping between 2011 and 2017. The author insists at the outset on the social and geographical heterogeneity of its members in order to better highlight the forms taken by the different types of engagement between familiarity and strangeness within the “spontaneous” group. The specific modalities of interaction and communication (how people position themselves, greet each other, move around, take leave, go off together, etc.) designed for “doing things together” are all instances of a common know-how made up of practices and shared norms that progressively form into a pattern of behaviour. People do their exercise and talk to each other at a comfortable distance. They engage in discussion about ordinary subjects (the environment, the family, food, etc.) and share their ideas within the group. They identify material traces of places undergoing transformation and they take part in a collective commemorating effort of the kind that occurs in the popular radio programme “Speaking about the Tianjin Garrison.” These different experiences thus contribute to the establishment of a “we” through the setting of a collective narrative that sometimes diverges from the official history. The three chapters that comprise this first part provide an account of the way in which “common understandings are created and know-how shared” (p. 182) within a group that is loose in terms of its structure and resilient by dint of its regularity, but above all dynamic through the configurations of mutual presence that unfold there and that are on public display. Without any control over concrete reality, the people taking part in these daily gatherings have to adapt to urban transformations such as the one happening on Shengli Square itself, which pose a threat to the legitimacy of this institutionalised “doing things together.”

5The second part of the work deals specifically with the urban development of Tianjin and the role of its residents. The fieldwork study begun in 2011 documents interviews, archives, and participation in various meetings. Its aim is to reconstitute the origin of a team of volunteers whose objective was to protect the cultural heritage of a Chinese city recognised in 1986 as being “famous for its history and culture.” The fieldwork interviews conducted in Tianjin and the systematic explorations of endangered places (Guyijie, Wudadao, Belfran, etc.) are presented in three chapters that point out the various modes of engagement developed by those involved (a forum, publishing newsletters, writing reports, sending letters, paying visits, winning prizes, etc.) to prevent the rushed destruction of certain cultural assets. In order to ensure the enforcement of the local and national legislative framework for heritage protection, this collective firstly engaged with the many administrative levels, regulations, and heritage labels in a series of initiatives to save buildings. Imbued with a feeling of responsibility for the protection of the city, the team then mobilised various written, oral, and visual sources and championed the cause of oral history and residents’ memories of the past to legitimise their stance and activities. The upshot was an increasingly sophisticated capacity to position themselves in the sometimes-conflictual system between the local administration and the heritage experts. These initiatives resulted in the recognition of the “Tianjin model,” according to which “the government rules, the experts advise, and the public participates” (p. 240). Their ability to mobilise is not only shown on multiple fronts but is, above all, something that is shared across the group. Indeed, their actions fall within a regulatory framework that encourages civil participation. The volunteers carefully choose what is to be made public in their exchanges with the representatives of the Party and the state in order to produce an authorised public discourse aimed at limiting the destructions. By playing with the local administration’s codes, they embarrass it and impel it to act. Isabelle Thireau’s research presents the issues at stake and the limits of public discussion. Her analysis of the different categories of citizen gatherings ultimately examines the fragility of their existence as well as the mechanisms of their representativeness in the current political and administrative context.

6This ethnography provides an original and very specific account of a topical phenomenon in which unrestrained urbanisation meets social movements in China. It reflects the inevitable tensions between urban transformations and participatory processes and in doing so reveals the strategies and tactics put in place by politicians who are blinded by the development of their city, and residents who are attached to the spirit of the place in which they live.

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Bibliographical reference

Florence GRAEZER BIDEAU, “THIREAU, Isabelle. 2020. Des lieux en commun. Une ethnographie des rassemblements publics en Chine (Places in Common: An Ethnography of Public Gatherings in China). Paris : éditions EHESS. China Perspectives, 2021/3 | 2021, 75-76.

Electronic reference

Florence GRAEZER BIDEAU, “THIREAU, Isabelle. 2020. Des lieux en commun. Une ethnographie des rassemblements publics en Chine (Places in Common: An Ethnography of Public Gatherings in China). Paris : éditions EHESS. China Perspectives [Online], 2021/3 | 2021, Online since 01 September 2021, connection on 17 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author


Florence Graezer Bideau is Lecturer and Head of the Research Group Patrimoine, culture et ville (Heritage, Culture and City), Collège des Humanités, École polytechnique de Lausanne EPFL, CM2270, 1015 Lausanne, Switzerland (

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