New Villages: Sowing the Seed of Utopia

A two-story house before the construction of Caoyang New Village completed, 1952
Photographed by Jin Shisheng (1910-2000)

In her article “New Village: An Observational Perspective on Architectural History Research,” the architecture scholar Li Yingchun articulates, “New Village is an observational approach situated between macro description and case studies. In the fields of history, sociology, and cultural studies, New Village is more associated with the social thought and practices of the New Village Movement in the early 1920s. As a concept of modern urban housing, however, the situation is much more complex.” [1] This complexity lies in the fact that the “New Village” manifested itself in different forms at different times—it was the new-style lanes or garden residences in the 1920s and 1930s, the Worker’s New Villages in the 1950s and 1960s, the “unit new village” in the 1990s, as well as the subject in urgent need of renewal and transformation in the 21st century. What is most relatable to ordinary Chinese people is the lived experience in the New Village, even though such experiences are continually dispersed under the impact of constant societal changes. Nevertheless, terms like “unit” and “allocation” can still evoke somewhat distant memories: the even arrangement, slightly dull six-story buildings, cement-covered staircases and interiors, auspicious ornaments arranged in a hasty manner, and blissful but sparse greenery. The “New Village” concept is repeatedly projected throughout different eras in the past century, among different groups of people and environments. It robustly constructs a complete world but, as this article attempts to convey, it is the story of a utopian seed migrating, taking root, sprouting, and ultimately dissipating without a trace.

The term “New Village” can be traced back to the early 20th century. The concept of “New Village-ism” was first proposed and systematically expounded by the Japanese modern literary pioneer Mushanokoji Saneatsu. Despite being a man of letters, Mushanokoji advocated for a life of “cultivating the land”[2]. He believed that the establishment of New Villages could realize an ideal society of equality and mutual assistance. To put his theory into practice, he traveled to Kyushu and established Japan’s first New Village there. He also promoted this way of life through such journals as Shirakaba and Shinmura. Among the faithful readers of these journals was Zhou Zuoren. In July 1919, Zhou Zuoren traveled to the New Village in Kyushu, and after spending several days living and dining with the residents, he expressed the sentiment that the ideal world of the New Village is akin to the traditional Chinese concept of a “Society of Great Unity.” Two months before Zhou Zuoren’s visit to the New Village, the May Fourth Movement erupted, signaling an imminent revolution. Zhou Zuoren systematically introduced the thought of “New Village-ism” to China. This idea quickly spread in China, depicting an enticing vision. Prominent figures of the modern era were deeply moved by such visions, subsequently putting the ideology into practice nationwide through work-study mutual aid groups. This also fueled a significant utopian movement during the May Fourth period. In the subsequent years, the concept of “New Village” continued to appear in different lights from time to time.

Piling by manpower at the construction site of Caoyang New Village, 1952
Photographed by Jin Shisheng (1910-2000)

As work-study mutual aid groups attempted to transplant pastoral living into urban areas, the concept of the “New Village” also evolved along another path. In 1919, Shanghai saw the development of the first New Village compound by the name of “Longhua,” planned and built based on the Japanese New Village concept. Serving as a “trial model New Village,” the establishment of Longhua New Village became an important basis for the New Village philosophy taking root in China, marking the beginning of the development for New Villages in Shanghai. However, the various New Villages in Shanghai did not come out of entirely “idealistic” reasons. On the one hand, facing a shortage of housing in Shanghai, New Villages did provide a rapid way to improve living conditions. On the other hand, the modern and hygienic spatial intentions embedded in the concept of “New Village” led to the consumption of this idea in the real estate development process. It gradually deviated from the original intention of New Village philosophy, which advocated equality through labor, and instead became “an ideal lifestyle for the modern Chinese urban middle class.”[3] Citizens’ self-help initiatives, real estate developers, and the municipal government became the major forces fueling several waves of New Village construction in Shanghai before 1949.

After 1949, the issue of housing shortage in Shanghai remained severe. The spatial composition of New Villages did not change, but they were endowed with different political meanings. As the “working class” became the masters of the country, their importance in mainstream ideology was projected into the urban space. In April 1951, Chen Yi, the then mayor of Shanghai, explicitly stated in the report “1951 Working Tasks of Shanghai” during the Second Session of the Second People’s Congress of the City that “municipal construction must serve the development of production, and therefore the guiding principle of municipal construction is to serve the working class first.”[4] The Shanghai municipal government established the Shanghai Workers’ Housing Construction Committee and decided to start building housing for workers that year to address the housing difficulties of Shanghai’s three million industrial workers. However, the establishment of the workers’ New Villages was not just a guarantee for the needs of the urban working class. The “work first, live later” policy and the large-scale construction of industrial zones completely rewrote the spatial structure of the city. More importantly, providing comfortable residences for workers also marked the ideological transformation of this city. The completion of the first workers’ New Village became an ideal model of that era.

The construction site of Caoyang New Village, 1952
Photographed by Jin Shisheng (1910-2000)

“It is very difficult to imagine life in a socialist environment, especially in this transitional stage toward communism.”[5] Indeed, the first workers’ New Village in new China—Caoyang No. 1 Village—embodied such imagination. Caoyang No. 1 Village was located in the northwest corner of Shanghai, in a newly developed area near the industrial zone in Putuo District, in the suburban countryside with criss-crossing streams and overgrown weeds. Starting from scratch and with 1002 households, Caoyang No. 1 Village realized the model of “happy life” for workers in Shanghai. “It detached itself from the neon-lit lanes in the concessions… becoming a benchmark for reshaping the beliefs of the working class, a small society where exemplary worker representatives live together.”[5]

Wang Dingzeng, who planned Caoyang New Village, went to the United States for study in the 1930s, earning a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in architectural engineering from the University of Illinois in 1940. After the Sino-Japanese War, population growth, housing shortages, and the aftermath of war made him particularly concerned about post-war housing policies in China. In 1947, Wang Dingzeng became the director of the Construction Department of the Public Works Bureau of the Shanghai Municipal Government. In the same year, he published an article titled “Urban Reconstruction and Solving the Housing Crisis” in the first volume, second issue of the magazine Architectural Review, discussing housing construction issues and proposing to improve housing environments and urban residents’ welfare by adopting the “neighborhood unit” approach. In 1951, Wang Dingzeng began working in the Shanghai People’s Government Municipal Construction Committee and successively led the planning and housing construction work of Caoyang New Village in the west of Shanghai and the “Twenty Thousand Households” projects in Changbai, Kongjiang, Fengcheng, and Anshan in the east. His proposals had not been implemented in the era of the Republic of China, but the socialist transformation of material, funds, and the distribution of human resources after 1949 provided an excellent environment for the realization of this idea.[6] It is not difficult to see that Wang Dingzeng, like the concept of the New Village, embodies complexity. This complexity also determined the uniqueness of Caoyang No. 1 Village: the village’s plan conformed to the direction of the river and roads, spreading out in the shape of a fan. A curvilinear road was built along the waterfront, creating a diverse and interconnected landscape with surrounding parks and waterside greenery. Different from the mainstream Soviet-style street block layouts at the time, which were symmetrical along the central axis, enclosed in space, and strong in commemoration, the adaptation to the original site conditions, comfortable walking distances, and the presentation of the garden city concept in the planning of Caoyang No. 1 Village all carried an unparalleled feeling beyond the era.

Wang Dingzeng once fondly recalled the scene when Caoyang No. 1 Village was completed—red tiles, white walls, brown cornerstones at the corners with decorative patterns and red-framed windows. The staircases and floorboards inside the residences were covered with red-painted floors. “It has the charm of Shanghai’s new-style lanes and a hint of European and American garden communities.”[7] In this entirely new and complete world, from the allocation of roads, landscapes, and public facilities to the layout of each household, everything became the designer’s understanding and projection of the “ideal life.” This is also reflected on a micro-level in the allocation and use of space. These public spaces—whether shared facilities or communal kitchens and bathrooms, 24-hour shuttle buses—shaped a collective consciousness. The elements within the rooms, the design of traffic flows, the distribution of spaces, and the use of materials also shaped a standardized daily life. This ideal life was disseminated nationwide through magazines, brochures, and movies. In August 1952, the People’s Pictorial published images captured by Yu Chuangshuo, showcasing the lifestyle in Caoyang New Village: healthy, smiling men and women, the joy of a family of four moving into a new home, the delight brought by collective living, etc. For a country eager for development, these images of a new life conveyed a strong appeal. In these photos, the brand-new buildings were the most important backdrop, entering the New Village and walking into the buildings also meant entering a new life.

Residents of Caoyang New Village in 1952, published in the People’s Pictorial, August 1952

Who could be the first to embrace such an ideal life? This kind of life was not just an honor; it meant engaging in comparisons and selections. The 1002 housing units in Caoyang No. 1 Village were allocated by the Housing Allocation Committee, consisting of units such as the Municipal General Union and the Municipal Public Housing Management Office. These units were uniformly distributed to workers from 217 textile and hardware factories in three districts: Putuo, Zhabei, and Changning. Each factory could only allocate four to five households to move in, leading to the saying at the time, “if one person lives in the New Village, the entire factory is glorious.” Residents celebrated their move to the new homes with gongs, firecrackers, showcasing the bright prospects of life to their colleagues—by working hard together, everyone could eventually enjoy such ideal housing. Among the first residents of Caoyang No. 1 Village were many city-level model workers. The ideological morality, behavioral norms, and operational capabilities among collective members constrained and supported each other at the same time, forming a high degree of consistency. Life in the New Village is shaped by the increasingly perfected management, orderly daily life, and numerous collective activities. At the same time, a management method linked to the resident workers’ factories and the Residents’ Committee was initially formulated. The distribution and management of the New Village was closely related to the unit system under the planned economic system. Through the Workers’ Unit and the New Village Residents’ Committee (later changed to the Residents’ Committee), a vertical channel of “family-country congruence” was established with directives from the state being passed down.

Aerial view of Caoyang No.1 Village, 2016
Photo: Fayhoo 

An architect and curator with a doctoral degree in architectural studies, who grew up in a New Village.

Translated by Adrian Doo


[1]  Li Yingchun, “New Village: An Observational Perspective on Architectural History Research,” The Architecture of the Times. 2017 February issue. pp16-20

[2]  Zhao Hong, “The Chinese dream of utopia: the spread and development of New-Villageism in China,” independent publishing, 2014

[3]  Zhang Xiaohong, Zheng Duan, “The Evolution of Shanghai’s New Villages in the First Half of the Twentieth Century,” The Wenhui Scholar, March 21, 2016

[4]  Party History Research Office of the Shanghai Municipal Committee of the Communist Party of China, ed. The Study of the Construction of Workers’ New Villages in Shanghai, Shanghai Bookstore Publishing House, 2014

[5]  Zhu Xiaoming, “Planning Design and History of Caoyang No. 1 Village, Shanghai,” The Residential Science and Technology Journal, November 2011, pp. 47-52

[6] Duangfang LU, Remaking Chinese Urban Form: Modernity, Scarcity and Space, 1949-2005, London: Routledge, 2006

[7] Shanghai Architecture Design Institute, ed. The Architectural Master Wang Dingzeng, Tianjin University Press, 2018

[8] The Putuo District Records, vol. 26 Cao Yang Xin Cun 

[9] Ye Ziting , Zhang Yu, Liu Xi, The Ordinary Women: Qualitative Research on Workers’ New Villages in Shanghai, The Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing House, 2021