Documenting the Danwei

“ A whole history remains to be written of space – which would at the same time be the history of powers – from the great strategies of geo-politics to the tactics of the habitat… Anchorage in a space is an economico-political form that needs to be studied in detail.”

Michel Foucault The Eye of Power (1977)

Danwei Street with plants and washing

IUD image. Guangzhou, China: 2014

As part of our long term project exploring the surviving remains of  ‘socialist sites’ IUD have been documenting the residential areas of the Chinese danwei in Guangzhou’s Haizhu district.

Family planning poster

IUD image. Guangzhou, China: 2014

Before Deng Xiaoping’s reform era, the key type of urban organization instigated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was the ‘danwei’ or work unit. The term danwei means: “a people place set apart” (Bjorklund 1986: 21). Danwei members were housed in walled compounds very close to or even within the perimeter of a state –owned enterprise (SOE) to which the workers were attached. Almost every urban resident of the Maoist city was assigned to a danwei unit based around a factory, a store, a school or government agency. In 1978, for instance, it was estimated that 95% of all urban workers were assigned to such work places (Lu 2011). In essence, the danwei was the basic unit, instigating political and social cohesion for the new urban communist society.


IUD image. Guangzhou, China: 2014

Today, after nearly four decades of the reform era, the danwei is one of the many spaces in transition within China. Successive rounds of restructuring to the state –owned enterprises have attempted to make them competitive in the world market. Workforce downsizing, the reorganization of resources, assets and structures, in addition to reductions in welfare provision, have all been used to make the industries more in line with the market ethos (Hassard, Morris, Sheeham, Yuxin 2006 and Xie, Lai & Wu 2009). This combined with the decentralization and privatization of state housing has further dismantled the old cohesive infrastructure and created widespread social fragmentation and displacement (Walker & Buck 2007 and Cook, Gu & Halsall 2013). William Hurst in his work The Chinese Worker after Socialism notes, that the flip side to China’s economic transformation on the world stage is that many of the ‘winners’ under the socialist system involved with the state owned enterprises are now the ‘losers’ in the new post-socialist order (Hurst 2009:1).

Danwei Entrance

IUD image. Guangzhou, China: 2014

IUD will be presenting the first stage of its research into the danwei spaces around Guangzhou’s Industrial Road in Manchester UK at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art on the 29th of September.

Industrial Road Triptych

IUD images. Guangzhou, China: 2015


Bjorklund, E.M., 1986. ‘The Danwei: Socio-Spatial Characteristics of Work Units in China’s Urban Society’ in Economic Geography, Vol. 62, No 1, p.21.

Cook, Ian G., Gu, Chaolin & Halsall, Jamie, 2013. ‘China’s Low Income Urban Housing’ in Asian Social Science, Volume 9, No. 3, 2013.

Hassard, John, Morris, Jonathan, Sheeman, Jackie & Yuxin, Xiao, 2006. Downsizing the danwei: Chinese state-enterprise reform and the surplus labour question in The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 17:8, August 2006, pp. 1441-1455.

Hurst, William, 2009. The Chinese Worker after Socialism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lu, D., 2011. Remaking Chinese Urban Form: Modernity, Scarcity and Space: 1949-2005. London: Routledge.

Rodman, Margaret, C., 2003. ‘Empowering Place: Multilocality and Multivocality’ in The Anthropology of Space and Place: Locating Culture. Oxford: Blackwells.

Walker, Richard & Buck, Daniel, 2007. ‘The Chinese Road: Cities in the Transition to Capitalism’ in New Left Review, 46, July August 2007.




































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