I suppressed, boycotted or undermined by regulations. The merchant class occupied a very lowly position in the social hierarchy and were despised for their materialism. The state refused to offer any protection, privileges or even any written laws to this section of the community. Consequently Chinese towns never developed any real economic or political autonomy, the citizens enjoyed few civil rights and energies were devoted to unproductive, often purely administrative matters.
The unfavourable environment in the towns resulted in their commer- Urban paralysiscial decline and to such an extent that the inhabitants were obliged to become consumers of goods produced elsewhere. By the beginning of the 20th c. Chinese towns had become stifled by bureaucracy and the unchanging commercial habits of the townsfolk. The sort of urban features and institutions that in Western countries make a town into a community, such as squares, markets and baths, private houses and public buildings, plus an extensive infrastructure, simply did not exist.
Apart from the temples, which in terms of size and style were not particularly distinctive buildings, only two basic factors influenced Chinese society and its urban development, namely the emperor and his subjects or the imperial palace and the private dwelling.
The defensive walls which were once the unmistakable symbol of a Recent Chinese town have had to make way almost everywhere for new wide developmentsring roads lined by new residential tenement blocks. It is difficult now to imagine that these towns looked as they were portrayed in classical and modern Chinese literature or indeed some Western books. Gates with huge substructures but spanned by a light wooden construction are rarely seen these days; portals or “pailou” can occasionally be found, reminding inhabitants of glorious events of the past and still marking crossing points between distant, real or spiritual areas; pagodas, abstract monuments or concrete symbols, and even Buddhist,
Taoist or Confucian temples: these isolated landmarks are all evidence of a town’s decaying past and then only to be seen within the confines of the historic town centres. After the Communist take-over, largely standardised housing blocks were constructed to make best use ofthe land. Complexes in which living, working and basic services are all assigned their own spaces, chequerboard or radial road construction and huge concrete edifices characterised urban development. In the ancient town centres, large expanses of land and many historic buildings were in many cases cleared to make way for new projects.
For about a decade, however, mainly in the coastal towns – unlike the cities in the interior-there have been attempts to move away from monotonous building designs. Thanks to economic progress some districts have emerged where international-style designs predominate. In suburban areas extensive housing estates and industrial zones have burgeoned.
Courtyard While the square developed into the principal shape for urban divicompound sions, the four-sided courtyard (si he yuan) remains the basic model for all forms of residential accommodation, ranging from the imperial palaces and temple, to the private town or country dwelling. Alongside the high, impenetrable walls which protect the courtyard of private houses from the gaze of the passer-by or residents of the adjacent house stand one- and two-storey buildings. The two or more buildings are usually rectangular in shape and serve as the living accommodation for each residence.