Blog 4: Danwei and the city

Blog 4: Danwei and the City


The work unit or danwei was the “basic spatial and social unit in pre-reform urban China”. Owing to the diverse functions of the work unit, it was described as an “institutionalized system of organized dependence” by Walder in 1986. Nearly 95% of the proletariat population of China were danwei employees in pre-reform China. In Tianjin, this figure lessened to 80% because of the number of stately officials and Tianjin’s status as a Provincial City since 1949.

The daily life circles of the danwei employees inevitably revolved around the multi-functional facility. Most of the neighbors of a danwei resident were also his fellow workers. (Bray, 2005) This combination of work and living functions was extremely architecturally evident in the organization of the compounds of the work units wherein half of the space was used for work and the other half for residences (Lowell, Xiaobao, 1996).

Moreover, administratively, each work unit was placed under the “jurisdiction of both the local government and its occupational bureaucracy.”  For example, the Tianjin Machine Factory was under the Ministry of the Industry; the university under the Ministry of Education and the city hospital under the Ministry of Health. The political advantages that came to the work unit were dependent of the unit’s independent political relations with the local or the central government.  However, the vertical rule though the ministries was dominant within the centrally planned socialist system therefore national plans were implemented through the individual work units without much interference from the municipality (Lu, 2011). In addition, the units were classified into their status in the “national administrative hierarchy”(Lu, 2011) which would consequently form their social status. Therefore, the employees were greatly dependent on their individual work units for their lives. However, the large scale organization lacked a society-wide welfare system and the cities relied heavily on individual work units to collectively provide welfare for the residents as a whole. Therefore, it could be understood that the city under Mao was a weak entity characterised by the dominance of work units.

Different Types of Residential Clusters, 1959, Lu
Master Plan of Xiaozhan People’s Commune, Tianjin, 1958
Neighbourhood Site Plan, Xiaozhan People’s Commune, 1959

The implementation of these socialistic plans trickled into the society to render the work unit system an indispensable social structure in contemporary China. The influence of this social structure on personal networks and interactions in many social domains was documented by Lau and Schwartz in 1984. The organization foci theory proposes that  a resident’s choice of personal networks is frequently constrained by social contexts, i.e. the foci of activities. Here, foci activities act like “imposed organizational structures” and have large scale sociological effects. In the case of the danwei system, even what is urbanistically perceived as external foci of activities were organised by the work unit.

Therefore, the political introduction of predetermined organizational structures by the Chinese Communist Party under Mao generated determined personal networks until 1976. It was only after The Cultural Revolution that the independence of the “socialist danwei system” made way for the “new danwei system” (Yanwei, 2014). Elements like mixed land use, job-housing balance and social equality of the socialist danwei system now made way for spatial distribution to suit social segregation according to the society’s circumstantial need in the new danwei system (Yanwei, 2014). In addition the danwei types have differentiated in post-reform China with the increase in the employment share of private sector (Davis, 1995). However, as the private sector has a more flexible organizational structure and does not provide guaranteed lifetime job security and other benefits, the workers here are less constrained than their counterparts in the state sector (Liu, 2000). Consequently, the rigid compounds of the danwei slowly became porous, interconnected and expanded as the city transmissioned into the pre-reform period after the Cultural Revolution.

The origin of the new danwei system is seen in both the Communist movement in China and the proceeding Republican period. However, some argue that the system could be seen as a modern incarnation of bureaucratic system that played a central role in the long history of ancient imperial China. Liu, author of Danwei China, remarks,


As a result, the establishment of the danwei system does not contradict the cultural and social logic of Chinese society. Instead, it is a structural manifestation of this logic. From ancient times, Chinese cities possessed a variety of the political, economic, and moral elements of danwei; these cultural properties have now been transplanted to the contemporary urban danwei. Thus, to understand the properties of the contemporary and urban version of the danwei system, one cannot overlook the historical tradition.”


Walder, A. G. (1983). Organized dependency and cultures of authority in Chinese industry. The Journal of Asian Studies, 43(1), 51-76.

Chai, Yanwei. “From socialist danwei to new danwei: a daily-life-based framework for sustainable development in urban China.” Asian Geographer 31, no. 2 (2014): 183-190.

Davis, D. (Ed.). (1995). Urban spaces in contemporary China: The potential for autonomy and community in post-Mao China. Cambridge University Press.

Bray, David (2005): Social Space and Governance in Urban China. The Danwei System from Origins to Reform. Stanford. Stanford University Press.

Lowell, Dittmer. Lu, Xiaobo. (1996): “Personal Politics in the Chinese Danwei under Reform.“ In: Asian Survey, Vol. 36, No. 3, /1996. 246-267

Lu, Feng (1989): “The Danwei: A Unique Form of Social Organization”. In: Chinese Social Science I/1989. 71-88

Lu, Duanfang (2006). Remaking Chinese Urban Form. Modernity, Scarcity and Space, 1949-2005. London []: Routledge.

Liu, Jianjun. “Danwei China.” (2000).

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