China and Inner Asia

Organized Panel Session

4 - From Agricultural Commodities to Domestic Waste Materials: Changing Infrastructures of Human Waste Management in Republican Canton

Friday, July 6
8:30 AM - 10:00 AM
Location: Jacaranda I, First Floor

This paper explores techno-social transformations by examining the reconfiguration of human waste management infrastructures in the Chinese city of Canton (present-day Guangzhou) in the early twentieth century. During this Republican era, the Canton government officials were concerned with questions of public health and sought to introduce “Western-style” infrastructures of human waste management based on flush toilets and sewers. Yet, their efforts encountered tremendous obstacles. Based on archival and field research, we explore the conflicts, negotiations, and compromises in this process of infrastructural transformation, showing how it was part and parcel of a larger debate on new ways of envisioning and managing urban governance in a politically volatile period. Moreover, we juxtapose the Canton case with similar reform efforts in western cities such as London and Paris that happened in the mid and late nineteenth century. With in-depth historical and comparative analysis, we show that the reform in Canton was not simply a “failure” to adopt advanced technologies as suggested in existing literature. Rather, we demonstrate the recalcitrance of a relatively effective socio-technical system in which human feces was deemed not as domestic waste but as a valuable commodity, a system that did not exist in the western cities. Taking one of the most mundane life experiences as a case study and bringing in insights from social sciences and historical literature on infrastructure, material power and science and technologies, this paper seeks to deepen our understanding of how techno-social transformations happen through everyday life encounters.

Jun Zhang

City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

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Gonçalo Santos

University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

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