“Dwelling in the World: Family, House, and Home in Tianjin, China, 1860-1960” by Elizabeth LaCouture

Tianjin ca 1920 (Jamie Carstairs Collection, University of Bristol Library) Tianjin ca 1920 (Jamie Carstairs Collection, University of Bristol Library)

Tianjin has always seemed to play second fiddle to the more prominent Beijing. By the same token, during the late-Qing and Republican periods, Shanghai has been held up as China’s most cosmopolitan city, attracting people from around the world. Elizabeth LaCouture, in her new book, Dwelling in the World: Family, House, and Home in Tianjin, China, 1860-1960, shows that Tianjin became more prosperous than Beijing after the Nationalist government left the north for Nanjing and that it was more of an international city than Shanghai. Notables like Yuan Shikai, Liang Qichao, and Zhou Enlai all enjoyed comfortable lives there, but what makes this book insightful is that LaCouture doesn’t simply tell the history of Tianjin; she brings women into a historical narrative that has traditionally focused on men.

By the early 1900s, long after the Opium Wars and just following the Boxer Uprising, Tianjin was home to nine foreign concessions: those of Britain, France, the United States, Japan, Germany, Russia, Italy, Austria-Hungary and Belgium. Rather than being populated mostly by foreigners, the concessions were inhabited mainly by Chinese residents.


While residents of Qing-era Tianjin could select to live in or build a courtyard house, elite residents of treaty-port Tianjin could choose to live in a quiet villa in the residential Italian Concession, a row house in the bustling Japanese Concession, a modernist apartment along Rue de France, a semi-attached townhouse in the British garden city, an alleyway house in the new Chinese municipality, or a Qing-era courtyard house in the old Chinese city.


The late-Qing period was also a time, LaCouture explains, in which the term jiating replaced jia. While the latter referred to a physical house, the former included that, but also family members and the concept of home that goes beyond the physical confines of one’s dwelling space. The home no longer was something that was passed on from family to family, but rather more of an individual possession and people no longer lived strictly in inter-generational homes, but rather in nuclear families.

Part of the draw of the Communist Party in years to come would be their promotion of women’s rights and the dismantling of feudalistic family practices, yet reformers in the late-Qing and Republican era had already made a start, which included the idea that women should become more active players in society. As a result, women could own property; traditionally women were married young and became de facto servants in their in-laws’ homes. But LaCouture warns that while the policies changed, ideas about the patriarchy remained.


Many of the same men who first raised this idea of the Confucian patriarchy and fought to dismantle the so-called Confucian family structure, however, were the architects of new structures of masculine power and patriarchy. Ideology never oppressed women; systems of power created structural inequalities, and structural patriarchy outlasts ideas.


Dwelling in the World: Family, House, and Home in Tianjin, China, 1860–1960, Elizabeth LaCouture (Columbia University Press, August 2021)
Dwelling in the World: Family, House, and Home in Tianjin, China, 1860–1960, Elizabeth LaCouture (Columbia University Press, August 2021)

LaCouture’s book is divided into three parts. The first gives the history of Tianjin starting from around the Opium Wars until the end of the Republican era. The second section focuses on the different types of homes in early 20h century Tianjin and is filled with photos. LaCouture writes about Shen Yiyun, a woman who lived in the Italian Concession and wrote a memoir about the different homes she inhabited as her husband’s job took them around the world. Her husband, Huang Fu, was a politician and close friend of Chiang Kai-shek.


Shen was a part of a new group of cosmopolitan Chinese urbanites who forged their identities through dwelling in the world. In China, Shen was equally at home in a Beijing siheyuan courtyard compound as in an Italian-style villa. Moreover, she followed her husband’s career across the world, living in multiple dwellings. Shen seemed to understand her everyday life more through the houses she dwelled in than through the places in which she lived.


LaCouture also writes about the interiors that became prized possessions of middle and upper class Tianjin women. Furniture was important, and Tianjin was known for intricate carpets, some of which combined traditional Chinese and art deco motifs. Tianjin women also enjoyed magazines like Happy Home and Woman World.

In the final part of the book, LaCouture writes about the second half of 20th century in Tianjin and how the city had great hopes for public housing after Italy was the last foreign power to close its concession in 1947. But the revolution two years later would put an end to those plans, yet the danwei or work unit system would make housing a right for all, an idea that, like dismantling the traditional multi-generational family unit, was also alive in Republican-era Tianjin.

LaCouture presents a comprehensive analysis of a thriving middle class in cosmopolitan Tianjin that places women in a role they’ve rarely occupied in historical narratives.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.