Tuesday 17 May 2016

Local name, global fame: The international visibility of Chinese cities in modern times

Yunsong Chen - Nanjing University, China
Fei Yan - Tsinghua University, China; Stanford University, USA


Cities are a crucial part of the international influence of a nation’s culture, as well as being indispensable indicators of a nation’s soft power. The international fame of a city is largely determined by how it is perceived in the global community. Therefore, the processes by which a city develops an international status are crucial to its brand. Yet urban scholars still know little about when and how a city’s global fame is formed, and which factors are most important in shaping that fame.

In the current study, we construct the first-ever international visibility index for Chinese cities based on the Google Books N-gram corpus, a digitized books repository containing enormous volumes of data. Working from the premise that the written language serves as the cultural component of the long-term accumulation of human knowledge, experiences, and attitudes, we use the frequency of city names mentioned in books as a proxy for aggregate international visibility. Specifically, we describe in detail the development and evolution of the international fame of 294 Chinese cities for the years 1700–2000. We find that the top ten cities in terms of global fame are Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Nanjing, Macau, Tianjin, Taipei, Chongqing, and Lhasa.

Besides constructing a measurement of international visibility, we further analyze the means by which Chinese cities have gained international visibility. We hypothesize a significant link between their exposure in western media and their attainment of international visibility. To test this hypothesis, we extract the appearances of Chinese cities from the full-text database of the New York Times, and perform a time series analysis of media mentions and international visibility for the last 150 years.

We find preliminary evidence showing that media coverage influences the international fame of mainland Chinese cities. In other words, the international fame of most Chinese cities is influenced by their mentions in major western media (newspapers), and their statistically significant relationships may interact as both cause and effect. However, this media effect is not statistically significant in former colonial cities such as Hong Kong, Macau, and Taipei, which have been absorbed into the world capitalist system through various forms of economic exchange. This result suggests that other economic factors are more likely to predict the level of a city’s fame when it has a linkage with the global market.

Overall, through analyzing the formation of international visibility, we believe that a parameter as simple as the annual count of words or terms not only gives clues as to the historical ranking of cities in terms of global eminence, it also sheds light on the linkage between the development of a city’s global status and broader sociocultural dynamics over centuries.

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