Open Journal of Philosophy
2013. Vol.3, No.4, 502-506
Published Online November 2013 in SciRes (
Open Access
Checkerboard Grid: Go and Chinese Chess—Urban Planning and
Political Ideologies in American Westward Movement and
Ancient China
Shao qian Zhang
Department of Art, Graphic Design and Art History, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, USA
Email: shaoqian.zha
Received September 7th, 2013; revi sed Octob er 7th, 2013; accepted October 15th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Shaoqian Zhang. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons At-
tribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
Among all forms of city planning, the grid plan appears, historically, to be the most measurable and rec-
ognizable system of civic geography. This paper will explore how and why different social groups have
been able to define the symbolism of the grid to suit their own political purposes and how governments
and patrons have utilized the grid as the spatial manifestation for their political ideologies. This paper will
be based on case studies of cities operating under very dissimilar political systems, i.e., the cities of an-
cient China and the city of Chicago in the Unites States. I argue that the American grid plan focuses on its
peripheries, and that the expansive instinct of the American grid was effective in building a coherent
American nation, transcending regional and class divisions. By contrast, the Chinese grid plan emphasizes
the center, and the practices of urban planning in ancient China symbolized the evaluative tactics of the
Keywords: Grid Plan; Government Politics; Traditional Chinese Philosophy; Capital City; Chicago
City planning is the deployment of the political machine and
its symbolic localization. A planned city can be both receptacle
and representation of social relationships. Ordering the land-
scape by subdividing its geography into rational parts aims
toward efficiency of administration, communication and politi-
cal persuasion. Among all forms of city planning, the grid plan
seems to be the most recognizable and measurable. Everyone
can recognize the checkerboard grid, which is “like a great
geometrical carpet, like a Mondrian painting” (Stilgoe, 2004: p.
5). A grid subdivides a continent into repeated graph squares on
paper and it appears to be simply a triumph of the mathematic
and scientific art.
However, it is safe to suggest that nobody has fully under-
stood the grid as city planning, even though this way of plan-
ning mathematically is nothing new and partic ular. The fa scin a-
tion with geometry and the grid has been applied around the
world, in ancient China and throughout the Roman Empire. The
implication of the grid plan is manifold. “The grid’s mythic
power,” as Krauss wrote, “is that it makes us able to think we
are dealing with materialism (or sometimes science, or logic)
while at the same time it provides us with a release into belief
(or illusion, or fiction)” (Krauss, 1985: p. 12). The grid has the
function of making one see for oneself rather than being some-
thing ideal and materialistic in and of itself. Its simple and
seemingly universal form gives rise to different political ide-
ologies and powe r s .
In an attempt to engage these issues, this paper will explore
how and why different social groups are able to define the
symbol of grid to suit their own political purposes; how gov-
ernments and patrons utilize the grid as the spatial manifesta-
tion for their political ideologies. This paper will be based on
case studies of cities of different political systems, ancient
Chinese cities and Chicago in the Unites States. Attention will
be given to applications of grid plans, whic h defin e the spac e of
cities, and even ess ence o f nations diff erently.
The grid, with its mathematical equality and indifference to
variations, makes it very easy to lay out new towns before set-
tlement. The grid was first applied to America by colonists and
then by Americans themselves, in an effort to control the vast
landscape. In 1784, Jefferson was appointed by the Continental
Congress to be in charge of a committee to devise a plan for the
temporary government of the Western territory. Jefferson de-
vised the rectangular survey as a way of simplifying real estate
transactions. Soon it was enacted into law and divided the land
west of the original thirteen colonies into an orthogonal grid of
36-square-mile townships; each in turn was divided into one-
mile square sections.
As observed by American architecture historian, John W.
Reps, the indiscriminate application of the square grid of the
1785 Land Survey to the entire Western territory of the United
States was a logical expression of practicality, establishing
control over the land with the greatest degree of speed, effi-
ciency, and potential interest (Reps, 1965). The grid proved
reasonably effective in ordering the land for sale and settlement.
It made it easy to describe rectangular parcels of land on maps,
so that speculators could buy and sell them sight unseen. In
addition to its mathematical regularity, it was “flexible, with
plenty of room for variety within and between the presumably
anonymous blocks” (Reps, 1965: p. 267). Space was counted in
order to be occupied. The grid was a versatile planning model
and open to expansion once planned. It used a hydraulic model,
as opposed to the stable, the eternal and the constant.
Almost all cities, towns, and villages planned after the turn of
the 18th century reflected an underlying grid in their physical
appearance. Chicago unexceptionally accepted the expression
of Jefferson’s grid. Chicago had two dominant natural features:
the expanse of Lake Michigan, which stretches, unbroken by
islands to the horizon; and a corresponding area of land ex-
tending north, west, and south without hills or any marked ele-
vation. Its lack of geographic features made it highly suitable
for a grid plan. The effects of the city were obtained by repeti-
tion of the unit. Even though the shape of the city was a little
irregular; the perpendicular pattern remained and became cru-
cial for the city’s expansion. A map from 1830 by James
Thompson contributed much to the ultimate shape and person-
ality of the future metropolis. Additions to the city over the last
century extended the grid pattern established in the original
plan. A map of 1834 exhibited Chicago’s first real estate de-
velopment. The Kinzie Addition began from the north of the
Chicago river and east of State Street; the Wolcott Addition
was along the North Branch of the Chicago river. As the West
began to grow prodigiously, overland routes multiplied and
stimulated the growth of the city. The stimulus to Chicago’s
growth also came from the eastern transportation facilities to
the city (Mayer & Wade, 1965: pp. 24-25). The city’s frame-
work, the grid of Chicago, was compatible with the commercial
activities, manufacture and transportation.
The Loop was not only the physical symbol of Chicago’s
commercial power, but also the engine of the city’s expansion.
Concentrated with the Loop were many commercial skyscrap-
ers, government buildings and offices, new department stores
and the leading civic cultural institutions. The old boundaries of
the Loop could no longer contain the growing population and
burgeoning commerce. Commercial facilities expanded from
the center of the city, forcing residential construction to move
to the edge of the town and into the suburbs beyond. Real estate
investors were busy due to the urban development and they
settled into new suburban areas. The grid plan was applied
during this urban expansion. It was relatively easy to designate
city streets by numbers rather than names, permitting fast
growth of the city.
The fire of 1871 did not stop the growth of the city. By 1880
a new cycle of development was under way. Chicago solidified
its position as industrial and commercial leader for the nation
and adopted radical innovation in mass transit, which acceler-
ated its horizontal expansion. The increased speed and effi-
ciency of transportation permitted the vast expansion of the city
beyond its earlier confines. Uncultivated land quickly fell to the
developer and the framework of the grid. Chicago became an
“exploding metropolis” as its grid swallowed up neighborhood
areas (Mayer & Wade, 1965: p. 144).
The great growth of the metropolis took place in the outer
zones rather than central zones. Foreshadowed by Potter
Palmer’s move to Lake Shore Drive in the 1880s, the exodus
from the center became a rush after 1893. Social elites were
eager to escape from the congested city and shifted to the shore
of Lake Michigan on the near north side. Thus, every year,
many people were released from the centrally-located neighbor-
hoods into the middle class areas. There areas occupied a wide
belt around the densely inhabited residential and commercial
core, thinning out toward the municipal limits and fading into
nonurbanized areas. The outward expansion of the metropolis
was not confined to residential development. The central city
was too small and congested to accommodate the growth of
manufacturing. Investors looked for undeveloped land close
enough to the city yet far enough from downtown to be unclut-
tered and cheap (Mayer & Wade, 1965: p. 186).
There seemed to be nothing to prevent Chicago from its rapid
expansion and it was dubbed “the City of Speed” by Newton
Dent of Munseys Magazine. He wrote (Mayer & Wade, 1965:
p. 272) :
Nothing, that either man or nature can do, apparently, can
check the growth this city that has spread back from the
lake like a prairie fire, until its great bulk covers nearly
two hundred square miles of Illinois (Mayer & Wade,
1965: p. 272).
Chicago’s grid became a “rhythm without measure” (De-
leuze & Guattari, 1987: p. 264), ready to occupy a non-varying
space. Its keynote was expansion and its vitality lay in its inde-
finable periphery. As addressed by Daniel Burnha m, “Peo ple i n
Chicago must recognize that their city is without bounds or
limits” (Burnham & Bennett, 1993: p. 80). Due to the charac-
teristics of the grid, Chicago was territorialized and at the same
time continually deterritorialized through the opening of fron-
tiers and exodus. The grid was formed not only on the basis of
its powers of accumulation and the city’s extension, but also on
the basis of its capacity to develop itself more deeply, to be
reborn, and to extend itself throughout the latticework of soci-
To go back to the starting point of Jefferson’s grid, the grid
on American frontier was not, however, strictly functional.
Despite its seemingly practical mechanism, Jefferson’s grid, as
suggested by André Corboz, it reflected a certain ideology and
religious outlook. André Corboz demonstrates in his article
“Die kulturellen Grundlagen des territorialen Rasters in den
USA” that among other things the American grid, which origin-
nated in 1785 with Jefferson’s Ordinance, must be a religious
grid because it follows the same impetus as described in the last
chapter of the Book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament—God
plans Israel as the land of the future, the Promised Land—by
dividing it up into perfectly equal parts among Israel’s twelve
tribes (Corboz, 2001: pp. 186-260)1. He does not intend to ar-
gue that Jefferson gridded America because he wanted to recre-
ate what he had read in the Bible. The argument is about a cer-
tain mentality embedded in the nature of American grid which
is related to the perception of the future. Jefferson saw a corre-
lation between architecture, behavior, and belief. Architecture
was understood by him as “a symbolic expression of a culture’s
ideals and achievements and as an instrument for intellectual
and moral improvement.” For Jefferson, architecture should be
a style appropriate for a democratic society and landscape
should be cultivated properly.
In Jefferson’s ideal version of America, independent farmer
citizens who lived in simple cottages on their plots of land
should occupy the vast landscape for the emerging nation of
America (Kostof, 1987: p. 15). Living the life of a country
1I must thank Julia Ng for translating the German text for me.
Open Access 503
squire, he resented centralized urban control and dreamed of an
agrarian America of small towns and farms where every man
was his own master and the vast landscape belonged to all the
people equally. His grid was intended to produce a context of
equilibria and reduce complexities, enabling egalitarian citi-
zenship. Frank Lloyd Wright restated this national faith in the
1930s in his Broadacre City, where citizens would be assigned
to one acre of land so that they could exercise what he called
man’s “social right to his place on the ground” (Kostof, 1987: p.
16). Under the passionate belief of what architecture signified,
Jefferson’s grid subjected four-fifths of the United States to a
regular system of land survey that speedily answered the needs
of an agricultural economy and the conquest of the territories of
the West and was greatly concerned with the theme of the fron-
tier. Ownership of landscape encouraged more than a sense of
independence. Divided up into squares, the land provoked a
sensual hunger in later settlers and its own characteristics pro-
moted its future expansion.
The principle of the grid was that it could be expanded with-
out limit. It set norms because it proceeded from the land as an
abstraction. Not until farmers settled the great rectangles platted
by the surveyor did the lines become more than legal abstrac-
tions of boundaries. Grid run undisturbed over topography and
climate change and gave concrete form to the principle of
equality. The American grid finally expanded and reached the
Pacific in 1910. Its victory lay in its ability to internalize the
outside and swallow up differences. It projected an even surface
without variation. The territory was understood by the grid to
be pure and homogeneous extension without centers. It empha-
sized transportation and communication, as the exterior and
interior were in competition and coexistence.
Each unit was always in relationship with an outside and was
inconceivable outside that relationship. Its energy was in its
frontier, where the interior met the exterior and was ready to
capture the unknown territory. In American grid, it was a ques-
tion arraying oneself in an open space, of holding space, of
maintaining the possibility of springing up at any point and of
consolidating the unknown territory by the construction of an
adjacent territory. The grid presented itself as a diffuse spatial
machine and produced movement toward expansion and sub-
Ancient Chinese Grid
The grid plan in China was continuous from the 15th BC
onwards. Guidelines were put into written form in the chapters
of Jiangren yingguo (Craftsmen Constructing the State) Zhouli
Kaogong ji (Records of Craftsmen of Zhou Rituals) during the
Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BCE). This short para-
graph imposed great influence on historic Chinese city planning
When a jiangren constructs a state capital, he creates a
square, nine li2 on each side and each side has three gates.
In the capital city are nine north-south avenues and nine
east-west streets. The avenues are nine carriage tracks
wide. On the left is the ancestral temple and to the right is
the altar of soil and grain. In the front is the court palace
and behind the market (Steinhardt, 1990: p. 33).
Jiangren, literally a craftsman, could be properly translated
as “an architect” in this context. Since the Han Dynasty (BCE
206), the social ideas had already taken root in the concept of
architecture. City planners incorporated the political and hier-
archical principles into the city planning. The ideal metropolis
should be well organized and standardized according to the
concept of universal principles. They believed that if they sub-
divided the city into grids, according to universal principles, the
city would be gifted with the symbolic power of the universe.
The squareness, the numerical series based on number three,
the grid in relation to the four cardinal points, the implied
domination of the north-south over the east-west orientation are
the basic elements of an abstract pattern of intentional configu-
ration of a capital city.
The universal principles were incorporated into many ancient
Chinese cities’ architectural layouts, even though not very
strictly. For example, Chang’an was the capital of the Tang
Dynasty (618-907) when China exhibited great strength, sup-
ported by a prosperous economy and strong military. The city
was built rigidly symmetrical with the empire’s palace right in
the center of the northern section of the city. Chang’an was
designed to meet the ruler’s ideal and requirements for the gov-
erning. It was divided into wards made orderly with avenues
running between them. Each ward was guarded by tall and
heavy ward walls, which all together constituted the grid of the
The square shape, the repeated wards and the important pal-
ace position were all traditions from the ritual thoughts, which
materialized the political authority of the emperor. First, as
Records of Craftsmen of Zhou Rituals stipulated, palaces or a
palace city should always be the theme of capital cities, stand-
ing out of the repeated units. Second, the capital city should be
heavily guarded by layers of walls. All units were fenced by
ward walls and the whole city was enclosed in the city walls.
Walls in Chang’an not only guarded the city but also consti-
tuted the framework of the symbolic grid. Thus the grid in
Chang’an was not expansive but restrained and self-defensive.
In the case of Beijing, the grid was not only the symbol, but
also the instrument of the emperor’s political power. The spatial
strategies of the whole Beijing City was epitomized in the ar-
chitectural layout of the Forbidden City, which was a large,
horizontally expansive, architectural complex in a rectangular
shape on a north-south axis, covering an area of about 723,600
square meters. It was the most sacred place in China for over
five hundred years. The Forbidden City was constructed as the
core structure of Beijing and the geo-political center of the
empire. When it was planned, it was expected to be the focus of
the symbolic presence of Chinese imperial power. Before the
Opium War in 1840, the Forbidden City was heavily guarded
and not accessible to commoners.
Gates and walls were two principal features of the Forbidden
City in the past as they “shaped a city and made it meaningful”
(Wu, 1991: p. 86). Gates allowed a procession path to penetrate
the walls and linked separate parts into a continuum of space.
Walls in the Forbidden City not only encircled spaces from the
whole city down to repeated enclosures, but also, “dissected,
internalized and deepened space” (Zhu, 2004: p. 24). The walls
functioned as layers of barriers that repeatedly separated the
inside from the outside. In other words, walls gridded the whole
space while gates offered the circulation between different units
of the grid. By deepening and segmenting the space, the em-
peror would be concealed and protected by layers of walls.
Only high-rank officials, servants, people of the imperial house-
2Li is a unit of length, close to the scale of a mile.
Open Access
hold and aristocrats, could reach the deep center of Beijing. The
emperor’s power was thus reinforced as the supreme arbiter by
the invisibility of his privacy and the myth of his capability.
The spatial strategies of the Forbidden City promoted an effec-
tive and automatic central control.
Zhu Jianfei, a well-known Chinese historian, likened the
Forbidden City to Bentham’s famous Panopticon proposal,
which was a meticulously planned prison: “at the periphery, an
annular building; at the center, a tower; this tower is pierced
with the wide windows open onto the inner side of the ring”
(Foucault, 1979: p. 157). Panopticon was used for surveillance
as there was an inequality in the views of people in the annular
building and the central tower. The criminals were in transpar-
ent prisons and under surveillance at all times. The institutional
arrangement was established through the asymmetry between
the inspector and the inspected.
The deepest and most invisible part of the Forbidden City
was in the far north section, it was comparable to a half of the
Panopticon. The northern end, where the emperor resided, was
equivalent to the Panopicon’s center power. In the deepest cen-
ter, the emperor could deliver his message and decrees to his
officers immediately. The communication between him and his
officers was strictly one way. The emperor obtained a pano-
ramic gaze on his subjects and his country from above. While
there was a gaze upon the outside, there was no visibility to the
court from the outside. The major effect of the Panopticon was
to induce in the inmate a state of the conscious and permanent
visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.
Similarly, the Forbidden City was also an apparatus of inducing
consciousness of power, a space inscribed with the network of
The network of discipline was promoted by the grid of the
Forbidden City. The hierarchical grid promoted the subjects’
consciousness of social orders and persuaded them to employ
the rules of society to police themselves. Similar to the Forbid-
den City, the city of Beijing also displayed a centrality, sym-
metry and hierarchal spatial layout in its overall composition.
Different from Chang’an, where the imperial city was in the
very north, Beijing exhibited a three-walled city style. At the
center of the grid was the palace city, namely the Forbidden
City for the emperor and royal family. The next box was the
imperial city, which was an extension of the palace city. It in-
cluded royal gardens, altars, residential areas of noble families.
The largest enclosure was the capital city, which housed other
urban populations. There was an outer city attached to the capi-
tal city. The outer city was the most secular place in Beijing
where commercial activities were vibrant. Inside these urban
boxes or grids, city planners also subdivided the space into
small squares.
A hierarchy of center and periphery was represented in the
city planning of Beijing, sustaining a social and political order.
In the disposition of the City of Beijing, horizontal depth cor-
related to vertical height within the social hierarchy: the deeper
one was in the center of the city, the higher the position of that
person. In terms of Beijing geographic space, it was largely a
grid; while in terms of its social space, it resembled strictly a
pyramid. The sacred imperial ideologies were represented as
hierarchical disposition revealing an effective political domina-
tion. The grid in Beijing created islands and urban blocks, ar-
ticulating differences in social position. It related the geo-
graphic space to social space rather than promoting expansion.
As demonstrated by Chinese art historian, Wu Hung, “the
difference between imperial Beijing and its remote ancestor is
not its structure but its infinite horizontal expansion: walls and
gates were added and the central axis was elongated” (Wu,
1991: p. 87). For Wu Hung, temporary changes in city planning
were less significant than spatial stability and its elaborate
complexity as a whole. The reason why a culture would insis-
tently reject any fundamental change from the tradition in city
planning was rooted in the long lasting social orders through
Chinese history. The architectural structure paralleled the social
structure closely. As there was a hierarchical structure in soci-
ety, there was a hierarchical grid in city planning. The ancient
Chinese grid turned out to be the preventive mechanism, the
mechanism necessary to enable the emperor to become the
supreme ruler of the country.
To summarize, the American used grid as a means of under-
standing the border region as potential or actual site of occupa-
tion; the ancient Chinese understood it as universal discipline
and hierarchy. For Chinese, strategic geographical thinking
usually proved more important than mathematical accuracy. In
other words, mathematical accuracy was less important than a
strategic understanding of the land for a bio-geographic control.
Obedient human bodies were located in the city block within
the network of the grid. For Jefferson, with the expansive grid
was the fusing mechanism allowing expansion into the Ameri-
can West. With the mathematical accuracy of the grid, the
western landscape was informed by a realistic, scientific way of
viewing the land. It was self-consciously seen as having the
potential to assist in the expansion of political ideologies into
the new territories.
Jefferson’s anti-urban ideology was comparable to anti-elite
nationalism. In his influential 1893 essay The Significance of
the Frontier in American History, Frederick Jackson Turner
identified this point. He associated individualistic and egalitar-
ian qualities with the frontier spirit: “The frontier promoted the
formation of a composite nationality for the American people…
In the crucible of the frontier the immigrants were American-
ized, liberated, and fused into a mixed race” (Linklater, 2002: p.
174). As a result, frontier people had a sense of themselves as
democratically inclined even though they might be deeply di-
vided by different regional identities along class lines. “The rise
of democracy was an effective force in the nation,” Turner
asserted, “… and it meant the triumph of the frontier” (Link-
later, 2002: p. 175). Despite its inherent inaccuracies pointed
out by later historians and geographers, Turner’s remarks
pointed out that the expansive instinct of American grid was
effective in building a coherent American nation that tran-
scended the regional and class divisions.
In contrast, the practices of urban planning in ancient China
symbolized the evaluative tactics of the elite. The hierarchical
grid was shaped within the most homogenized, traditional and
centralized socio-political elite ideologies of ancient China. The
underlying ideas of Records of Craftsmen of Zhou Rituals re-
sembled the principles of Zhou Li (Rituals of Zhou):
It is the sovereign alone who establishes the states of the
empire, gives to the four quarters their proper positions,
gives to the capital its form and to the fields their proper
divisions. He creates the offices and apportions their func-
tions in order to form a centre to which people may look
(Wright, 1997: pp. 45-47).
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The emperor of ancient China was the architect who de-
signed his political map and the mechanism of walling off
spaces. The idea of a nation was a centralized one, historically
personalized in the emperor himself. Thus the idea of national-
ism was essentially a concept confined to the emperor and those
educated elites around him. The masses were the object of the
nation rather than the subject of the nation. After all, the grid
was but one of many traditions invented by political elites in an
attempt to legitimize their rule. Elite nationalism and central-
ized grid became insufficient only when the political and eco-
nomic penetration of imperialistic powers reached such an ex-
tent that a mass movement was required to counter it. For the
ancient Chinese grid, it was a question of arranging within
oneself not accumulating for oneself.
If one compares the nation apparatus in the context of the
theory of checkerboard games, Chinese chess and Go, the rela-
tionship between repeated units and the overall strategies con-
cerned, Chinese grid was like Chinese chess. Chinese chess
pieces have eternal qualities: a king remains a king and a sol-
ider remains a solider. They are “coded; they have an internal
nature and intrinsic properties from which their movements,
situations and confrontations derive… Each is like a subject of
the statement endowed with a relative power, and these relative
powers combine in a subject of enunciation” (Deleuze & Felix
Guattari, 1987: p. 352). The coded chess pieces move within
their “striated” landscape (Deleuze & Felix Guattari, 1987: p.
353). Their functions are structural and protecting the emperor
in the center. American grid evoked the strategies of Go. Go
pieces were deprived of all personalities and characteristics.
They are anonymous, collective and nomadic, moving on a
“smooth” space (Deleuze & Felix Guattari, 1987: p. 353). They
only have an environment of the exterior so they look for the
possibility of holding their own space and springing up at any
point and directi o n .
As addressed by Gilles Deleuze in his treatise on the war
machine: “The difference is that chess codes and decodes space,
whereas Go proceeds altogether differently, territorializing or
deterritorializing it… it seems that every morning, there are
more of [their pieces]” (Deleuze & Felix Guattari, 1987: pp.
351-352). On the politically inscribed landscapes, while China
emphasized the interior, America emphasized externalization as
its overall space increased in size. Ancient China epitomized
the idea of the nation being comprised of a few elites while
America constructed its nationalism by fusing the masses
through the grid system. If the geographically non-varying
landscape is a metaphor for a nation, the different notions of
grid plans mirror different approaches of constructing national-
ism and cultivating people.
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