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The birth of cool: Heat and air-conditioning in the history of Wuhan, 1950–2020

Courtney, Chris

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This article examines the impact of air-conditioning on the history of Wuhan, a Chinese city famed for the oppressive heat of its summers. It draws upon oral history testimony, ethnographic research, and written sources, to argue that air-conditioning has played an important yet underappreciated role in changing local culture, social interactions, and the urban environment. It begins by describing how citizens of Wuhan coped with heat in the Maoist era (1949–1976), examining official heatstroke prevention techniques alongside the everyday practices of local citizens, including the use of bamboo beds and air-raid shelters. It then examines the dialectical relationship between socio-economic and technological change that occurred following the introduction of air-conditioning. This new technology, which required people to close their doors on their neighbours, arrived at the same time that older forms of communal living were becoming untenable. Finally, this article examines the role that air-conditioning has played in creating and alleviating the urban heat island problem, a process of localised climate change that makes cities hotter than their hinterlands. It concludes by exploring how locals feel about urban heating, a problem that seems intractable in Wuhan, as it is throughout much of urban Asia.


Courtney, C. (in press). The birth of cool: Heat and air-conditioning in the history of Wuhan, 1950–2020. Urban Studies,

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Nov 30, 2022
Online Publication Date Feb 21, 2023
Deposit Date Apr 17, 2023
Publicly Available Date Apr 17, 2023
Journal Urban Studies
Print ISSN 0042-0980
Electronic ISSN 1360-063X
Publisher SAGE Publications
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed


Published Journal Article (1.6 Mb)

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Copyright Statement
This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License ( which permits any use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access pages (

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