The 1978 economic reform not only propelled a rapid urban development in China but also unlocked vast possibilities for global exchanges of knowledge and techniques in the fields of architecture and urban design. To establish a theoretical and empirical understanding of the notion of public space, Chinese scholars and design practitioners have related to design theories and exemplary cases through direct and indirect contact with the Western context in the four decades since 1978. This paper analyses how the Western notion of public space encountered Chinese urban design and was rapidly negotiated on the level of concept through theoretical developments. The process began with a loose transmission of design knowledge and technique while uprooting the embedded cultural background; it then developed into a situated and structured framework of knowledge in the specific context of modern China. This paper argues that the notion of public space in Chinese urban design culture has articulated the substance of compressed transculturation, not only through its compact four-decade-long development trajectory, but also as a result of both acculturation and deculturation.