Shanghai has a healthy rivalry with Beijing in the competition to be China's leading city. By population and trade it certainly wins the contest. For a country as old as China, Shanghai's importance has been precocious, it does not have the heritage of other ancient cities. Shanghai is situated on the Huangpu River ➚, close to Yangzi River's outflow to the sea,
Shanghai was ideally situated to control the river trade into central China and quickly developed from a small Zhejiang fishing town in the 1840s (population 50,000) to be the huge metropolis it is today. It is one of the five municipal divisions of the China with equal standing to provinces.
Early development was initiated by an influx of foreign investment after the Opium Wars when Shanghai became a treaty port. It was developed at first by the British, and up until 1940 was known colloquially as ‘Britain’s front door to China’, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (HSBC) founded by the Scotsman Sir Thomas Sutherland ➚ dominated early investment into China. Investors used the city's strategic position near the mouth of the Yangzi to develop the whole valley, far away from the Qing dynasty control imposed at Guangzhou and Beijing. It became China's first ‘modern’ city serving as both an example and a warning about modern urban development. At its heart were the International and French concessions - areas subject to foreign not Chinese law.
The city has always important politically, Sun Yatsen arrived at Shanghai on Christmas Eve 1911, on the foundation of the Republic of China; Shanghai was the site of the First National Congress ➚ of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. An influx of Russians fleeing Communist rule after the Russian revolution in 1917 added to the racial mix. The world famous Bund ➚ along the waterfront was established at that time. Shanghai then attracted a vibrant cosmopolitan culture and was called the ‘Paris of the East’. However most of the local Chinese had little money or influence, they provided cheap labor for the foreigners; only a few locals managed to make a good living as middlemen. It became to subject to periods of industrial unrest and rebellion. The ‘May 30th Incident’ of 1925 commemorates the death of 11 people at a demonstration over the death of a worker ➚ at a Japanese textile factory.
In 1927 the Nationalist Chiang Kaishek sought to exterminate all the Communists in Shanghai using his connections with local gang leaders to unleash his White Terror campaign ➚. The famous Spielberg film Empire of the Sun ➚ based on the book by J.G. Ballard gives an insight into life of the foreigners in Shanghai when the Japanese invaded Shanghai in 1932. Following the Communist victory in 1949 Shanghai was pilloried as the epitome of decadent capitalism that exploited workers and it was not until the late 1990s that development really took off. This was helped by President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji's association with Shanghai.
Historical buildings on Shanghai's famous Bund
Places to Visit in Shanghai
The Bund area of Shanghai has a mix of houses of 'European' architecture of the early 20th century. There are few truly ancient sights to see in Shanghai. However, Shanghai Museum holds one of the finest collections of artifacts in the country. A BuddhistYufo Temple ➚ (Jade Buddha) built in the traditional style is of modern date. Hongkou Park is a green area hidden among all the buildings, in the grounds is the grave of the great modern writer Lu Xun. There are also the Yu Gardens which have been built in traditional Ming dynasty style. A modest hill, She Shan 328 feet [100 meters] high, is the site of a large Catholic church built 1925-35. Shanghai is divided by the Huangpu River, Puxi is the district to the west and Pudong to the east. The Pudong district was opened for development in 1999 and has grown very rapidly; its most famous landmark is the emblematic Oriental Pearl TV Tower ➚ which offers stunning views over the whole city.
View of modern Pudong district of Shanghai
Shanghai can be very hot and humid in summer; spring and autumn are the best times to visit. As well as Mandarin, the local dialect Shanghainese (a form of the Wu language) is widely spoken. The city is one of the main centers for financial services, as well as car and computer production.
The Nanpu bridge at Shanghai
Shanghai as a Treaty port
Map based on illustration on page 350 of “The treaty ports of China and Japan” by Nicholas Dennys and William Mayers. Trübner and Co. London. 1867. The ‘Foreign and Merchant Ship anchorage’ on the map became the ‘The Bund’. Access to the Yangzi river and the South China Sea is to the north-east.
The flag of Shanghai International Settlement. Omnia Juncta In Uno (All Joined in One). United Kingdom, United States, France, Germany (blanked out) ,Russia, Denmark, Italy, Portugal,Norway and Sweden, Austria, Spain, Netherlands. Image by Lokal_Profil ➚ available under a Creative Commons License ➚
The first British contact was in 1756 when Frederick Pigou a director of the British East India Company ➚ suggested that Shanghai was a suitable site for development. Shanghai was at this time a small fishing town with a population of about 50,000.
With hostility to the British at Guangzhou (Canton WG) over the Opium War, Britain saw Shanghai as an alternative port it could develop as she wished. It offered good harbor and control of the Yangzi River. It was made a treaty port under the terms of the Treaty of Nanjing. In 1843 British Captain Balfour ➚ was sent to Shanghai to inaugurate settlement. By the end of 1843 there were only 23 foreign residents and their families. Agricultural land at Shanghai was bought from local Chinese for the residences. Initially the international settlement was under British military protection.
When southern China was in the grip of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) the foreign concessions in Shanghai managed to keep open for trade with the help of General Charles Gordon ➚. The Chinese city within Shanghai was taken by the rebels 7th Sept.1853 until 17th Feb 1855 and many Chinese moved to the foreign concessions to escape them.
During this time (11th July 1854) a joint agreement by foreign powers: Britain; United States and France set up the ‘Shanghai Municipality’ to give the city independence from direct foreign government interference and so solve the issues of rivalry between foreign countries. It provided a sound legal framework for trade and ownership. It also allowed joint co-operation in the defense of Shanghai against the rebels. Anyone coming to Shanghai was free to try to make a living subject to Shanghai's not China's laws. In 1863 the British and American concessions at Shanghai merged to form autonomous International concession. The resulting environment made it seem so harmonious a city that it was termed a ‘Model Settlement’. In 1865 the population had increased to 5,589 foreigners with 146,051 Chinese. Of the foreigners 78% British; 8% American.
By 1920, when Shanghai was a major cosmopolitan center, the population of the Shanghai French and International settlement combined had reached 60,000 foreigners with 300,000 Chinese; the wider Shanghai city including land outside the concessions had reached 3,000,000. The Chinese were given a small representation on the Shanghai Municipal council.
Shanghai's rapid rise came to an end on 8th December 1941 when it was invaded by Japan. The foreign powers agreed not to seek to renew treaty rights after the defeat of Japan at the end of World War 2.
For more on foreigners in China please see our treaty port section.
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