A short history of Shanghai

Early days

For a large part of its history, Shanghai was small: a fishing village that slowly grew into a market town. It was, for a time, administered from Songjiang, a city now so completely enveloped by its younger, but much bigger sister, that most people consider it a suburb of Shanghai.

During the early years of the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1912), two important policy changes made Shanghai the most important sea port on the Yangzi Delta. In 1684, Emperor Kangxi reversed the Ming Dynasty prohibition of ocean going vessels – a ban that had been in force since 1525 – and in 1732, Emperor Yongzheng moved the customs office for Jiangsu province from Songjiang to Shanghai.

European contact and the First Opium War

The Yangzi is Asia’s longest river. Even before the Three Gorges Project, is was navigable for well over a thousand kilometres – but Europe’s early trade with China was restricted by the Canton system to a single port, Guangzhou, a city without access to this important waterway. The British, unhappy that they could not offload goods on the Chinese market more easily – including opium from India – initiated the First Opium War in 1839.


If God allows Shanghai to endure, he will owe Sodom and Gomorrah an apology.” ~Anonymous

[/fourcol_one]The war ended in 1842 with the signing of the Treaty of Nanking, which opened five ports to foreign trade, including Shanghai. Two later treaties – the Treaty of the Bogue, signed between Britain and the Qing Empire a year later, and the Sino-American Treaty of Wansia, signed in 1844 – made foreign concessions possible. Foreigners from Europe and the USA were granted extraterritoriality, allowing them to live in China beyond Chinese law, and the right to own property in the five treaty ports.

For Shanghai, this was decisive. The city boomed. In 1930, it was populated by over three million people from 48 countries, making it the sixth largest and perhaps the most cosmopolitan city in the world. The city was governed by three distinct entities, responsible for different parts of the city: the International Settlement, the French Concession and the City Government of Greater Shanghai.

Shanghai had become the financial centre of the East, a epithet it is trying to re-earn, and the “Whore of the Orient.” In the words of a travel guide of the time, Shanghai was a place of “high hats and low necks; long tails and short knickers; inebriates and slumming puritans.” It was a city of opportunists, opium dens and brothels – but also grand buildings, big banks, trading houses and enormous wealth. The Bund, a hodgepodge of grand architecture on the west bank of the Huangpu River, took shape during this period. It remains the most impressive monument to old Shanghai.

World Wars, invasion, and revolution

A few years later, during WWII, China was in turmoil: three groups, the Kuomintang, the Communist Party and the Japanese, fought for control of the country. In 1941, the Japanese took control the International Settlement, having already captured Chinese controlled parts of the city after the Battle of Shanghai in 1937. By 1949, when the People’s Liberation Army marched into Shanghai, most of the city’s foreign population had long since left.

Shanghai then entered a period of relative obscurity. The Communist government eradicated slavery, still practised despite being officially abolished in 1910, and opium dens, but Maoist isolationism didn’t suit a city built on global trade. The city slumbered until a Special Economic Zone was established in Pudong, as part of the policy of Reform and Opening initiated by Deng Xiaoping. Economic growth since then has been jaw-dropping; the city even hosted the World Expo in 2010.

This summary has borrowed heavily from the Wikipedia entries on Shanghai and its history, and from Tales of Old Shanghai, a guidebook published in 1934, made available online by Earnshaw Books.

Where next?

This page was written by Iain Manley, who arrived in China at the end of an eighteen month overland journey from London and stayed for three years. His first book, about the pirates, prostitutes and opium pedlars of old Singapore, was published last year. You can find him at Old World Wandering, his award winning collection of overland travel stories.

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