largest city of the People’s Republic of China, Shanghaï is also a the eighth largest city in the world.  The city is a showcase of China’s modern economy and also one of the most important cultural, commercial, financial, industrial and communication centres in China.  It is a municipality that has province-level status and is one of the world’s busiest ports.  In 2005, in fact, it was named the world’s largest cargo port.

What started out as a sleepy little fishing village became the centre of cultural, vice, intellectual discourse and political intrigue during the Republic of China.  It was also the third largest financial centre, ranking after London and New York City.

Situated on the banks of the Yangtze River Delta in East China, Shanghai was the largest commercial city in the Far East in the late 19th century and early 20th century.  After the communist takeover in 1949, heavy central government taxation slowed the city’s growth, but after market re-development in 1992 Shanghai quickly regained its strength and has since led China’s economic growth.

The two Chinese characters in the name Shanghai literally means ‘on’ or ‘top’ and ‘sea’. The name dates from the Song Dynasty, but linguists argue whether it should be interpreted as ‘the upper reaches of the sea’ or ‘go onto the sea’, which perhaps better reflects the city’s seaport nature.  When talking about Shanhainese art and culture the two characters are sometimes reversed for a more poetic sound, Haishang.

Shangahi is also commonly called Shencheng, or City of Shen, and in English it has had a variety of nicknames.  Paris of the East, Queen of the Orient, Pearl of the Orient and even The Whore of Asia during the era of widespread vice, drugs and prostitution during the 1920s and 30s.


Shanghai was part of Songjiang county before it developed as a town, but from the time of the Song Dynasty, Shanghai started to blossom into a busy seaport and outgrew its original political jurisdictions.  Today, Songjiang is one of 18 districts within Shanghai.

The building of a city wall in 1553 AD is accepted as real beginning of the City of Shanghai, but before the 19th century, it was not a major city.  There are therefore few ancient landmarks found in the city, although because Shanghai was within the historic cultural centre of the Wu Kingdom (222-280) the few cultural landmarks are very ancient and generally date to the Three Kingdoms period.

Shanghai became an important regional port for the Yangtze and Huangpu rivers during the Qing Dynasty and it also became a major seaport for the nearby Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, although overseas commerce was forbidden at the time.  Around the end of the Qianlong era of the Qing Dynasty, Shiliupu (now in the Huangpu District) became the largest port in East Asia.

Shanghai grew radically in the 19th century due to its strategic position at the mouth of the Yangtze River, which made it an ideal location for trade with the West.  British forces temporarily held Shanghai during the First Opium War in the early 19th century.  The war ended with the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing which opened Shanghai port for international trade.  In 1843 the Treaty of Bogue was signed and the Sino-American Treaty of Wangsia in 1844 granted foreign nations extraterritoriality on Chinese soil, which they officially retained until 1943 but which was in reality defunct by the late 1930s.  In the 1920s and 30s, Shanghai was a ‘sin city’ where gangsters ruled and casinos and brothels abounded.

Going back to the mid 1800s again, the Taiping Rebellion broke out in1850,and in 1853 Shanghai was occupied by a group of rebels called the Small Swords Society.  The fighting destroyed the countryside but left the foreigners’ settlements unscathed and Chinese seeking refuge in their area.  That is why previous regulations outlawing Chinese from living in foreign settlements were overturned, and in 1854 new regulations were drawn up making land available to the Chinese.  Land prices subsequently rose dramatically.

That same year, 1954, saw the first annual meeting of the Shanghai Municipal Council, created to manage the foreign settlements.  In 1863 the British settlement and the American settlement joined to form the International Settlement.  The French decided to remove themselves from the Shanghai Municipal Council and maintained instead their own French Concession.  Meanwhile, a large wave of migrants from Europe and North America flooded in, calling themselves ‘Shanghighlanders’.

Japan emerged as an additional foreign power in Shanghai after the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki after the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95.  Japan went on to build the first factories in Shanghai, copied soon by other foreign powers and responsible for the emergence of Shanghai industry.  By then, Shanghai was also the most important financial centre in the Far East.

Under the Republic of China, Shanghai was made a ‘special city’ in 1927 and a municipality in May 1930.   The Japanese Navy bombed Shanghai on January 28, 1932 in order to crush student protests against the Manchurian Incident and the Japanese occupation. The Chinese retaliated in what became known as the January 28 Incident.  The two sides fought to a standstill and a ceasefire was not negotiated until May.  In the Second Sino-Japanese War, the city fell after the Battle of Shanghai in 1937 and was occupied by the Japanese until 1845.  The International Settlement was occupied on 8 December 1941 after meeting opposition from only one remaining British gunboat in the port and some Chinese irregulars.

As early as 1919 Shanghai had been a centre for refugees, when White Russians fleeing the revolution resettled there.  Russians made up the second largest foreign community in Shanghai after the Japanese and helped shape the economy and police the International Settlement until the end of WWII.

During the Second World War, Shanghai again became a magnet for European refugees.  It was the only city in the entire world that opened its door unconditionally to the Jews.  As a result, 32,000 Jews came to call Shanghai home, proudly joining those who called themselves Shanghailanders.  It wasn’t entirely a safe refuge for the Jews, however – the Japanese ghettoised the Jewish refugees in 1941 under pressure from their Nazi allies and these Jews suffered hunger and died of infectious diseases.  The Japanese government stopped short of deporting the Jews back to Germany though, which is what the Nazis requested.

In 1949 the Communist Party’s People’s Liberation Army took control of Shanghai, but it and Shanghai were the only former Republic of China municipalities that were not merged into neighbouring provinces over the next decade.

Most foreign firms moved offices from Shanghai to Hong Kong after the communist takeover.  During the 1950s and 60s, Shanghai became an industrial centre and also a centre for revolutionary leftists.  Even during the worst of the Cultural Revolution, Shanghai managed to be productive and maintained relative social stability.  Throughout the history of the People’s Republic of China, Shanghai was the highest tax payer to the central government which crippled the city’s infrastructure and capital development. Although bearing the brunt of the country’s tax burden, Shanghai was not allowed to initiate economic reforms until 1991.

Shanghai has been the political centre of China for years; many of China’s top government officials in Beijing got their start in Shanghai in the 1980s on a platform critical of the extreme-left of the Cultural Revolution. The so-called right-leaning Shanghai Clique of the 1990s is seen by many as opposing the current Chinese administration.


Shanghai is administratively equal to a province and is divided into 19-county-level divisions; 18 districts and one county.  The urban core of Shanghai is stretched across several districts; there is no single downtown area.


Shanghai the most populous and well-developed city in China and it is one of the world’s busiest ports.  In 2005 it handled 443 million tons of cargo, ranking it the world’s busiest cargo port.  Economic reforms kicked in a decade later in Shanghai than in many other Southern Chinese provinces.  Before that, Shanghai’s tax revenue went straight to Beijing with little return.  Even now that taxes have been reduced in Shanghai, the city accounts for 20 to 25 percent of the entire nation’s total tax intact.  Before the 1990s, however, Shanghai paid 70 percent of China’s taxes. 

Shanghai had a GDP per capita of Y46,586 (5,620 USD) in 2003, ranking 13th among all 659 Chinese cities.  The city has known double-digit growth for 14 consecutive years since 1992 and is still undergoing a building boom.

Historically very Western, Shanghai is increasingly becoming an important communication centre for the sharing of information and technologies. The city will host the  Shanghai Expo 2010 under the theme Better City – Better Life.


Shanghai faces the East China Sea, which is part of the Pacific Ocean.  It is divided by the Huangpu River; Puxi contains the city proper on the west side of the river, while a new financial district has sprung up on the eastern banks.

The municipality has a monsoon-influenced humid subtropical climate, with freezing temperatures in winter and 32 degree Celsius heat as an average in the hottest months of July and August.  Temperature extremes of –10C and +41C have been recorded.   During the peak tourist season in the summer the weather is hot and oppressive and the humidity makes it nearly impossible for people unconditioned to that type of weather to even breathe properly.  The city experiences typhoons a few times a year but none has caused serious damage in recent years.


Not many residents descended from the first inhabitants of the old walled city. Nearly all the registered citizens are descendants of immigrants from the two adjacent provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang who moved to Shanghai in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Despite this, there is a strong sense of Shanghainese identity, based largely on a feeling of cultural and economic superiority up to the Revolution and to the present day.

The population of Shanghai Municipality in the year 2000 was 16,738 million, including the floating population which was estimated to account for some 3,871 million people.

Tensions have mounted recently due to the great number of migrants from all over China who do not speak the local dialect.  These migrants, over 3 million who arrived in 2003 alone, have been associated with rising crime rates, litter, panhandling and overloading the transport systems and the public schools, which causes ill-will from the Shanghainese.  The Shanghainese can easily tell migrants from natives, and the migrants are subject to both intentional and unintentional discrimination. The municipal government is trying to provide for the migrants’ needs while working not to increase the burden on the native Shanghainese.


Shanghainese is the popular language spoken in Shanghai and is a dialect of Wu Chinese, but the official language is Standard Mandarin.  The local dialect and Mandarin are mutually unintelligible, and Shanghai’s distinct language is very much part of the Shanghainese identity.  Nearly all of the Shanghai population under the age of 40 can speak Mandarin fluently.  Many senior citizens who were educated before the Cultural Revolution can speak English, and those under the age of 26 have been taught since first grade as a mandatory course.

Shanghai has of course had an important role in the fine arts.  The Songjiang School was a small painting school during the Ming Dynasty that developed from the Wu School in the cultural centre of the region, Suzhou.  Huating School was another important art school during the middle to late Ming Dynasty.  It was famous for traditional Chinese painting, calligraphy and poetry, and was especially famous for its Renwen painting.  Dong Qichang is one of the masters from this school.  The Shanghai School is a very important school of traditional arts dating rom the Qing Dynasty  and continuing throughout the 20th century. Masters from this school helped Chinese art to reach another apex, and the school challenged the literati tradition of Chinese art while still paying tribute to the technical skills of the ancient masters.  Members of this school were themselves literati who questioned their status and the very purpose of art.  In a time of rapid social change, works from this school were diverse and innovated and often included thoughtful but subtle social commentary.  The most famous figures from this school are Ren Xiong, Ren Yi, Ahzo Zhiqian, Wu Changshuo, Sha Menghai (calligraphist), Pan Tianshou and Fu Baoshi.

In literature, the term ‘Shanghai School’ was derogatory and was used by some May Fourth Movement intellectuals to criticise Shanghai’s literary output for being solely commercial and doing nothing to advance society.  This debate over Shanghai’s literary worth is known s the jingpai/haipai debate.

Shanghai is seen as the birthplace of everything modern in China.  It was here that the first motorcar was driven, the first train tacks laid, the first modern sewers installed.  It was also an intellectual battleground between socialist writers and those more romantically and aesthetically inclined.

Shangahi is also the birthplace of Chinese cinema and theatre.  China’s first short film, The Difficult Couple, and the naitona’s first fictional feature film, Orphan Rescues Grandfather, were both produced in Shanghai, in 1913 and 1923 respectively. The local film industry went on to flourish in the early 30s, giving rise to Marilyn Monroe comparable stars like Zhou Xuan.  Another film star, Jiang Qing, went on to become Madame Mao Zedong.

Much of Shanghai’s popular culture, so called Shanghainese Pops transferred to Hong Kong with the numerous emmgrants and refugees after the Communist Revolution.  Wong Kar-wai, a native Shanghainese, directed the movie In the Mood for Love, which depicts the displaced Shanghainese community in Hong Kong and the nostalgia for that era, featuring music by Zhou Xuan on the 1940s.

Shanghainese people are stereotyped by other Chinese as being pretentious, tight, materialistic and disdainful of provincials, but at the same time they are respected for their meticulous attention to detail, their professionalism and their style. A persistent belief thoughout China is that Shanghainese men are hen-pecked and under their wives’ thumbs.  In fact, the husbands in Shangahi are often playing many roles as chief money-maker, father, cook, plumber, carpenter and handyman.  Though outdated, this idea of henpecked husbands is one of the first things people think of when they hear Shanghai mentioned.  Shanghai natives in return say that men in other provinces, especially in the north, are macho.

One unique Shanghainese cultural element are the shikumen residences, which are two or three-story townhouses with front yards protected by high brick walls.  The residences are connected and set out in straight alleys known as longtang.  The whole arrangement resembles terrace houses or townhouses common in Anglo-American countries but distinguished by the tall, heavy brick wall in front of each house.  The shikumen is a blend of Western architecture with traditional Lower Yangtze architecture and social behaviour.  By WWII, more than 80 percent of the population lived in these kind of houses.  Some were shoddy, quickly built and resembled slums, while others were sturdier and built with modern amenities like a flush toilet.  During WWII and after it, even until this day, some of these houses have been heavily subdivided, with spacious living rooms divided into three or four cramped rooms to let out to an entire family.

Another Shanghainese cultural contribution is the cheongsam, a modern version of the traditional Chinese/Manchurian qipao garment that first was worn in Shanghai in the 1910s.  The cheongsam dress was tight-fitting with high-cut sides, whereas the traditional qipao was designed to conceal the figure and be worn by women of any age.  The cheongsam could be easily worn with a western coat and scarf and gave an image of a unique East Asian modernity that fit the Shanghainese population as a whole.  The cheongsam changed in step with changes in Western fashions, and styles have evolved to include high-neck sleeveless dresses, bell-sleeves, and black lace hems.  By the 1940s, the dress cam in transparent black, beaded bodices and even velvet iwth matching capes.  Even checked fabrics became common.  The Communist Revolution put an end to Shanghai fashion, but in recent years, the Shanghainese styles have had a revival as party dresses.  The fashion industry is being revitalised to the extent that there is an average of one fashion show a day in the city today.

In literature, Han Bangqing’s The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai followed the lives of Shanghainese sing-song girls who sung, danced and provided sexual services, and the decadence that surrounded them.  The novel was published in 1892, witht he dialogue completely in Shanghainese.  The highly popular novel set a precendent for modernChinese litarature and was translated into Mandarin and Engilsh by Eileen Change.  The novel is also sometimes called Flowers of Shanghai, after the 1998 film adaptation.  Eileen Chang herself was a famous Shanhainese writer during WWII, and many of her bourgeois romantic novels have been turned into arthouse films.  Ba Jin, one of the most famous Chinese writers of the last century lived and worked in Shanghai and set some of his works in the city, and one of the great Chinese novels of the 20th century, Qian Zhongshu’s Fortress Besieged, partly is set in Shanghai and features mostly Shanghainese characters.  There are many local writers from Shanghai, but famous foreign writers also visited the city – Noel Coward, for example,  wrote his novel Private Lives while staying at Shanghai’s Cathay Hotel.

Tourist attractions

Among the cultural and tourist attractions in Shanghai are the Shanghai Museum and Shanghai Grand Theatre, the Yuyuan Gardens and The Bund. The Bund was originally the shipping wharves and the warehouses which were soon replaced with luxurious budilngs include the first hotel, the Pujiang, formerly the Astor House Hotel, built in the 20’s and listing Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein amongst its early guests, together with the original banks and consulates in Colonial, Classical and Art Deco Styles. The opposite bank of the river is very modern, dominated by the 420 meter high Jinmao Dasha, the upper floors of which are the 5-Star Grand Hyatt Shanghai Hotel.

Temples including the Jing’an Temple first built in the Three Kingdoms period; the Longhau temple which is Shanghai’s largest and was also built during the Three Kingdoms period and the Jade Buddha Temple.  Cathedrals and churches include Xujiahui Cathedral, the largest Chatolic cathedral in Shanghai; Dongjiadu Cathedral, She Shan Cathedral and the Orthodox Eastern Church.  There are also the Xiaodaoyuan (Mini Peach Orchard) Mosque, the Songjiang Mosque and the Ohel Rachel Synagogue.  Visitors may see the REsdience of Sun Yat-sen, the resident of Chiang Kai-shek and the Shanghai residence of Qing Dynasty Viceroy and General Li Hongzhang.  The ancient rivertowns of Zhujianjiao and Zhouzhuang attract tourists to the outskirts of Shanghai, and the numerous markets draw thousands of locals and foreign guests.  The Wen Miao Market, Yunnan Road, the Jiang yi lu market with its flowers and birds and the Dong Tai Lu Curio Market are among the most famous.  Shanghai also boasts the Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe.

Colleges and Universities

Shanghai is home to many of China’s oldest and best universities.  There are 14 national universities including the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, the China Academy of Art, the Shanghai Theatre Academy and the Second Military Medical University.  There are also numerous public and private universities with excellent reputations, including the Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine and the China Europe International Business School.

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