Exploring Chinese History
East Asian Region
- Shanghai -

Shanghai, city in eastern China, situated on the Huangpu River, a tributary of the Yangtze River, near the Yangtze’s mouth to the East China Sea. Shanghai (Chinese for "on the sea") commands the entrance to the Yangtze River Basin, a large, populous, and economically productive region in central China. Shanghai is China’s most important port, commercial hub, and industrial center. Shanghai has hot, rainy summers and dry, cool winters. With an average daily temperature range of 23° to 32° C (74° to 90° F), July is typically the hottest month. The average daily temperature range in January, the coldest month, is 0° to 8° C (33° to 46° F). Shanghai has an average annual precipitation of 1142 mm (45 in). June is the wettest month and December is the driest. There are occasional typhoons in the summer and autumn.

Shanghai is an independently administered municipal district of 6341 sq km (2448 sq mi). It includes nine counties and 12 urban districts of the city proper. The urban districts cover 2057 sq km (794 sq mi), of which about 300 sq km (about 116 sq mi) is built-up and densely populated. This area is expanding as a result of many construction projects in Shanghai. The municipality includes about 30 islands in the Yangtze River and along the coast of the East China Sea. The largest, Chongming Dao, constitutes one of Shanghai’s nine counties.

The oldest section of Shanghai, near the confluence of the Huangpu River and the Wusong River (Suzhou Creek), reflects the city’s preindustrial growth as a walled center of trade and county seat. Shanghai grew west, south and north from this area, and the newer sections, typically with gridlike streets, are a result of the city’s growth as a center of commerce, shipping, and industry. After the Communist takeover of China in 1949, the development of Shanghai’s infrastructure languished, as revenue generated in the city was used to support other areas of China. As a result of economic reforms in the late 1970s, however, Shanghai’s suburbs began to grow.

Just south of the point where the Wusong joins the Huangpu was an approximately 1.6-km (approximately 1-mi) long wall encircling the original city, an area known as Nanshi (Nantao). The wall was demolished in the early 20th century and replaced with a road. Nanshi is now a densely compact jumble of crowded alleys and lanes. Along the Huangpu waterfront is a small park, walkway, and boulevard, known before 1949 as the Bund. Now called Zhong Shan Road, this famous boulevard was the first place where ocean travelers traditionally came ashore in Shanghai. European-style buildings were constructed along this boulevard in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These once served as the Customhouse, the British Consulate, foreign and Chinese banks and trading houses, and a number of major hotels and commercial establishments. Most foreigners left Shanghai in the 1940s and 1950s and many of these buildings were converted to Chinese government offices. Nanjing Road, running west from the Huangpu and perpendicular to Zhong Shan Road, is Shanghai’s principal shopping district; it is lined with retail and entertainment establishments for many blocks.

West and south of Nanshi is the zone of the former French Concession, an area administered by France from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries. The French architecture consists of three- and four-story buildings, which are being rapidly replaced by high-rise structures. North and west of the French zone, extending beyond the Wusong, was the International Settlement, a zone formed when the British Concession merged with an area under United States influence. More than 1000 high rises have been built in these areas since 1990, dramatically changing the appearance and character of the city.

Outside the built-up core are suburban areas and farmland, which are being rapidly altered to urban uses as Shanghai grows. Former farmland is being converted to industrial, transportation, and residential purposes, and construction projects are evident throughout the municipality. Pudong, a large area on the east bank of the Huangpu, is the site of a massive development project. It is being rapidly transformed from an old, industrial area into a modern city aimed at relieving some of the congestion and crowding in Shanghai proper.

As a result of economic reforms that began in the 1970s, the amount of commerce and trade in Shanghai has increased dramatically. Shanghai now has a stock market, several foreign banks, and a variety of hotels, clubs, bars, and restaurants. Since 1990 the central Chinese government has encouraged foreign investment by relaxing regulations and lessening bureaucratic procedures. Investment in Shanghai has increased substantially, giving rise to a huge construction boom. Retailing has also mushroomed, and the city now offers many of the finest department stores and shops in China.

The economy benefits from good education facilities that produce a large, well-trained labor force, with many people skilled at highly complex and technical manufacturing jobs. Shanghai is China’s leading center of industry and industrial activity ranges from smelting at China’s largest integrated iron and steel plant, located at suburban Baoshan, to the manufacture of complex machinery and precision equipment, such as cellular telephones, fax machines, color television tubes, automobiles, textiles, foodstuffs, and electronics. Although manufacturing in other Chinese cities has increased and Shanghai’s share of the country’s total industrial output has declined in recent years, the city remains a manufacturing giant. In the early 1990s it contributed almost 7 percent of the total value of industrial production in China, and Shanghai’s workers are the most productive in the country.

Shanghai’s port is one of the largest in China, accounting for nearly 30 percent of the country’s total cargo volume in the early 1990s. Major highways and railroads radiate northwest, west, and south to Nanjing, Beijing, Hefei, Hangzhou, Ningbo, and other major cities and towns. The city has an expanding subway system. An international airport is located southwest of Shanghai, in suburban Hongqiao.

In 1991, Shanghai had a population of 10,579,491, making it China’s largest city. The UN estimated the 1996 population of the Shanghai urban agglomeration to be 13.7 million, while the Shanghai Municipality had a population of 14.2 million in 1997.. Discrepancies in reported population values for Shanghai may be due to the difficulty in counting temporary residents and migrants, who may number as many as 3 million, because they often do not register with the local authorities. These migrants and temporary workers add to the congestion and crowding in Shanghai proper and local people frequently blame them for rising crime and rowdy behavior. To alleviate the crowding, the government housing office is relocating many city dwellers to subsidized high-rise apartments in the suburbs. Although these units offer modern conveniences that some city dwellings lack, such as indoor plumbing and electricity, many residents feel alienated and without a sense of community.

Almost all of Shanghai’s residents are ethnic Han Chinese, although there are small numbers of non-Han minorities. There are people from all regions of China and many foreign countries living in Shanghai. The local people speak a Chinese dialect called Wu. Most residents also speak Putonghua (Mandarin), China’s official spoken language.

Shanghai is one of China’s leading centers of learning and culture. There are more than 130,000 students in higher education in Shanghai and there are more than 50 institutions of higher learning. These include some of China’s most famous universities, such as Fudan University (founded in 1905), Tongji University (1907), and the East China Normal University (1951). A large branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences is located in Shanghai, and extensive research is undertaken in areas such as semiconductors, lasers, nuclear energy, and electronics.

Shanghai has a rich and varied cultural life. With more than 8 million volumes, the Shanghai Library (founded in 1952) is one of the largest libraries in China. The Great World Theater is an important venue for theatrical and dance performances. The city supports an orchestra, a ballet troupe, and an opera. Film companies and other theatrical and arts groups, such as the Shanghai Institute of Drama, are also active. Important museums include the Shanghai Museum, with an extensive collection of Chinese art, and the museum of the Tomb of Lu Xun, a 20th-century writer. Other interesting sites are the Yuyuan Garden and the Garden of the Purple Clouds of Autumn; both are examples of garden architecture from the Ming dynasty (AD 1368-1644). The Shanghai Convention Center, a Soviet-style structure, was one of the few buildings constructed during the 1950s. Among the numerous parks and open spaces is Renmin Park (People’s Park), located on Nanjing Road, and an arboretum.

Shanghai began more than 1000 years ago as a fishing village. It was officially designated a market town in 1074 and a market city in 1159. The main activities at the time were fishing, farming, craftworking, and commerce and shipping. By 1292 the region and market city had grown to the point where a separate county of Shanghai was designated, and the market city became the county seat. This permitted the city to assume the important duty of tax collection.

Shanghai continued to grow during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), and near the beginning of the 15th century the county had an estimated 64,000 households. A new channel was cut north to the Yangtze in order to permit better drainage and to keep the outlet to the Yangtze and the East China Sea from filling with silt. This also provided a much more reliable and shorter channel for river traffic to the Yangtze.

Shanghai grew rapidly during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) when the development and use of cotton as a fabric material became widespread. By the 18th century the city was a prosperous center of cotton growing and fabric and garment production. The first of the Opium Wars between Britain and China ended with the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 and a supplementary agreement signed in 1843. As a result, China was forced to open Shanghai to British trade and residence. Other countries demanded and received similar privileges. British, French, and American citizens were awarded small territorial zones north of the original walled Chinese city. While there was some development and expansion, the foreign community numbered only a few hundred until the late 19th century. In 1895 Japan defeated China in the First Sino-Japanese War and, as part of the war reparations, China was forced to allow Westerners and Japanese to invest directly in China. As a result, the population of Shanghai’s international settlement grew substantially. A period of foreign commercialization and industrialization followed. In the next half century Shanghai developed a distinctly Western character and experienced a period of important commercial, industrial and political development. The Chinese Communist Party was founded in the city in 1921, and Communist revolutionaries staged an uprising in Shanghai in 1925. Although the revolutionaries supported the powerful Nationalist Party led by Chiang Kai-shek, Chiang abruptly ended his alliance with the Communists and violently suppressed a Communist uprising in Shanghai in 1927.

The Japanese invaded China and seized Shanghai in 1937. They occupied the city until the end of World War II in 1945. Following the war, Shanghai again emerged as China’s major domestic and international trading, banking, and shipping center, but the Chinese civil war interrupted Shanghai’s growth. In 1949 Communist forces overran and occupied the city. The new Chinese Communist government viewed Shanghai as a consumer city with strong ties to a capitalist economy, and this conflicted with Communist ideology. China’s leaders moved quickly to de-emphasize Shanghai’s importance to the country’s overall economy and drained capital away from the city to support other areas of China. This pattern largely continued until economic reforms of the late 1970s and, in 1984, the designation of Shanghai as an economic development zone with an emphasis on foreign investment.

Contributed By:
Clifton W. Pannell

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