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Huangpu River in Shanghai, Circa 1920. Shanghai was connected to a vast Chinese hinterland through a network of rivers and canals that reached well into remote Sichuan Province. The Huangpu River provided a ready avenue into both the Yangzi River and Shanghai’s surrounding area.

Shanghai was not born in 1842 with the Nanjing Treaty that opened five Chinese port cities to foreign trade, nor in 1845 when the British were granted the right to establish a settlement (technically, ‘‘leased territory’’) in the outskirts of the walled city. For decades before these events, Shanghai had served as a major hub for trade between inland provinces and other port cities in China.

Located in the estuary of the Yangzi River, the main artery into inland China, Shanghai was connected to a vast hinterland through a dense network of rivers and canals that reached well into remote Sichuan Province 2,500 kilometers (about 1,550 miles) away. The Huangpu River that runs through the city provided a ready avenue both into the Yangzi River and Shanghai’s surrounding area. In the foreign settlements, its bank— the Bund—became the place where westerners manifested their presence and power, with an impressive row of neocolonial-style multistoried buildings. With about 300,000 residents in the mid-nineteenth century, Shanghai was far from an empty land that awaited civilization from the outside.

There is no denying, however, that the inclusion of Shanghai into the extended trade routes that supplied Western countries with the materials and goods that their fast-growing economies consumed in increasing quantities changed the trajectory of the city. Initially, three groups of nationals obtained the right to open a settlement: British, American, and French. The first two merged their territory in 1863 to form the International Settlement, while the French, after some hesitation, eventually maintained their own autonomous concession. Both areas were repeatedly extended, up to 1914 when they reached their final limits. By that time, the two settlements had displaced the original walled city and its suburbs as the beating heart of Shanghai and its most populated section. Symbolically, but also to remove what was perceived as an obstacle to modernization, the local Chinese elites tore down the wall that confined the original city after China’s 1911 revolution.

The population of Shanghai grew by leaps and bounds due to natural disasters, such as floods, but more often to wars and rebellions in the surrounding provinces. The Taiping Rebellion in the mid-1850s brought Shanghai’s first wave of unwilling migrants. It marked the actual demographic takeoff of Shanghai. The internecine wars that raged between Chinese warlords in the 1920s, the 1931 Yangzi River flood, the Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), and the civil war (1946–1949) all contributed to massive movements of population to Shanghai. Yet, population increase was also due to the growing attractiveness of the city. During the second half of the nineteenth century, Shanghai truly offered a ‘‘new frontier’’ that attracted all sorts of people from all over China, from poverty-driven peasants, to craftsmen and merchants. By the turn of the century, the emergence of a modern sector, both in industry and services (especially leisure), generated new waves of immigration. From half a million in 1852, the population of Shanghai jumped to 2 million in 1915, close to 4 million in 1937, and 5.5 million in 1948.

The change in population was not just quantitative. The establishment of the settlements brought migrants from a wide range of countries in the world, even if the larger communities came from Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, and France. Yet, even with the Japanese that came to be Shanghai’s largest foreign community by 1905, foreigners never represented a significant share of the population, ranging from a few thousand in the late nineteenth century to 150,000 at its peak in the 1940s. The Japanese alone formed a 100,000-strong community. Altogether, foreigners never represented more than 3.8 percent of Shanghai’s total population. Nevertheless, by virtue of the privileges accorded in the treaties, foreigners enjoyed strong positions of power, at least formally, and benefited from conditions of life, even for the lower ranks of foreign residents, far better than in their home countries. The only foreigners who suffered from social debasement were the Russians who chose to flee the Bolshevik revolution and flocked in China’s northeastern cities before moving to Shanghai. Deprived of diplomatic protection and extraterritorial rights, these Russian migrants struggled to make ends meet and by and large occupied menial jobs. In the late 1930s another group of Jewish refugees who had escaped Nazi persecution in Central Europe and Germany eventually settled in Shanghai. Because most of them had lost all resources, they also met a difficult fate until 1945.

The Land Regulations (1854) that defined the conditions for the establishment of settlements carried several provisions that foreigners took advantage of, especially in times of internal turmoil and the weakening of Chinese central power, to assert rights and powers far beyond those outlined in the original text. By virtue of the treaties, foreigners enjoyed extraterritorial rights that placed them beyond the reach of the Chinese legal and judicial system. In cases of misconduct or crime, foreigners were tried before their respective consular courts. But after the 1911 revolution, foreigners took full control of judicial administration, including the mixed courts where all Chinese residents were brought for civil and penal affairs.

By 1854, already, foreigners had taken over Shanghai’s maritime customs, a major source of revenue for China. In the city proper, they set up their own municipal agencies: the Shanghai Municipal Council and the conseil (council) municipal in the International Settlement and French Concession respectively. When the Chinese organized their own local administrative bodies, first as elite-managed and district-based councils, then as a unified modern administration after 1927, the city ended up being administered by three different and unrelated municipal governments. This system was not dismantled until 1945.

The existence of foreign settlements in Shanghai created the conditions for the assertion of colonial power, though with limitations, but also an opportunity for complex games in politics, intellectual creativity, and social transformation. While formal power resided with Western institutions, the actual governance of the city relied very much on cooperation with local elites, especially the powerful Chinese merchant organizations that structured local society. Little could be achieved, in fact, without their support or against their will. Be it for tax matters, education, or in times of crisis and confrontation, foreigners had to deal with the Chinese representative organizations to implement a policy or to find a way out of a crisis.

Colonial power in Shanghai reached its limits with the existence of a well-organized polity within the broader context of a Chinese state that never lost its prerogatives and sovereignty, even with a weakened and at times powerless central administration. In other words, the system worked because both sides found it to its advantage to run a space that escaped the reach of a Chinese state perceived as predatory or simply unreliable.

Undoubtedly, Shanghai offered a place for great games. Chinese entrepreneurs benefited from an environment that was predictable in fiscal and legal matters. The protection afforded by the foreign settlements attracted a regular influx of capital that was available for investment in new economic ventures, especially industrial companies. The city developed sophisticated services that propelled it to the rank of first financial center in East Asia. Leisure and entertainment became not just a hallmark of Shanghai ‘‘glamour’’ but, in fact, an industry for its own sake on which thousands of people thrived.

From a plain commercial center in the mid-nineteenth century, Shanghai emerged as the major economic engine for the whole country, ranking first on all counts: industry, finance, and foreign trade. The wealth of the city, combined with the lack of strict controls on culture and education (except for political activism), also offered a breeding ground for the formation of a modern urban culture. Shanghai opened a whole new intellectual milieu that branched out in various directions with the creation of numerous modern schools and universities, the publication of a wide spectrum of journals and newspapers, the rise of a flourishing publication industry, the multiplication of associations of all sorts, and the broad circulation of new ideas among widening circles of the population. While still tainted with the suspicion of having been a Western Trojan horse in China, Shanghai played a major role in redefining the conditions of China’s interaction with the outside world at the same time that it worked as a laboratory for the expression and construction of a modern Chinese society. After 1949 the city paid a dear price under the Communist regime, which literally milked Shanghai without making the necessary investments.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Berge`re, Marie-Claire. The Golden Age of the Chinese Bourgeoisie. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Clifford, Nicholas R. Spoilt Children of Empire: Westerners in Shanghai and the Chinese Revolution of the 1920s. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. Goodman, Bryna. Native Place, City, and Nation: Regional Networks and Identities in Shanghai, 1853–1937. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Henriot, Christian. Prostitution in Shanghai. A Social History. Cambridge, U.K. and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Lu, Hanchao. Beyond the Neon Lights: Everyday Shanghai in the Early Twentieth Century, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Wakeman, Frederic Jr., Yeh, Wen-hsin, eds. Shanghai Sojourners. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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