Shanghai, abbreviated as Hu, or alternatively as Shen, is a thriving international metropolis and the economic and financial hub with the highest GDP of all Chinese cities. It is also a major historic city and tourist attraction in China.
Lying by the Yangtze River estuary and facing Japan across the sea, Shanghai was once the fief of Huang Xie, the Lord of Chunshen, during the Warring States period (475–221 BCE). He was believed to have dredged the Huangpu River, which consequently bore two names “Huang Xie pu” as well as “Chunshen River.” Minting, iron smelting, and salt production appeared as early as the Han dynasty. Shanghai had already developed into a commercial harbor bristling with masts when it became a town in 1276 (the third year of the Xianchun reign) during the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279).
Opened to foreign trade in 1843, Shanghai quickly became a major commercial port. One by one, Britain, the U.S., France, and other powers set up extraterritorial concessions in the city, constituting “states within a state” outside Chinese jurisdiction. After foreign enterprises took away the majority of the city’s financial, import and export businesses, Shanghai became the leading metropolis of the Far East, a city full of risks and opportunities. It was dubbed a “paradise for adventurers” by Western newspapers. The numerous buildings housing foreign banks, trading firms, and consulates clustered along the Bund from Suzhou Creek to Yangjing Creek still exist to this day. They created an exquisite urban landscape that has been nick-named “a museum of international architecture.”
In the 1930s, Shanghai experienced rapid economic development with its population exceeding three million. Packed along the well-known “ten-mile exotic land” on Nanjing Road were various business establishments including the famous brands Wuliangcai Optical, Hendry Watches, Laojiefu Silk, and Baroman Suits. Nanjing Road not only thrived as a former foreign concession but has remained China’s most prosperous commercial area even today.
Entertainment businesses took off early in Shanghai. By the 1930s, there were twenty-five theaters, forty-five cinemas, and thirty-nine ballrooms in addition to the countless story-telling houses, amusement parks, teahouses, cafés, nightclubs, and high-end pubs. In 1917, the Chinese merchant Huang Chujiu built a 15,000-square-meter entertainment complex in downtown Shanghai known as the “Great World Amusement Park.” There were numerous small stages, cinemas, restaurants, and other facilities where various kinds of plays, operas, and vaudeville shows played from morning till night. As the best-known entertainment venue, the “Great World” accommodated some 20,000 customers daily.
Old Shanghai, which dominated the early Chinese film industry, enjoyed fame as the “Hollywood of the Orient.” The first feature film The Difficult Couple was made in 1913. In the 1920s, Shanghai’s film industry reached international standards. Fishermen’s Song, Crossroads, and Street Angel were among the classic films produced by left wing artists during this period.
Newspapers and publishing, literature and the arts, education, science and technology all prospered in Shanghai. It was also home to such famed periodicals as Shen Bao (Shanghai News) and Dianshizhai Pictorial, and well-known publishing houses such as the Commercial Press and Zhonghua Book Company. The city was home to many prominent writers, painters, and scholars as well. Eileen Chang (1920–1995), an influential modern writer, observed that “Shanghainese people are traditional Chinese people who have undergone the high pressure of modern life and the abnormal cross breeding of old and new cultures. The outcome may not be quite healthy but manifests a peculiar wisdom.” She also said: “Everyone says Shanghainese people are bad. They are, but within limits. They are flatterers, sycophants, timeservers, and opportunists who possess the art of living but don’t overact their parts.”
Thanks to the early introduction of Western culture which started in the late Ming period, Shanghai took the lead in China’s modernization. The city witnessed the arrival of the country’s first running water, electric lighting, trolleybuses, and gas lamps.
Today, Shanghai ranks among the major economic, financial, and commercial centers of the world. As it was in the last century, Shanghai remains a city of variety and diversity. The old Shanghainese way of life is still preserved among the skyscraper-lined streets. The passing of time can still be traced in its numerous old alleys, museums, theaters, and the like.