In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Shanghai

  • Introduction
  • Historical Surveys
  • Bibliographies
  • Pre-1842
  • Occupation and the Second World War
  • Communism and the Mao Era
  • Reform Era Development
  • Urban Life

Chinese Studies Shanghai
Niv Horesh, Jonathan Sullivan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0110


Not long after its establishment as a treaty port in 1842, and roughly until the Japanese invasion of China proper in 1937, Shanghai maintained a reputation as one of Asia’s most spellbinding, entrepreneurial, and freewheeling cities. It had served as the mainland China’s commercial, industrial, and cultural hub during that period, and since 1991, it has indisputably re-emerged as China’s second most important city after the capital, Beijing. Yet, although first mentioned by name in Chinese records dating back to the 12th century, Shanghai was not among the 10 most populous cities on the mainland on the eve of Western settlement in 1842. Perched advantageously 15 km downstream from the confluence of the Huangpu River, the Yangtze River (Changjiang), and the East China Sea, Shanghai’s Chinese population numbered around two hundred thousand inhabitants in 1842, most of whom resided within the ancient city walls. By the 1930s, the city’s population exceeded three million, with new neighborhoods sprawling far beyond the historic walled area west of the Huangpu River. Today, the Shanghai Municipality (6,340 sq km) is one of four self-governing urban areas not affiliated with any other province. The city’s perimeters are thus much wider than was the case before 1949, including jurisdiction over fifteen districts, one county, and several offshore islands. Over twenty-three million people now reside in Shanghai, making it the most populous city in China, and one of the largest in the world. Shanghai’s newly built port, sprawling tens of kilometers along the East China Sea, is the busiest in the world, and the skyscrapers in the Pudong district have come to symbolize China’s re-established economic power. Interest in the city’s pre-war legacy has increased in recent years as a result of China’s rapid economic reforms and the opening up of its archives to foreign scholars. Western academics have begun engaging with these newly declassified materials in ways that often reshape our understanding of Chinese modern history. Yet the development path that makes Shanghai so vital to what may be loosely defined as “Chinese modernity,” has not yet been agreed on. One of many testaments to Shanghai’s enduring appeal, is the 2006 CBC television documentary Legendary Cities of Sin, in which Shanghai is portrayed as a megalopolis on par with Paris and Berlin between the two world wars. Shanghai’s mystique is even more potent in the realm of cinema, with scores of Hollywood and Chinese productions set in the pre-Communist era—Ang Lee’s acclaimed feature film Lust, Caution (2007) is an obvious example. Shanghai is also the city where past and present are most studied and written about by China specialists. The body of scholarly literature on post-1842 Shanghai is particularly abundant.

Historical Surveys

Xiong 1999, a collection of works by scholars affiliated with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, under the guidance and chief editorship of Xiong Yuezhi, provides a thematically organized, fifteen-volume compilation of essays on the city’s history that remains the benchmark for academic research. Tang 1989 provides an extensive chronology of Shanghai, although it does not cover the city’s latest development stage, which began in 1991, following the designation of the Pudong district as a Special Economic Zone. Two concise and up-to-date surveys of Shanghai’s history in English are Bergère 2009 and Wasserstrom 2012. Although less academic, Dong 2001 provides a solid overview of modern Shanghai before the Communist takeover. Not a history of Shanghai per se, Yeh 2007 gives an engaging overview of Shanghai’s socio-cultural history. In Japanese, the most comprehensive historical survey remains Takahashi and Furumaya 1995.

  • Bergère, Marie-Claire. Shanghai: China’s Gateway to Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press, 2009.

    NNNTranslation of an earlier French version. Accessible and authoritative introduction to the city’s social and economic history from 1842 to 2008, with particular focus on engagement between Chinese and non-Chinese.

  • Dong, Stella. Shanghai: The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City, 1842–1949. New York: Harper Perennial, 2001.

    NNNLess of an academic text, but provides an engaging and highly accessible historical overview of modern Shanghai.

  • Takahashi Kōsuke 高橋孝助, and Furumaya Tadao 古厩忠夫. Shanghai shi: Kyodai Toshi no Keisei to Hitobito no Itonami (上海史: 巨大都市の形成と人々の營み). Tokyo: Tōhō Shoten, 1995.

    NNNJapanese-language overview of the city’s history, with particular emphasis on architectural and municipal boundary evolution.

  • Tang Zijun 汤志钧, ed. Jindai Shanghai Dashiji (近代上海大事记). Shanghai: Shanghai cishu Cchubanshe, 1989.

    NNNDetailed chronology of the most important events that shaped Shanghai’s history in the modern era from a Chinese official perspective.

  • Wasserstrom, Jeffrey. Global Shanghai 1850–2010: A History in Fragments. London: Routledge, 2012.

    NNNA very accessible, and recent, overview of the city’s history. Its particular strength is in comparing Shanghai with other world cities.

  • Xiong Yuezhi 熊月之, ed. Shanghai Tongshi (上海通史). Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 1999.

    NNNMonumental multivolume project, covering almost every conceivable aspect of the city’s history. Has the tenor of an “official history.”

  • Yeh, Wen-hsin. Shanghai Splendour: Economic Sentiments and the Making of Modern China, 1843–1949. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 2007.

    NNNAn engaging overview of Shanghai’s socio-cultural history, with focus on media and consumer culture during the later Republican era, particularly the 1930s.

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