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  • Writer's pictureOlivier

China: Shanghai, A City Built Under Western Domination

Updated: Mar 23

Shanghai, located on the east coast of China near the mouth of the Yangtze River, is a city that has played a central role in China's economic, cultural, and political history. From its humble beginnings to its status as a megacity, Shanghai has been marked by periods of foreign domination, economic golden ages, turmoil, as well as renaissance.

China: Shanghai, A City Built Under Western Domination

© O. Robert

Shanghai, whose name means "On the Sea" in Chinese, was originally a small village of fishermen and weavers. Situated at the mouth of the Yangtze River, the region had commercial potential that successive Chinese dynasties began to exploit by establishing a port.

Having benefited from several trips to China for my photography projects, I must admit that Shanghai remains a city for which I have a profound admiration. Not only for its architecture, its multiple facets, its excessiveness but also and above all for its fascinating history that remains present at every street corner.

Therefore, I wanted to write this article to revisit in a few lines the particular history of this unique metropolis in which I have always lived moments of great cultural richness, discoveries, and unforgettable encounters. Undoubtedly, Shanghai today represents one of the most beautiful sources of inspiration for urban photography.

China: Shanghai, A City Built Under Western Domination

The Origins of Shanghai

Historically, Shanghai was part of various Chinese administrative entities before gaining importance. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), Shanghai began to emerge as a village of fishermen and weavers. It started to gain significance in the 11th century as a rural market. The region benefited from direct access to the sea and inland waterways, thus facilitating local trade.

Ming Dynasty

Under the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Shanghai gained increased importance. In 1553, a wall was built to protect the city against attacks by Japanese pirates, marking the beginning of Shanghai as a fortified city. This period also saw Shanghai become a thriving commercial center, taking advantage of its access to inland canal networks and the sea for the trade of cotton, silk, and tea.

China: Shanghai, A City Built Under Western Domination

Qing Dynasty

The transition to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) did not hinder Shanghai's growth. On the contrary, the city continued to prosper thanks to its port, which played a crucial role in trade with China's interior regions as well as with foreign markets through maritime ports. Shanghai became a major commercial hub, attracting merchants from all over China and Southeast Asia.

The Influence of Foreign Merchants

Even before the First Opium War (1839-1842), Shanghai had already attracted the attention of European merchants, especially the British, who sought to establish trade relations with China. However, trade was strictly controlled by the Chinese imperial government, limiting foreigners to operate only in the city of Canton (Guangzhou).

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The Era of Foreign Concessions

A major turning point in Shanghai's history occurred in the 19th century. The tension between China and Western powers culminated with the First Opium War (1839-1842), resulting from commercial and diplomatic disputes, mainly around the issue of the opium trade. China's defeat led to the signing of the Treaty of Nanking (Nanjing) in 1842, marking a turning point in Shanghai's history.

This treaty was the first of what the Chinese later called the "Unequal Treaties," which imposed various concessions on China in favor of Western powers. For Shanghai, the Treaty of Nanking had several critical implications:

1. Opening to International Trade: Shanghai was designated as one of the five treaty ports to be opened to foreign trade, along with Canton (Guangzhou), Xiamen (Amoy), Fuzhou, and Ningbo. This opening forced Shanghai onto the global stage, facilitating international trade and investment.

2. Extraterritoriality: Foreign nationals in the treaty ports were granted extraterritorial rights, meaning they were subject to their home country's laws rather than Chinese laws. This provision significantly limited Chinese sovereignty over these areas.

3. Foreign Concessions: The success of the treaty port system led to the establishment of foreign concessions in Shanghai. These were districts administered by foreign powers, where Chinese law did not apply. The British, French, and Americans established the most prominent of these concessions, which operated as semi-colonial zones of influence.

China: Shanghai, A City Built Under Western Domination

© O. Robert

4. Economic Growth and Transformation: The treaty and subsequent opening of Shanghai to international trade spurred rapid economic growth. Shanghai quickly transformed from a relatively modest town into a bustling international port city. It attracted a vast array of Chinese and foreign businesses, becoming a cosmopolitan center of commerce, finance, and culture.

5. Social and Urban Changes: The city's population boomed, and Shanghai saw significant urban development, including modern infrastructure such as roads, railways, and telegraph lines. The international influence also led to a blending of Chinese and Western cultures, evident in architecture, fashion, and lifestyle.

The Treaty of Nanjing ended the first war and ceded Hong Kong to the British, while opening several Chinese ports to international trade, including Shanghai. This treaty marked the beginning of the establishment of foreign concessions in Shanghai, areas governed by foreign powers (British, French, American) where Chinese laws did not apply.

The concessions then stimulated the economic development of Shanghai, transforming it into a major financial and commercial center in Asia. This period saw the introduction of Western technologies, the emergence of a class of Chinese and foreign merchants and entrepreneurs, and the construction of modern infrastructure.

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The Golden Age of Shanghai

The Golden Age of Shanghai, spanning from the 1920s to the Japanese occupation in 1937, represents an era of unprecedented transformation and prosperity for the city. During this period, Shanghai established itself as the most cosmopolitan and vibrant metropolis in Asia, known as the "Paris of the East" or the "Pearl of the Orient."

This era was characterized by rapid economic, cultural, and social development, fueled by a unique blend of Chinese and Western influences.

Economic Development

Shanghai became a major financial and commercial center during this period. The city attracted massive foreign investments and saw the emergence of numerous industries, including textiles, manufacturing, and international trade. The Bund, with its imposing banking and commercial buildings, symbolized Shanghai's financial power. The development of trade and infrastructure also fostered the growth of a thriving real estate market and industrial zones. Read my article on The Bund.

Cultural Diversity

The Golden Age of Shanghai was also marked by cultural vibrancy. The city was a melting pot of diversity, where expatriates and immigrants, both Chinese and from other nationalities, coexisted and interacted. Shanghai was famous for its nightlife, with jazz clubs, cabarets, and cinemas attracting artists, writers, and intellectuals from around the world. This period also saw the emergence of Chinese cinema and modern Chinese literature, with Shanghai as the epicenter.

China: Shanghai, A City Built Under Western Domination

Innovations and Modernity

Shanghai rapidly modernized, incorporating new technologies and ideas. The city benefited from significant infrastructure improvements. Among these, I would mention the expansion of the electrical grid, the development of public transportation (tramways, roads), and the construction of iconic buildings blending Chinese and Western architecture. This modernization helped shape Shanghai's unique identity.

Social Dynamics

The Golden Age was also a period of sharp social contrasts. The wealth and glamour of certain districts starkly contrasted with the poverty of overcrowded residential areas. Nonetheless, this era saw the emergence of a Chinese middle class and improvements in living conditions for certain segments of the population.

Prelude to the Japanese Occupation

This golden age came to an abrupt end with the Japanese occupation of the city during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The invasion marked the beginning of a dark period for Shanghai, with profound repercussions on its social, economic, and cultural fabric.

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Troubled Times

The period from the Japanese occupation to the era of Deng Xiaoping's reforms in 1980, through the Chinese Civil War, represents a tumultuous phase in Shanghai's history. It was marked by conflicts, radical political changes, and ultimately an economic and social transformation. These upheavals led to periods of great suffering for the city and its inhabitants.

Japanese Occupation (1937-1945)

The Japanese occupation of Shanghai began in 1937, following the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, marking a turning point in the Second Sino-Japanese War. Shanghai, being a major economic center with a significant foreign presence, suffered massive destruction and brutal repression. The occupation severely disrupted the city's economic and social life, with the imposition of Japanese military control and the exploitation of resources. This period was also marked by Chinese resistance against the occupiers.

China: Shanghai, A City Built Under Western Domination

© O. Robert

Chinese Civil War (1945-1949)

The end of World War II in 1945 did not bring immediate peace to Shanghai; the city quickly found itself at the heart of the Chinese Civil War between the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This period was characterized by political instability, sporadic fighting, and a struggling economy.

In 1949, the CCP emerged victorious, establishing the People's Republic of China and ending the era of foreign concessions in Shanghai.

Maoist Era and Cultural Revolution (1949-1976)

Under the communist regime, Shanghai underwent profound upheavals. The city was subjected to a series of political and social campaigns aimed at transforming society and the economy according to Maoist principles. Industries and businesses were nationalized, and Shanghai, despite its capitalist past, became a key industrial center for the new China.

However, the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) brought a new wave of chaos, with massive persecutions of intellectuals, factional fighting, and economic slowdown. Foreign concessions were abolished, and Shanghai became a Chinese city under strict central government control.

China: Shanghai, A City Built Under Western Domination

© O. Robert

Renaissance and Modernization

With the advent of Deng Xiaoping and the introduction of economic reforms (1978-1980), Shanghai began to experience a renewal. Although the reforms were initially focused on rural areas, Deng Xiaoping's emphasis on opening up and modernization laid the groundwork for Shanghai's future transformation.

The policies of reform and opening up gradually led to the resurgence of Shanghai as a financial and commercial center, heralding its return to the forefront of the Chinese and global economy in the following decades.

The decision to develop the Pudong district in the 1990s transformed what was once farmland into an ultra-modern financial and commercial center, symbolizing China's modernization. Equipped with futuristic skyscrapers and major financial centers, Pudong has become the embodiment of the new face of modern China. Today, Shanghai is China's largest city by population, a global economic center, and a symbol of the resurgent economic power of China.

Shanghai stands out from the rest of China due to its unique history of coexistence and fusion between Chinese and Western cultures, its leading role in the country's economy and finance, and its status as the most internationalized city in China. It represents a unique blend of tradition and modernity, East and West, reflected in its architecture, culture, and diverse population.

Today, Shanghai is a global metropolis, home to more than 24 million people. In addition to being China's financial center and one of the world's busiest ports, the city is also renowned for its dynamic culture and nightlife.

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Shanghai and the Arts

Shanghai has been and continues to be the cradle and home of many famous artists across various fields of the arts, from literature to painting, and including cinema and music. Here are some famous artists from Shanghai's art scene:

Painting and Visual Arts

- Xu Beihong (1895-1953): Known for his oil paintings and ink drawings depicting horses and birds, Xu Beihong is considered one of the first modern Chinese artists to integrate Western techniques into traditional Chinese art.

- Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013): Born in Beijing but having studied at the Hangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, close to Shanghai, Zao Wou-Ki became a famous Franco-Chinese artist known for his abstract works influenced by the lyrical abstraction movement in Europe.

- Ren Bonian (1840-1896): A major figure of the Shanghai painting school in the 19th century, known for his realistic portraits and scenes of daily life.

China: Shanghai, A City Built Under Western Domination

© O. Robert


- Lu Xun (1881-1936): Although born in Zhejiang province, Lu Xun spent a significant portion of his life in Shanghai, where he wrote the majority of his most influential works. He is considered the father of modern Chinese literature.

- Eileen Chang (1920-1995): A renowned writer for her short stories and novels that explore social and personal life in Shanghai and Hong Kong before and after World War II.


- Wong Kar-wai (born 1958): Although born in Shanghai, Wong Kar-wai moved to Hong Kong during his childhood. He is one of the most influential directors of his generation, known for his visually stunning and emotionally charged films like "In the Mood for Love".

- Zhang Yimou (born 1951): Originally from Xi'an, Zhang Yimou has spent a significant part of his career in Shanghai. He is an internationally renowned filmmaker, known for his visually breathtaking works such as "Raise the Red Lantern" and "Hero".


- Ding Shande (1911-1995): A music composer, Ding Shande has significantly contributed to the development of modern Chinese classical music with works that incorporate elements of Chinese folk music.

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Shanghai and Educational Programs

Shanghai is perceived in China not only as a showcase of the country's modernization and economic development but also as a symbol of its international openness. The city enjoys a special status in school education due to its unique history, its preeminent economic role, and its cultural influence on the

rest of the country.

The history of Shanghai is taught in a way that reflects both the challenges and triumphs of China on its path to modernization and integration into the world order. It is considered a unique case study for understanding not only China's past but also its future aspirations.


Teaching Shanghai's history in Chinese schools highlights 4 key aspects:

1. The period of foreign concessions is addressed as a painful chapter in Chinese history, illustrating the effects of the unequal treaties imposed by Western powers and Japan. This period is often taught within the broader context of the "century of humiliation" suffered by China between the mid-19th century and the mid-20th century.

2. The golden age of Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s is presented both as a time of cosmopolitanism and cultural prosperity, but also as a period marked by significant social and economic inequalities.

3. The renaissance of Shanghai from the late 20th century is often highlighted as a successful example of China's policy of reform and opening up. The development of Pudong, the modernization of its infrastructure, and its role as a global financial center are emphasized as major achievements of modern China.

4. The role of Shanghai in contemporary Chinese economics is also an important point in school educational programs. It is discussed as a driver of innovation, finance, and international trade for the country. This is quite unusual for China.

China: Shanghai, A City Built Under Western Domination

The Final Word

Shanghai, with its periods of transformation and renaissance, embodies a reflection on human resilience and adaptability. The beauty of the city lies not only in its breathtaking skyline or in the eclectic architecture that blends the old and the modern but also in its ability to reinvent itself, to embrace change while cultivating its cultural difference.

This metropolis, a witness to conflicts and prosperity, domination, and independence, symbolizes the relentless quest for harmony between tradition and modernity. Shanghai illustrates how cultures can intertwine, create something new and unique, testifying to the richness that emerges from diversity.

It remains forever a fascinating subject of study for anyone interested in the evolution of civilizations and cultures.


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