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  • Writer's pictureOlivier

China: The Bund in Shanghai, History and Uniqueness of a Place

Updated: Mar 8

Located on the west banks of the Huangpu River, the Bund is one of the most recognizable icons of Shanghai. The origins of the Bund date back to the 19th century when Shanghai was a small fishing village. With the arrival of British settlers after the First Opium War in 1842, the area began to transform into a significant trading colony.

China: The Bund in Shanghai, History and Uniqueness of a Place

The name "Bund" is derived from the Hindi word "band," meaning a dam or embankment. The Bund is unique not only for its stunning architecture but also for what it represents: a living testament to Shanghai's complex history.

It embodies a blend of the old and the new, the East and the West. Each building tells a story, each stone evokes a past. Whether it's the silent sunrise over modern skyscrapers or the twilight casting a soft light on ancient façades, the Bund offers a dynamic tableau that is both timeless and constantly evolving.

The Bund is more than just a tourist attraction; it's the beating heart of a city that never sleeps, a place where ancient tradition and modernity coexist in perfect harmony. But what story does it tell?

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Fascinated by the city of Shanghai and its history, I have spent years delving into what built this intriguing city, located at the crossroads of worlds. To always photograph with a good knowledge of the places, here are some information (that I hope are useful) about this place cherished by photographers from around the world.

Brief History of the Bund

Colonial Period and Architecture

Shanghai's colonial period mainly spanned from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. This era began after the First Opium War, when the Treaty of Nanking was signed in 1842. During this period, the Bund became a major financial center in Asia, hosting banks, trading firms, and consulates.

What particularly distinguishes the Bund are the historic buildings that line the promenade. These architectural structures are a fascinating fusion of neoclassical, baroque, and Art Deco styles, reflecting the influence and ambition of the colonial powers of the time.

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The Golden Age and Troubled Times

Between the 1920s and 1930s, the Bund experienced its golden age. It was the era of the "Paris of the East," where Shanghai boasted a lively nightlife, a cosmopolitan culture, and a flourishing economy. However, this prosperous period was followed by troubled times during World War II and the communist era. At that time, many of these iconic buildings were requisitioned for other uses.

Renaissance and Modernity

With China's economic opening in the 1990s, the Bund regained its prestige. Considerable efforts were made to restore and preserve the historic buildings. Today, the promenade is a popular meeting place for tourists and locals, offering a spectacular view of the urban landscape of Pudong, Shanghai's modern financial district, located across the river.


The Bund and Chinese Photography

The Bund in Shanghai, with its iconic panorama and mix of architectural styles, maintains a deep and symbolic connection with Chinese photography over time. This place, more than just a visual subject, serves as a witness to the historical and cultural evolution of China and, by extension, to the evolution of photography itself in the country.

Several famous Chinese photographers have immortalized the Bund in their works. Examples include Chen Man, Wang Wusheng, Lu Guang, Zhang Kechun, and Fan Ho.

In the early days of photography in China, the Bund, with its majestic buildings and status as an international financial center, represented modernity and Western influence. The photographs of that era capture the collision and fusion of cultures, symbolizing China's opening to the outside world.

During the Cultural Revolution and the following decades, the Bund, while remaining a powerful symbol of Shanghai, saw its image and significance evolve. Chinese photographers captured the political and social changes, reflecting in their works the complexity of a city and a nation in transition.

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In the modern era, the Bund has become a symbol of China's renaissance and economic power. Contemporary photographers, both Chinese and international, are drawn to the striking contrast between the old and the new. For decades, they have captured the reflections of Pudong's skyscrapers in the waters of the Huangpu, juxtaposed against the historic buildings of the Bund.

Finally, the Bund, in its constant evolution, is a place where each image writes a page of its history. They all embody the duality between tradition and modernity and are a testimony to the incessant evolution of Chinese society.

Photographic Interest of the Bund Today

The Bund is more than just a tourist attraction in Shanghai; it is an exceptionally rich and diverse photographic subject, offering an almost infinite array of creative possibilities.

A Palette of Contrasts

For a photographer, the Bund is an ideal playground to explore contrasts. On one side, there are the historic buildings, ornate and complex, and on the other, the streamlined modernity of Pudong's skyscrapers. This mix of the old and the new offers a rich palette of subjects to capture, each element contrasting with the other in terms of texture, shape, and light.

Light and Atmosphere

The Bund is also renowned for its particular atmosphere. Whether it's the morning sun softening the ancient facades or the twilight plunging the city into a golden light, the opportunities for natural light photography are endless. At night, the landscape changes completely with the illuminations of the buildings and the reflections on the Huangpu River, creating an almost surreal setting.

China: The Bund in Shanghai, History and Uniqueness of a Place

© O. Robert

Architectural Details

The various architectural styles around the Bund make it an excellent subject for more detailed photography. The neoclassical, baroque, and Art Deco elements lend themselves particularly well to a minimalist approach, where every detail counts. The richness of these elements allows for the creation of intriguing compositions, focused on repetitive patterns, symmetries, or interesting textures.

A Mirror of Society

Beyond architecture and landscape, the Bund is a living place. It is always animated by a crowd of passersby, street vendors, and street musicians. This human diversity adds another layer of complexity and interest to the place, allowing for the capture of spontaneous moments that reflect the diversity of Shanghai.

Timelessness and Emotion

What makes the Bund particularly interesting is its timeless character. Despite the rapid changes that define Shanghai, the Bund remains a place rooted in the past while looking towards the future. This timeless quality is a valuable asset for any photographer seeking to capture images that transcend time and space, images that evoke a universal emotion.

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The Final Word

Shanghai, a city that has passed through tumultuous times, embodies a lesson in resilience and transformation. Its history, marked by colonization, conflicts, economic growth, and cultural revolutions, reflects an unceasing quest for identity and progress.

The skyscrapers standing proudly alongside the colonial buildings of the Bund are silent witnesses to a complex past, while also looking towards a promising future. The Bund reminds us that cities are not static, but are constantly evolving entities, shaped by historical events and human will.

China: The Bund in Shanghai, History and Uniqueness of a Place

© O. Robert



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