The Fishing Village That Wasn’t and Other Myths About China’s Largest City

The Fishing Village That Wasn’t and Other Myths About China’s Largest City

On the evening of Nov. 8, 1843, Sir George Balfour arrived in Shanghai aboard the HMS Medusa, tasked with negotiating the city’s opening to foreign trade and settlement. Six days later, on Nov. 14, the Circuit Intendant of Shanghai County, known as the daotai, posted an official notice declaring the city would fully open to foreign traders for the first time in its history.

This announcement marked the beginning of Shanghai’s life as a “treaty port,” one of five forcefully opened to the outside world after China’s 1842 defeat in the Opium War. Almost immediately, foreign goods and investment poured into the city as traders took advantage of its convenient location at the mouth of the Yangtze River. Warehouses were established, docks were constructed, new foreign-administered concessions were delineated, and banks were established to fund it all.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the significance of this moment in Shanghai’s history, the city’s opening has attained almost mythic status — sometimes literally. A number of widespread misconceptions have sprung up about the city’s opening, from the idea that pre-opening Shanghai was little more than a fishing village to the belief that Shanghai was simply another Western colony.

That’s where Li Tiangang comes in. A scholar of philosophy at Fudan University, he’s made it his mission to debunk as many of these myths as possible. An expert on the history of Chinese thought, Sino-Western cultural exchange, and Chinese Christian history, Li wants to reclaim what he sees as the city’s true legacy: not colonial outpost, but a forerunner of what he calls “Shanghainese globalism.”

In Li’s view, the modern history of Shanghai is far too complex to be encapsulated by terms like “semi-colonial.” Although foreigners did enjoy special privileges in certain parts of the city, such as the International Settlement and the French Concession, they did not dominate its life in the same way they did Hong Kong, for example. Instead, modern Shanghai was created by an interplay between its Chinese and expatriate residents — not just Westerners, but immigrants from all backgrounds hailing from every corner of the world.

Last month, in advance of the 180th anniversary of Shanghai’s opening, Sixth Tone interviewed Li about the city’s early history; the sometimes collaborative, sometimes contentious relationship between advocates for Chinese political participation and the concession authorities; and how that relationship birthed a golden generation of “New Shanghainese.” The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Sixth Tone: There’s a widespread belief in China and around the world that Shanghai’s “opening” as a treaty port transformed it from an inconspicuous town into a modern metropolis. You’ve worked hard to dispel that myth. What are the major problems with that narrative?

Li Tiangang: For years, I’ve been striving to rectify this belief that Shanghai used to be a small fishing village. Shanghai has been a city for 730 years. In Chinese historical documents, the “county,” or xian, was regarded as the basic urban unit. The establishment of a “county” can thus be seen as the beginning of a city’s history.

Shanghai was separated from Huating County in Songjiang Prefecture and established as Shanghai County as early as 1292. Although the area was ill-suited to rice cultivation, its residents ingeniously utilized the land at their disposal. By the early Ming dynasty (1368-1644), they had developed salt and cotton textile industries, laying the groundwork for a thriving economy based on the “rice-cloth trade.” Various counties in Songjiang Prefecture, including Shanghai, produced large quantities of cotton fabrics, which they would trade for rice to supplement their food supplies. A number of market towns emerged in Shanghai County as hubs for this trade.

Later, during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (1735-1796), Shanghai benefitted from a shift in China’s domestic transportation networks. As the Grand Canal, which linked the Yangtze Delta with the capital in Beijing, filled with silt, the Qianlong Emperor decided to replace it with maritime shipping. Ports like Shanghai and Taicang were chosen to transport goods from the delta region to the capital, transforming Shanghai’s port into a pivotal link between northern and southern China.

In other words, even before the city was declared a treaty port in 1843, Shanghai had already established itself as an important economic center and maritime port. The treaty port era simply integrated Shanghai into global trade networks.

Sixth Tone: Shanghai’s opening as a quasi-colonial treaty port still brought some substantive changes to the city, though?

Li: Certainly. But before delving deeper into this point, we first need to clarify something. It’s essential to note that Shanghai’s International Settlement and the French Concession were not “colonies.” Settlements, concessions, and colonies have distinct legal definitions. A settlement implies a zone primarily inhabited by residents. A concession denotes an area that has been ceded without the ceding party losing its sovereignty. Only a colony involves the cession of sovereignty. Hong Kong, which was managed by a British governor on behalf of the British crown, was a colony; Shanghai’s concessions were governed autonomously, but they were not colonies.

It’s also crucial to note that even after the city was opened as a treaty port, the majority of Shanghai’s population was Chinese. Historical data indicates that by 1853, the population within the “Chinese areas” of Shanghai had reached 544,413, while the number of foreign residents in the concessions was just 500. Moreover, initial attempts to strictly segregate Chinese and foreigners into separate residential areas were quickly overturned.

Sixth Tone: Why? What happened?

Li: In 1853, Shanghai-based merchants from the southern Chinese provinces of Fujian and Guangdong staged an uprising against the Qing. Operating as the “Small Sword Society,” they seized control of the old city.

This uprising marked the beginning of a period of intense social instability and migration in the region. Soon after, the massive Taiping Rebellion swept across the Yangtze Delta. Large numbers of Chinese refugees soon flooded — unlawfully — into the International Settlement and the French Concession, which were relatively safe from both the Taiping and Qing armies. As one American expatriate put it, “Shanghai’s concession, as a white community, only existed for a little over ten years.”

Sixth Tone: Nevertheless, non-Chinese were still granted “extraterritoriality” within the concessions, exempting them from local jurisdiction, right?

Li: Ah, that’s an interesting point. On the one hand, you’re correct; foreigners within the concessions did indeed possess extraterritorial rights granted to them by the Chinese government, and non-Chinese controlled the concession’s administration. For example, the Shanghai Municipal Council (SMC), which governed the International Settlement, had no Chinese representatives on its board, despite the fact that Chinese contributed the majority of the taxes that funded it.

However, the Chinese government — both during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) and Republic of China period (1912-1949) — never relinquished or lost sovereignty over the concessions.

Beyond the expatriate community and the Chinese government, there is another significant force that shaped life in Shanghai during this period: the Chinese residents living within the concessions. Seizing on the Western principle of “no taxation without representation,” the Chinese populace argued that their prolonged exclusion from Shanghai’s “autonomous” governance was unreasonable; after all, they constituted the bulk of taxpayers within the concessions. They wanted equal rights and greater representation in the Municipal Council.

Sixth Tone: How did this fight unfold?

Li: Starting in the 1870s, Chinese began agitating for greater political participation within the Shanghai concessions. Later, after the Qing relaxed its regulations on civic associations, new organizations, including chambers of commerce, hometown associations, and trade and student unions emerged. Gradually, Shanghai’s urban middle class — comprising large, medium, and small traders, clerks, workers, students, teachers, and self-employed individuals — organized themselves, establishing increasingly comprehensive autonomous structures.

By 1920, Chinese residents accounted for nearly 70% of taxes collected by the Shanghai Municipal Council. After a period of negotiation, the SMC agreed to establish a “Chinese Ratepayers Association” and to accept the appointment of five “Chinese advisors,” recommended by the CTA.

Perhaps the most interesting moment in this period was the “May Thirtieth Movement” of 1925 — a particularly fascinating example of confrontation between the concessions’ Chinese and non-Chinese residents.

Sixth Tone: That’s something almost all Chinese learn about in school, but maybe non-Chinese are less familiar with. What was it, and why did it matter?

Li: Contemporary histories often present the May Thirtieth Movement as a Chinese, anti-imperialist revolution primarily led by the working class. But this narrative overlooks the movement’s internal historical context and the growing demands for Chinese political participation in Shanghai’s governance.

On May 15, 1925, workers at a Japanese-owned textile factory outside the concessions went on strike. When Japanese security forces killed one of the workers, Gu Zhenghong, it sparked prolonged protests, initially targeting Japanese acts of aggression. After the British expatriate-led SMC brutally suppressed the movement, however, the protestors turned their focus to the entire concession system. On May 30, 1925, during a demonstration by students and citizens in front of the old Nanking Road Police Station, protestors shouted the slogan: “Shanghai belongs to the people of Shanghai.” At that time, it was this slogan, not the better-remembered “Down with imperialism,” that resonated most deeply within the hearts of Shanghai residents.

Sixth Tone: So, the concession authorities caved?

Li: The “May Thirtieth Incident” shocked the international community. Mainstream media worldwide, including The Times and The New York Times, reported on the issue of “extraterritoriality” in Shanghai’s concessions. International opinion largely sympathized with the Chinese, in part due to the belief that China was no longer despotic. The Republic of China had stood on the side of civilization during the First World War, and so it should be treated more equitably. As far as many international commentators were concerned, as long as the government ceased discriminating against foreigners — and the Chinese people themselves were willing to become members of the international community — there was no longer any need for extraterritorial rights.

Soon after, this system was abolished. Starting from Jan. 1, 1927, the concessions’ “Mixed Court”-based justice system was eliminated. In 1928, the Municipal Council added three Chinese members.

Sixth Tone: How did this impact the status of the concessions’ Chinese residents?

Li: Following the “May Thirtieth Movement,” Shanghai evolved into a modern city, one dominated by its Chinese residents even as it remained locally autonomous and integrated the interests and cultures of Western expatriates.

The movement sparked a spirit of political self-determination among the city’s Chinese citizens and shaped a new generation of residents. It was this generation of “New Shanghainese” that propelled Shanghai’s development in the 1930s. During that era, both Shanghai’s internal and external trade, as well as its heavy and light industries, developed rapidly, making it one of the most attractive metropolises in the Far East.

These New Shanghainese were open-minded, well-educated, often bilingual, confident, and possessed of a strong sense of autonomy. And they were not exclusively Chinese. At that time, Shanghai was home to immigrants from all over the world. The diversity of nationalities among the expatriate residents might have surpassed that of London or Paris. For instance, the Jewish real estate magnate Victor Sassoon regarded himself as a Shanghainese. Similarly, the British tycoon Henry Lester chose to be buried in Shanghai, and he bequeathed a substantial fortune to develop education and health care in the city.

All this gave rise to an independent local consciousness and identity. Importantly, this cultural fusion was bidirectional: On one side, the city’s Chinese residents embraced the modern ideas introduced by Western expatriates, while on the other side, the city’s expatriates accepted and acknowledged the lifestyles of their local counterparts. The distinctive Shanghai culture that took shape in this period, sometimes known as haipai, embraced elements of the West, without being purely Western; it originated from China, yet was not strictly Chinese. “Shanghainese” referred not only to those living in or from Shanghai but also a new way of life and sense of identity.

Visuals: Ding Yining and Huang Wei.

(Header image: A view of the Bund looking north from the Shanghai Club, 1887. The photo was taken by Edward Bangs Drew, commissioner of customs in the Chinese Maritime Customs Service. Virtual Shanghai)

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