A brief history of Shanghai’s future


Historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom is the author of the recently published Global Shanghai, 1850-2010. In this essay written for Danwei, he presents a brief history of Shanghai’s future, the first of a two part essay based on the themes of the book.

A Brief History of Shanghai’s Future: Part 1—

Looking Backward and Looking Forward from 1850 to 1950

by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Shanghai looks like the future!

— Paris Hilton, as quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald, November 23, 2007

The Twenty-First Century Starts Here

— Headline for a February 18, 1996, New York Times Sunday Magazine on Shanghai as a “city of the future.”

It has been an event-packed, fast-moving year since Shanghai awoke from a nightmare of oppression…a year of learning… We have learned about the future.

— Song Qingling (Madame Sun Yat-sen), “Shanghai’s New Day Has Dawned,” 1950

The Future Capital of China

— Headline accompanying an August 29, 1900, North China Herald article on Shanghai’s post-Boxer Uprising prospects

[I]t is the destiny of Shanghae to become the permanent emporium of trade between [China] and all nations of the world.

— To Our Readers, North China Herald, August 3, 1850 (inaugural issue)

This is the opening segment of a two-part look at Shanghai and the future. It looks at the way that forward-looking approaches to the city figured in its history between 1850 and 1950, which happen to be two of the seven individual years spread out at quarter-century intervals that are the subjects of chapters in my book.

The most interesting thing to say about 1850 prognostications of Shanghai’s potential for future greatness, such as that made in the North China Herald’s inaugural issue, is that they argued for the inevitability of the port surpassing Canton (Guangzhou) as a center for trade with the West.

This was certainly what happened in the end. But Shanghai had only been open to trade with the West for just under seven years when the North China Herald went into operation, whereas for over a century prior to that Guangzhou had been the only Chinese port open to European and American merchants (aside from Macao, that is, the neighboring Portuguese colony).

Guangzhou circa 1850 was still a much busier international port than was Shanghai. And some might have speculated that Guangzhou’s most important rival in the near-term would be Hong Kong (ceded completely to British rule in 1842) rather than Shanghai (in which Britons and then soon French and American traders as well had secured the right to set up small self-governing enclaves).

What 1850 predictions tell us is that the kind of bravado that shows up in so many later writings by Shanghailanders (as English speaking residents were sometimes known) was present from the start of the city’s century-long incarnation as a subdivided treaty port (1843-1943).

In the December 28 issue of 1850 (the last of the year), for example, the publisher of the North China Herald was not content to simply muse on how far the Western-run districts of Shanghai had come since the Opium War (1839-1842). He also insisted that “it needs no spirit of prophesy to enable us to see that Shanghai is rapidly leaving her sister ports behind, and will soon be the first port in China…ultimately attain[ing] such an importance compared with which its present position is as naught.”

The following decades would see many other instances in which Shanghailanders moved from noting how far the city had progressed in recent years, to stating with certainty that the best was still to come. On February 22, 1881, for example, the North China Herald ran an editorial devoted to the theme of “Municipal Progress,” which states, in language not unlike that used in recent years in Chinese government publications about Shanghai, that “every ten years” the city witnesses “improvements that would seem incredible if we could be shown them at the beginning instead of the end of the decade.” And, it continues, “if one of us could be shown a picture of Shanghai in 1921”—forty years in the future—the viewer would probably “turn away laughing at the credulity of the artist.” It is “difficult to over-rate the importance in the world that Shanghai will at no distant period assume,” the editorial also states.

Western commentators of the 1800s and the early 1900s as well had plenty to say about where Shanghai was headed and what it might become — and sometimes got things very wrong indeed (as when Sir Robert Hart predicted in 1875 that the port would lose its regional primacy soon, or when some Shanghailanders mused that their city might replace Beijing as China’s capital—two things that didn’t come to pass).

Shanghailanders did not, however, think of their city as futuristic, nor did foreign visitors. When Westerners enthused about the metropolis, it was because it offered up so many of the conveniences that were available in European and American cities of the day, despite being located in exotic China. Going to Shanghai for a visit or living there did not give Westerners a sense of traveling into the future—as some now claim spending time in the 21st century city does. If Shanghai seemed to have a time travel dimension then, it lay in its having districts that felt up-to-date (the foreign-run ones with macadamized roads and gas or later electric lighting) that were but a short walk from districts that felt like they belonged to the distant past (the oldest parts Chinese-run municipality that were imagined to be, and sometimes were, untouched by the standard accoutrements of modernity).

The situation was quite different for Chinese living outside of Shanghai who visited or simply read about the treaty port. To them, the most exotic thing about the city was likely to be precisely the things that Western tourists viewed as surprisingly familiar. Gas lamps, for example, which inspired a limerick (printed in an 1872 issue of the city’s leading Chinese language newspaper, Shen Pao, a periodical that has been the subject of important recent studies by Rudolf Wagner and Barbara Mittler) that referred to “[r]unning fires beyond the skill of man,” and contraptions such as bicycles and telephones (two things that began showing up in Shanghai around 1900). To step into the foreign-run districts of Shanghai, for at least those Chinese who had never before ridden in an elevator or seen a tram, could seem a venture into the future—a move into a place that was located in China but a step ahead of every other city in the country.

Song Qingling had something very different in mind, though, when she alluded to the “future” in “Shanghai’s New Day Has Dawned,” a speech that was given to mark the first anniversary of the Communist Party’s May 1949 take-over of the city and was published in many periodicals, including the first issue of The Shanghai News, a Communist Party-run English language daily founded almost a century to the day after the British-run North China Herald.

When Song, who was given an honorific position within the Communist Party’s governing structure, said that local residents had “learned about the future” in the preceding months, she did not mean that they had been exposed to foreign objects with marvelous capabilities. Rather, they had begun to familiarize themselves with a “New Shanghai” that would be unlike the old one. Just how it would be different was not yet clear; as I argue in Global Shanghai there was an in-between, indeterminate quality to 1950 that is sometimes overlooked due to the power of our images of the heyday of Maoist rule (ca. 1956-1976). But it was sure to be a city unified where the treaty port had been divided and one whose modernity was tied to socialism rather than capitalism.

The inaugural issue of the Shanghai News, in addition to running Song’s speech, carried a “To Our Readers” feature that hinted at some interesting continuities and discontinuities with the past relating to thinking about the future. On the side of continuity, the new newspaper, using words that could have come straight from the old North China Herald, said that its goal was to report faithfully on a city that had just changed enormously and was destined to “continue to advance in an accelerating tempo.”

On the side of discontinuity, whereas the newspaper founded in 1850 always treated the metropolis as moving to its own rhythm, the one founded a century later insisted that the “new Shanghai and the new China as a whole” would be venturing forward together into a shared national future.

This entry was posted in China Books, Shanghai and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.