Shanghai’s unique historical position as a primary meeting point between East and West coupled with its continued growth, both cultural and economic, throughout the “long twentieth century” transformed Shanghai into a unique metropolis whose culture is distinctly different other Chinese cultural spheres. The merging of tradition with modernity succeeded here in a way that was long unsuccessful elsewhere in China, and in the wake of the fading Qing dynasty, Shanghai emerged as the “Paris of the East.”
It should be noted that Shanghai’s cultural development is more than just an example of China’s interaction with the West. Shanghai already belonged to a region culturally unique in its own right, given its close proximity to Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, which are home to such cities as Suzhou, Yangzhou, Nanjing, Ningbo and Hangzhou. Part of the ancient state of Wu, the south-east coastal region already possessed a unique cultural identity long before the construction of the Grand Canal connected it with China’s heartland.
The devastating results of the Opium Wars and Shanghai’s new status as a treaty port brought an influx of Western trade and influence. Despite the existence of other treaty ports and contact points between China and the West throughout China, Shanghai’s strategic position at the mouth of the Yangzi separated it from the rest. During the tumultuous late nineteenth century, Shanghai managed to thrive, owing in part to its ability to supply grain to war-torn regions during the Taiping Rebellion. This economic growth coupled with the trade and influence brought by Westerners who came to Shanghai made it an ideal location to early modernization in China. Shanghai was the first Chinese city to see such things as newspapers, sewer and rail systems, telephones, department stores, cinemas, automobiles, civic associations and more.
Though a strong Western presence is undeniable, Shanghai was never a colonial territory, and its culture was never eclipsed by the influences of the West. Rather the distinctly Chinese, the distinctly Western and various amalgamations of the two existed alongside each other. Shanghai was the birthplace of Chinese cinema, served as a battleground for socialist/realist writers and the “bourgeois”-oriented writers, and was an early adopter of Western fashion. Yet the traditional culture flourished all the same. Those things characteristically Shanghai have come to be known as haipai wenhua, 海派文化 denoting that very same mixture of traditional Jiangsu-Zhejiang-Shanghai culture with Western culture. During the late Qing and throughout the twentieth century, Shanghai was a very important center for traditional Chinese painting, theater and literature.
Perhaps this early brush with modernity and Shanghai’s position at the cutting edge among Chinese cities has led to the sophisticated, cosmopolitan lifestyle led by its residents. Shanghainese take pride in their modern lifestyle, and commercialization flourishes where it would be frowned upon in other parts of the country. Shanghai people have a reputation for being hard-working, intelligent and competitive, and the city attracts a constant stream of new residents lured by the enormous possibilities Shanghai offers. Even with all the rush for progress, there will always be uniquely Shanghai customs that never die. For example, in preparation for the World Expo, authorities cracked down on the popular custom of wearing pajamas in public, similar to the shirtless ban for the Beijing Olympics. Nevertheless, cosmopolitan Shanghai stands as a shining example of China’s potential.