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Shanghai in the Spotlight: Shanghai's history

This guide is a part of the Global Resources Center's exhibit on Shanghai and World Expo 2010. It aims to provide both print and electronic resources on Shanghai, covering Shanghai's history, economy, social life, culture and architecture.

Shanghai's History

Shanghai began its existence as Huating County in 751 AD in the swampy area east of Suzhou in what is now Songjiang Distrtict. Shanghai Town was founded in the 991 and slowly grew into a small market town of around 12,000 by the early 12th century. The fall of the Northern Song capital of Kaifeng to Jurchen invaders in 1127 sparked the migration of numerous refugees to the area, and the population soon swelled to over 250,000.  By the end of the Southern Song in 1279, Shanghai had evolved into an important trading post, and in 1292 the area became Shanghai County. Over the next few centuries, Shanghai prospered as a center of cotton and textile production in China.

The next impetus for growth in Shanghai came from the West. Shanghai’s strategic position at the mouth of the Yangtze River made it ideal as a trading post for Western traders both as a base of regional trade and as a gateway to China’s interior. Shanghai’s importance to foreign trade and Western presence in China was furthered by the disastrous results of the Opium Wars and the subsequent unequal treaties, which severely limited Qing control over foreign powers. Occupied by British forces during the First Opium War (1839-42), Shanghai numbered among the treaty ports opened to the West by the Treaty of Nanjing (1842). At the time, opium was by far the biggest import for the West. Industrialization of cotton production in Great Britain and the United States all but destroyed the cotton industry in Shanghai, but at the same time the end of the Opium War opened the door for Western culture and influence in the area.

Another source of growth for Shanghai during the Qing came as a result of the numerous uprisings that broke out in the latter half of the nineteenth century, chief among them being the Taiping Rebellion. Furthermore, the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895, concluding the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-5), added Japan to the list of foreign powers with a presence in Shanghai. Japan built the first factories in Shanghai and other foreign powers soon followed, providing the foundation for Shanghai’s emergence as an industrial power.

Rapid growth continued in Shanghai, and by 1936 “The Paris of the East” numbered over three million inhabitants. During the chaos that followed the end of the Qing dynasty in 1912, Shanghai remained a strong and stable and its financial and industrial power increased thanks to its being controlled by merchants, a welcome alternative to the warlord-controlled regions that made up most of the country at the time. As well as being a commercial centre, Shanghai soon became an important center for the arts, culture, architecture and cinema.

Though Old Shanghai’s decadence ended with the coming of World War II, post-liberation Shanghai has prospered, transforming itself into the economic and transportation center of China. The city strives to be an economic, financial, trade and shipping center not only for China, but for the world, a goal made achievable thanks to its rapid and remarkable transformation over the past few decades.

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