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As one of the youngest of China’s large cities, Shanghai is not blessed with all the antiquities and dynastic destinations of Beijing or Xian. But what Shanghai lacks in historical span it more than makes up for in historical intensity. Declared one of five “treaty ports” opened to foreign occupation in 1842 under the terms of the Treaty of Nanking, which settled the first Opium War, Shanghai quickly rose to the prominent position as China’s most prosperous ?and in many ways most important ?metropolis. Throughout the tumultuous decades of the 1920s and 30s, almost every significant event happened in or in some relation to Shanghai.

The town of Shanghai was first founded in the 11th century as a small fishing village near the mouth of the Yangtze River, and so it remained for centuries. The oldest parts of Shanghai are in what are now its suburbs, such as Songjiang and Jiading Districts. By the 17th century it had grown to a port of medium size and importance, receiving trade from the rest of Asia. It also developed a significant cotton industry –one of China’s largest in the 18th century. The debate rages over Shanghai’s origins and pre-colonial importance, but it is generally agreed that the Shanghai the world came to know began with the arrival of the foreigners and their settlements.

Along with the original walled city, Shanghai grew up along the boundary lines of the British and American International Settlement and the French Concession. These areas were ruled entirely by foreigners who enjoyed “extraterritoriality” ?freedom from prosecution under Chinese law. Despite the indignity of its semi-colonial status, Shanghai grew rich from foreign investment. The city became a diverse cultural pastiche of both Chinese and international influences, a legacy that remains today in both the colorful cacophony of the architecture and the openness of the population.

In the mid-1850s, the city was briefly overrun by the Small Swords Society. This secret society was affiliated with the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, a quasi-Christian sect that rose up against the Qing Dynasty in 1851. Otherwise, the foreigners were for decades unfettered in their dominance of the city, unaware of or indifferent to the opposition to this foreign domination of a piece of Chinese soil that was seething around them.

In 1911, Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary Nationalist movement succeeded ?almost accidentally ?in overthrowing the Qing Dynasty. Sun aimed to end the foreign dominance of China, even though his Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang, relied largely on funds gathered from Shanghai’s compradores, shrewd Chinese business men who made their fortunes working at foreign companies before proceeding to launch their own companies and make even larger fortunes.

Sun Yat-sen’s revolution ran into unexpected difficulties when the new Chinese Republic was usurped by Yuan Shikai, a militarist who declared himself Emperor in 1916 before conveniently dying. China then descended into a chaotic congeries of feuding warlord satrapies. In Shanghai, relative freedom and the influx of foreign literature and technology, combined with a turbulent social and political situation, resulted in an intellectual and artistic flowering such as China has rarely seen before or since.

Literary magazines sprung up like toadstools after the rain, and the very first Western-style spoken plays in Chinese were written and performed. The Shanghai film industry emerged as second in the world only to Hollywood, producing countless classic films up into the 1950s. Many of these films, with their subtle but scathing criticisms of the social and political order, are surprisingly sophisticated even when viewed today. China’s first popular music, tied closely with the film world, also appeared in Shanghai starting during the Warlord Era.

Political changes were meanwhile afoot, including the establishment of the Chinese Government Party, which held its first National Congress in secret in a house in the French Concession in 1921. In 1927, the Nationalists ?under the leadership of General Chiang Kai-shek ?joined forces with the Communists to take over the city as part of a larger effort to reunify China.

The Communists and the left-leaning Wuhan-based branch of the Kuomintang were in for a harsh surprise in April, when Chiang Kai-shek called on his extensive underworld connections to move against the leftists that had helped his first campaign succeed. The crackdown became immortalized as the “White Terror,” and it was the first of the three times that Shanghai’s streets would literally flow with blood.

The second time came in 1932. Shortly after the Mukden Incident and Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, the Empire of the Rising Sun turned its gaze on the Paris of the East. After a dubious “incident” involving the deaths of a few Japanese citizens, Japanese prepared to invade Shanghai’s northern Zhabei District, where most Chinese-owned industry was based. They were countered by the Nineteenth Route Army, a rag-tag group who, despite a lack of supplies, funds, and support from their superiors, put up a valiant if ill-fated resistance before being ordered to retreat by the Nationalist Government in Nanjing. During the fighting, most of Zhabei was razed to the ground, and bridges over the Suzhou Creek were flooded with Chinese refugees seeking relative safety in the neutrality of the foreign settlements.

On the heels of the Marco Polo Bridge episode and the outbreak of formal war between China and Japan, the Japanese returned in 1937 to invade what remained of the Chinese sections of Shanghai. Once again, the Garden Bridge was crammed with fleeing Chinese, with infants, elderly, and furniture balanced precariously in wobbly wheelbarrows. A Japanese cruiser, the Idzumo, was stationed in the Huangpu, and on 14 August, the infamous “Black Saturday,” Chinese planes attempted to sink it. Sink it they did not, as one plane missed its mark by a few hundred meters, bombing instead the busy intersection of Nanjing Dong Lu by the Bund. Another plane, damaged, attempted to unload its explosive cargo harmlessly onto the race track, but instead ended up bombing Xizang Lu by what is now Yanan Lu, outside the Great World Amusement Center where hundreds of refugees had gathered to receive relief supplies. One observer morbidly recalled how a perfectly manicured, bejeweled lady’s hand, neatly severed at the wrist, flew up and smacked him in the face.

The Japanese took control of the city, nominally run by the underlings of radical-turned-puppet Wang Jingwei. A battle of imprisonment, torture, and assassination was waged in Shanghai between the collaborators and agents of the Chinese Government in Chongqing. After Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, even the French Concession and International Settlement were no longer sacred: both fell under Japanese control, and “aliens of enemy nationality” were soon resettled into squalid camps on the outskirts of town. Those with the misfortune of being prominent or well connected were imprisoned and tortured in the Bridge House prison on charges of espionage and opposition to the Japanese Empire. At the war’s end in 1945, Shanghai returned to its semi-normal state of grim gaiety, which lasted until the Government victory in 1949.

The old pre-Government Shanghai was really several worlds, flanked on one extreme by the glitter and wealth of the upper crust, and by grinding poverty on the other. Sumptuous mansions, still standing, and legends of decadently luxurious parties enjoyed by Shanghailanders attest to the excessive wealth that Shanghai is remembered for. At the other extreme, life and labor were cheap: 20,000 bodies, dead from cold and hunger, were collected from International Settlement Streets in 1937, and in textile mills, children worked chained to their machines. Science fiction writer J.G. Ballard, who grew up in Shanghai, recalled how the opening night of the film The Hunchback of Notre Dame, was accompanied by hundreds of hunchbacks milling outside the cinema, employed by the film’s promoters to add atmosphere.

There were characters such as Du Yuesheng, leader of the notorious Green Gang, who made millions out of opium, gambling, prostitution and extortion, all while hobnobbing with Nationalist leaders and the police chief of the French Concession. There was a small but significant Chinese bourgeoisie, and an equally significant intelligentsia. There were the ordinary people, comfortable and sophisticated compared to other Chinese, but still struggling to survive. And then there was the desperate underclass, primarily immigrants from the north of Jiangsu Province. Despised by the rest of the population, they eked out a living as beggars, as coolie laborers, and as the lowest, cheapest women on the complex hierarchical scale of prostitution in Shanghai.

With the Government victory in 1949, the city was transformed. Opium dens were closed and the addicts weaned from their habit; the prostitutes were given medical treatment and taught new trades. The worst of the slums were slowly cleared away. During the Korean War early 1950s, many of Shanghai’s factories were moved to the interior to protect them from the possibility of attack. The foreigners left and the factories and businesses were gradually nationalized.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Shanghai was the power base of the Gang of Four, who promoted the ideological excess and chaos sweeping the country while attacking more pragmatic leaders such as Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. This phase ended with Mao’s death in 1976, the arrest of the Gang of Four radicals soon after, and the return to power of Deng Xiaoping in 1978. Deng’s policy of gaige kaifang, opening China to the rest of the world and reforming the economy, was launched the same year.

Shanghai at first was little affected by the new open-door policy. The steady output of the city’s key industries funded the experimental reforms of Special Economic Zones like Guangdong’s Shenzhen. China-curious foreigners increasingly appeared in Beijing, but Shanghai was for the most part neglected. Then, in the early 1990s, Deng Xiaoping paid Shanghai a visit and decided the time was ripe for the city to regain its position as the “dragon’s head” of the Chinese economy. Pudong ?”East of the Huangpu” ?was established as a financial center created out of farmland, and Shanghai’s economy expanded at more than 20 percent per annum.

The city was massively transformed, with vast tracts of the worker tenement housing from the 1920s and 1930s were bulldozed, to be replaced by office buildings while the former residents were shifted to new housing estates on the edge of the city. The building boom resulted in a glut, accompanied by a downturn in the unsustainable rates of growth, and regrets over historic neighborhoods and monuments destroyed in the rush began to be heard. Now, while preservationists still have plenty to moan about, it looks like Shanghai will manage to retain much of its past and its unique character.

In the last decade, Shanghai has done a remarkable job of catching up with Beijing and Guangzhou, and China’s impending entry to the World Trade Organization promises to give the city the push it needs to take the lead. Shanghai’s economy and standard of living make it the envy of most of the rest of China.

The Shanghai Museum is unquestionably the best in Greater China, and the city’s infrastructure has been planned and built with a coordination that should make Beijing ashamed. Shanghai remains a beautiful city, and its beauty can best be appreciated by walking along the Bund or down the streets behind it, through the tree-lined lanes of the old French Concession, or through the tourist-free parts of the cramped old Chinese city. Shanghai is a city looking towards the future, but strengthened by its very rich past.

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