Teh-Kuang CHANG

Boats on Suzhou Creek in Shanghai. The creek, also known as the Wusong River, cuts through the city and is crossed by a number of impressive bridges. PHOTO BY PAUL AND BERNICE NOLL.

China’s most populous city first rose to world prominence in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, it has been at the forefront of China’s economic and international development.

The city of Shanghai is the largest in China; of China’s four province-level municipalities (the other three are Beijing, Tianjin, and Chongqing), only Chongqing outranks Shanghai, due to its larger rural population. Shanghai is the eighth-most-populous city in the world.

As an administrative district, Shanghai is the equivalent of a province. It covers an area of 6,341 square kilometers (for comparison, Tokyo is 2,187 square kilometers and the London metropolitan area is 2,263 square kilometers.) It is located in the center of eastern China on the coast, at the mouth of China’s largest river, the Yangzi (Chang), which enters the East China Sea.

Shanghai is divided into eighteen districts and one county—Chongming Island. The city center of Shanghai is on the west bank of the Huangpu River. The inner nine districts are in the east-bank area, as is the new district of Pudong, which belonged to Chuangsha County until 1992. The outer eight are further away from the urban center.


There is evidence of human settlement in Shanghai from as early as 6,000 years ago. Historically, Shanghai was a fishing town, though from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) onward, it also was an important region for cotton manufacture and for shipping. Its ascendancy on the world stage began when the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing, which ended the First Opium War with Great Britain, designated Shanghai one of five seaports to be opened for foreign trade. The British, Americans, and French all leased land in Shanghai for their international settlements. These areas were autonomous zones that were outside the jurisdiction of Chinese law.

In 1927, Shanghai was officially established as a city of the Republic of China; it became a municipality with the status of a province in May 1930. In the lead-up to World War II, Japan invaded China; it occupied Shanghai from 1939 to 1945. In 1943, Great Britain and the United States (joined later by France) signed a treaty with the Republic of China to renounce their leased territory in Shanghai, which they returned to China at the end of the World War II. The five years from 1945 to 1949 were the only period during which Shanghai was purely under the control of the Republic of China; in 1949 that control shifted to the new People’s Republic of China.

Shanghai has special significance in China’s political development and international relations during the twentieth century. Shanghai was the place where the Chinese Communist Party was founded and where it held its First National Congress in 1921. On February 28, 1972, Shanghai was the place where the “Shanghai Communiqué” between the People’s Republic of China and the United States was signed—the outcome of President Richard Nixon’s visit to China (the first visit of an American president) and the start of normalization of relations between the United States and China.

Economic Growth

Shanghai was able to become a center of international trade and finance as a consequence of the national policy of reform and openness laid down by Deng Xiaoping, who led China after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976.

When China adopted market socialism, Pudong (East Shanghai) was declared a “special economic zone.” Economic development was encouraged in this region, which flourished. This led to Shanghai’s expanding its development of the new area of eastern Shanghai while at the same time renovating the old area of western Shanghai, divided by the Huangpu River. Six bridges across the river were built to connect the two zones, along with two tunnels under the river and a new international airport in Pudong to supplement Shanghai’s Hongqiao International Airport. In 2005, Shanghai was ranked the world’s busiest port in terms of cargo throughput. Shanghai’s port is also the largest in the world, and Donghai Bridge, which links Shanghai to the Yangshan Islands, is the longest cross-sea bridge in the world, with a total length of 32.5 kilometers.

Special Features

The Pudong district in eastern Shanghai has developed into a modern international trade center and is home to one of the tallest towers in Asia, the landmark Oriental Pearl Tower, as well as the Jin Mao tower, which is the tallest skyscraper in China.

The city center is in western Shanghai. One can find old, historical buildings, including the old headquarters of foreign trading houses, in the part of Shanghai known as the Bund, along the bank of the Huangpu River. Shanghai’s most modern architecture, including the Shanghai Museum and Shanghai Grand Theatre, are found in the Peoples’ Square.

Shanghai has more universities than any other city in China, being home to sixteen national universities, one military medical university, eleven public universities below the national level, and six private universities. The most famous, Fudan University, is a comprehensive research university. Its late president, Xie Xide, established China’s first center for America studies at Fudan University. Xie hosted President Ronald Reagan’s
speech at the university, and chaired a roundtable conference with President Bill Clinton
in Shanghai Municipal Library when they visited China.

Shanghai is not only a leading city in the economic, educational, and international arenas, it also is a cradle of national leadership. The positions of secretary and mayor of Shanghai became stepping stones to national power in the People’s Republic of China. Jiang Zemin was party secretary of Shanghai before he became the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and eventually chairman of the People’s Republic of China. Zhu Rongji was mayor of Shanghai before becoming prime minister. Xi Jinping, party secretary for Shanghai, was elected in 2008 by the Seventeenth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party and the National People’s Congress to be vice chairman of the People’s Republic of China and possible successor of Hu Jintao when his term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and chairman of the People’s Republic of China ends.

Looking Forward

Shanghai is at the forefront not only in economic development, but also sustainability initiatives. With nearly half the nation’s rural population expected to move into urban areas by 2030, sustainable cities are a high priority, and one notable initiative was planned for Dongtan, near Shanghai, although the project has run into considerable difficulties, including the 2006 arrest of its main Politburo sponsor, Chen Liangyu. The future of the project is uncertain.

Shanghai’s hosting of the 2010 World Fair (Expo 2010), with the theme “Better City, Better Life,” has prompted the city to develop four new subway lines and to implement improvements and extensions on four others. Organizers have announced that the expo will center on innovation and interaction, with participants focusing on the urban theme. China hopes to attract two hundred nations and 70 million visitors to Expo 2010.

Further Reading

Denison, E. (2006). Shanghai: The story of China’s gateway. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Academy.

Kirk, M. (Ed.). (2009). China by numbers 2009. Hong Kong: China Economic Review Publishing.

Yu Xuanmeng & He Xirong. (Eds.) (2004). Shanghai: Its urbanization and culture. Washington, DC: Council for Research in Values and Philosophy.

Source: Chang, Teh-Kuang. (2009). Shanghai. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1945–1948. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Shanghai skyline, with a view of the Pearl Tower. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN.

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