Shanghai: China’s Global City and
Symbol of Economic Prowess

Shanghai in China symbolizes the growing economic prowess of the country and its global ambitions. A Cosmopolitan city, the history of Shanghai, China’s largest city, traversed a long way through the last 1,000 years to reach its present embodiment.

Belonging to the class of modern cities that boomed with China pursuing maritime and economic ambitions, it stands witness to China’s cultural aspiration and rise as a global powerhouse. Its history stands akin to China’s growth from a closed society to a vibrant national assertive of its dominant cultural ethos and distinct national orientation.

History of Shanghai: China’s March From Obscurity to World Stage

Early History

Shanghai, China’s economic capital, was obscured during its ancient times when Xi’an, Nanjing and Beijing. The earliest records mentioning the city as a small fishing village on the mouth of Suzhou Creek dates back to the 4th century AD. The Tang records of around 751 AD called the place Huating.  The present city of Shanghai was officially founded in 1074 as the fishing village was accorded small town status by the Song rulers. The city grew more than twenty-fold in 1127 due to inflow of large number of refugees following subjugation of Song capital Kaifeng to Jurchen invaders. In 1172, a new sea wall was built along the coast to protect the existing dyke.

Growth and Ming Restrictions

Shanghai China

The 12th and 13th centuries saw rising of Shanghai as China’s most important center for cotton trade. Its prosperity was mainly due to large-scale cotton in production nearby areas and processing and manufacturing industries in the city. Growth of merchant class and buoyed business led to construction of canals and rapid real estate development. It also evolved into a major sea port under the Southern Song dynasty.

The later Ming period saw decline of Shanghai as China’s economic center largely due to stringent trade restrictions as measure against Wokou or Japanese pirates off the coast. The restrictions were placed in 1380 after Japanese pirates aided revolt of Hu Weiyong and Liu Xian and Chinese were forbidden from going overseas. The central government evacuated the inhabitants of Shanghai to interiors after pirated invaded the city and killed hundreds of merchants in 1419. Many people returned to the city after a protective wall was constructed in 1554.

Shanghai During The Qing Dynasty

The revival of the old glory began with the ascendancy of Qing Dynasty in 17th century. Emperor Kangxi revoked all restrictions in 1684 and set up custom offices in Shanghai. By mid-18th century the city economy overtook Suzhou, the commercial center of China at that time. In 1800s, Shanghai became the largest city and the most important trading center for cotton, silk and fertilizers in China. Traders from Europe, Polynesia, Africa, and Persia visited the port frequently leading to the emergence of Shanghai as China’s foremost center of cosmopolitan culture.

Shanghai Until 1861 Battle

During the 19th century, international attention remained focused on growth of Shanghai as China’s most important port with huge economic potential. The English established their trade center and carried on tea and opium business with impunity. When the First Opium War began in 1839, their forces occupied the city. The emperor relinquished his exclusive control through the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 and Shanghai was one of the five ports where the British were allowed to trade without restrictions.

Growing foreign influence and distance from the central capital led to slackening of Qing control over Shanghai and surrounding regions. Traders’ guilds and neutral associations came together to rule the city. The treaties of 1843 and 1844 signed by the English allowed Americans and other Europeans visitation and trade concessions. Shanghai became the center of the Self-Strengthening Movement which favored adoption of western practices.

The local settlements in the city witnessed devastation during the Taiping Rebellion of 1850 led by the Small Swords Society. This provided the foreigners the opportune moment to establish their grip on the city as natives fled to interiors. A combine British and French army inflicted severe defeat on Taiping forces in the Battle of Shanghai in 1861 and increased their areas of influence.

The first foreign hotel was inaugurated in Shanghai in 1846 and the municipal council was constituted in 1854. A distinct class of foreign settlers called Shanghailanders emerged.

Japanese Occupation of Shanghai

Treaty of Shimonoseki concluded in 1895 permitted Japanese trading in Sanghai, China’s economic capital. When the Republic of China was established under Sun Yat Sen on December 29, 2011, Shanghai became the center of experiments aimed at ushering modern era in China. Many changes were made in the city governance, transport and legal systems. The city accounted for almost half of China’s foreign trade at that time. In 1921, the Communist Party was founded at Shanghai. In January 1932, Japanese army bombarded the city and five years later occupied it during the World War II.

The Modern Era of Sanghai

The Japanese occupation ended in 1945 and the Nationalists swept the city. The Communists overtake Shanghai, China’s largest city, in May 1949 forcing foreign companies to relocate to Hong Kong. The economic reforms encompassed Shanghai in 1991 leading to its resurgence as China’s economic capital. The city saw massive development and an era of new glory that overshadowed all other Chinese cities.

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