Saturday, May 9, 2009

Book Review: Global Shanghai, 1850-2010

Global Shanghai, 1850-2010
by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

BlogCritics, book review by Xujun Eberlein, published: May 08, 2009

Shanghai is not just a city; it is a breathing creature with multiple spirits – depending on who's talking about it. Under the classy pen of Wang Anyi, one of the foremost novelists in contemporary China, Shanghai with its mundane gossipy longtang ("an immerse blanket of darkness") possesses the soft Yin of a refined female. In the Chinese textbooks I grew up reading, on the other hand, Shanghai appears to have the vigorous Yang of a revolutionary male, charging valiantly at the frontline against imperialism and feudalism. As if those images are not contrast enough, now Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of history and China specialist, describes another Shanghai through Westerners' eyes in his informative and thought-provoking new book, Global Shanghai, 1850-2010.

Unusual for a historical discourse, the book takes the structure of a photo album, collecting snapshots every quarter century over a period of 160 years. Such a structure has the benefit of tracing a clear, though rough, contour of the city's trajectory. The focus is on Shanghai's early "globalization" (long before this term was created) and current re-globalization, that is, how Shanghai became a cosmopolitan city and where it is going as one.

A cosmopolitan city – what a celebrated label! Surely neither the Chinese nor Westerners have any objection against it. Yet within its historical connotation lies the water-and-fire contradiction in the ways different sides view and feel about it. Even today, reflecting on this history risks bringing out hasty jingoism from all sorts of people. Given the existence of such divergent perspectives, it is Wasserstrom's unswerving and non-judgmental treatment of the subject that interests me the most about the book.

The disparity begins with Shanghai's birth as an urban center. China's official view is that this occurred in 1291, while Westerners think of it as 1843 – the year the city opened to foreign trade. That's a gap of 552 years, not a trivial one, yet each view has its own basis as Wasserstrom eloquently presents. It is, again, more a perspective gap than a technical one, and the foreigners' view certainly goes with the definition of a "cosmopolitan city."

Starting from there, Shanghai's globalization history is full of large and small conflicts, at times bloody, and viewed differently by various parties. Was Shanghai's transforming into an international "treaty port" in November 1843 a national humiliation (a consequence of China's failure in the Opium war), or a turning point toward commercial prosperity and the advancement of civilization? In 1875, was the killing of a British interpreter named Margary by local Chinese in Yunnan a heroic anti-imperialist action as assessed in Chinese publications, or a senseless murder resulting from xenophobia, as viewed by the "Shanghailanders" (Britons and Americans residing in Shanghai)? In 1900, did the Boxer Rebels' siege of the foreign legations in Beijing cause significant setback in Shanghai's technological development? In 1925, was the blood-shedding May 30th movement – strikes and demonstrations against foreign-run factories in Shanghai – a national struggle, or an isolated assertion of rights by the local citizens? And what can be said about the leading roles of cosmopolitan nationalists, foreign-educated Chinese who were anything but parochial or xenophobic, in that movement? Was the 1950 the dawn "from a nightmare of oppression" as Song Qingling put it, or a beginning point for the "multiple Shanghais collapsing into a solitary entity" as memoirist Lynn Pan experienced?

(Before going further into the later chapters, I must clarify that the above questions are not addressed by the author directly. Instead, taking an interesting stance, the author sides with neither the Chinese nor the Westerners. In other words, he displays more interest in factual accounts rather than interpretations. He lays out facts and different perspectives, and teases out interesting details, while leaving the conclusions to the reader. As such, another reader might see a totally different set of questions raised.)

Thus globalization, as shown in Shanghai's early history, is not a harmless concept or process. It is a struggle between different sets of interests. Had Shanghai not been located by both the South China Sea and the Yangtze River, convenient for transportation into, and out of, China, it would not have attracted the foreign businessmen as early as the 1840s. Globalization at that time was about capitalist expansion and colonialism. The invasive nature of it inevitably resulted in the local people's resistance, thus the constant clashes.

Every coin has two sides. Globalization, then as now, isn't purely evil either. I was surprised to learn from this book that Shen Pao, one of the oldest and most prominent Chinese newspapers, was created by a Briton in 1872. The paper's historical significance is summarized in (the leading Chinese search engine for websites and a cultural discussion forum) as: "In Shen Pao's 78 years of history, it recorded from late Qing Dynasty through ROC all sorts of political, military, economic, cultural and societal information, whose very high historical value resulted in the name 'the encyclopedia of modern history." Furthermore, "Shen Pao's layout was divided into sections of news, commentary, art and ads, which laid out the foundation for the 4-section base structure of modern Chinese newspapers."

Another significant thing brought in by the early globalization was Western architecture. While the old Shanghailanders are long gone, their architecture remains. In fact today it is often cited by foreign residents that, one major attraction of Shanghai is the many old buildings designed by the Britons, French, Americans, etc. Together (and in contrast) with the traditional Chinese longtang, Shanghai is a modern city that preserves an enjoyable diversity in style and "the texture of daily life" (as journalist James Fellows put it), a feature making Shanghai distinct from, say, modern Beijing.


A major problem with globalization is that it forces the uniform development from the "advanced" economy's point of view, regardless the hugely varying conditions and cultures in the so-called "backward" nations and places. Ironically though, in Shanghai's case it was the de-globalization that was to deprive Shanghai of much of its diversity.

As we read on in Global Shanghai, Wasserstrom's chapters for 1950 and 1975 depicted a history more familiar to my generation of Chinese. The foreigners were driven out in early 1950s. Here, the Chinese were supposed to feel elated, having been librated from imperialist oppression. While the latter part was true (as China became a closed country for more than two decades), people also experienced the gradual singularization of the once multiple Shanghais. The uniformity reached its extreme in late 1960s when "All mountains and rivers are a vast red," as a then-slogan read. During the Cultural Revolution, Shanghai again played a leading role: it was the first to set up the "Revolutionary Committee" that replaced the city government, and it became the nation's adjunct political center.

“The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.” So goes the opening of the Chinese classic Three Kingdoms. After President Nixon's visit in 1972, Shanghai was one of the first cities in China that allowed Western tourists. Gradually China reopened to the outside world, and here comes the re-globalization. In the area east of the Huangpu river, Pudong is now built up in a modernized, futuristic style, with its famous high-speed meglev being the envy of other developing countries. Meanwhile, Puxi, west of the Huangpu, keeps its traditional charm. Shanghai is divided: old Shanghai residents love Puxi nostalgically, and Chinese newcomers with no connection to Shanghai's past prefer Pudong. When I visited Shanghai this February, I was amazed by how dissimilar the two sides look. Yet they co-exist in peace, their differences adding only the attractiveness of diversity.

Still, Shanghai's change is not without irony, and Wasserstrom borrows a line from a book about post-socialist Budapest to describe this aptly: "The boredom of the socialist cities is gone, but so is their safety." No period is perfect.

Meanwhile, foreigners swarm in. According to the Chinese Wikipedia, at the end of 1843, the year Shanghai was established as a treaty port, there were only 25 foreign residents – English missionaries and businessmen registered with the British Consulate. Now the number has exceeded 100,000, the largest among all Chinese cities. A 2004 statistic shows that Americans made up 13.4% of the foreign workforce in Shanghai. In internet discussions, many foreigners even enthusiastically joined the once Chinese-patented oral fight, "Is Shanghai better or is Beijing?"

But Chinese media and academic publications still grumble about how few foreigners there are. It's only 0.67% of Shanghai's total population, too much lower than the 5% world average of big cities, they say. They might have a point, since "Shanghai's natural destiny is to be a global city." The Shanghai government has explicitly stated that, during the 11th "Five-Year Plan" (2006-2010), enhancing international competence is the city's main development line. One hundred and sixty six years after the treaty port opened, globalization is no longer a foreign imposition; it has become the Chinese government's own pursuit.

On the other hand, a writer friend and Shanghai native views that as only the city leaders' pursuit of official career achievements, for which the common residents feel little relevance. "Shanghai's internalization has been a natural process because of its geography, and it does not have much to do with any local man-made effort," the friend said. From 1843 to 2009, Shanghai has opened, closed, reopened and is poised to embrace the outside. Wasserstrom’s book, by chronicling this evolution, shows Shanghai in its natural light, from which I again see Shanghai as a living, breathing, sometimes bruised, creature.


Mark Anthony Jones said...

I enjoyed reading your review of Wasserstrom's new book on Shanghai. I wrote a review of this book too, which you can read on my site if you're interested.

As you mentioned in your review Xujun, Shanghai's change 'is not without irony', for it no longer as safe as it used to be, despite being a more exciting (and perhaps therefore more liveable city). But as i concluded in my review, Shanghai’s potent ‘mix of sensation and spectacle, exploitation and excitement’ (to quote Wasserstrom) not only attracts international capital, but also those of us who find magnetic the global dynamism of such cities of perpetual disintegration and renewal.

alfaeco said...

Another book in the Amazon wish list.... :-)

Luke Lea said...

In some ways Shanghai is a lot like New York. Both are outliers with a more cosmopolitan history "libertarian" culture than the rest of the country. (See the book Gotham, the early chapters especially, to see what I mean.) Come to think of it, the relationship between Shanghai and Beijing is not unlike the relationship between NYC and DC. One is a center of culture and finance, the other of politics.