Rethinking “Old Shanghai”: A Review of Shaping Modern Shanghai: Colonialism in China’s Global City


By Taoyu Yang

Isabella Jackson. Shaping Modern Shanghai: Colonialism in China’s Global City. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 274 pp. $99.99 (cloth).

No Chinese city has attracted as much attention from academics and the public as Shanghai. The most cosmopolitan of Chinese cities, Shanghai for generations has been central both to China’s development and now the global economy. A megacity of 23 million, it is the world’s busiest container port.

A portion of “Plan of Shanghai” (Sheet 1), original scale 1:15,840. “Heliographed at O.S. from drawings of the 1933 Municipal plan [of Shanghai]”, U.S. Army Map Service, 1945 courtesy of WikiCommons
What long distinguished Shanghai from most other Chinese cities was that it was not controlled by Beijing or a single colonial power, but by local governing bodies beholden to their directors and the almighty dollar, the franc and the pound sterling. These local governments functioned almost as city-states. From the 1840s to the 1940s, what is now called “Old Shanghai” was governed by three distinct administrations each having control over different parts of the city. The largest part of the city remained under Chinese control. A second sector, the French Concession, was famed for its cultural and architectural elegance. Finally, the International Settlement was run jointly by British and Americans, including members from various European nations and later Japan and China. But the British in the International Settlement remained dominant until it was overrun by Japan in the Second World War.

Isabella Jackson’s Shaping Modern Shanghai: Colonialism in China’s Global City focuses on The International Settlement and especially its governance by the Shanghai Municipal Council (SMC). The focus is appropriate. While the International Settlement constituted only a portion of the city, this sector dominated the larger city politically, financially and culturally.

Old Shanghai,” March 3, 1920 courtesy of WikiCommons

Jackson argues that the history of the SMC brings into sharp focus what she calls “transnational colonialism,” a type of authority exercised not by big powers but by residents—Westerners and prosperous Chinese and Japanese. This distinctive form of localized colonialism broadly shaped the lives of Shanghai residents and the development of their city. Shanghai was not the only Chinese city governed in this way. Notably, Tianjin, another prominent treaty port in northern China was also shaped by the complexities of transnational colonialism.

Throughout the book, Jackson does a wonderful job of elaborating the diverse functions of the SMC and its idiosyncratic legal status. First and foremost, the SMC served as a conventional city council managing police, fire, and sanitary functions, though, exceptionally, it could also support its own quasi-military force. At times SMC also operated like a company board of directors, with its leaders elected not by shareholders but by a limited number of local tax payers. SMC operations were under-written by tax receipts and revenues sufficient to make governance self-supporting. Thus, the SMC did not have to look to Whitehall or Washington for financial assistance. Jackson notes that transnational dynamics, connections to global capital and the multi-national composition of its membership allowed the SMC to shape the growth and development not just of the International Settlement but also Shanghai itself. Though fundamentally undemocratic—it openly discriminated against the majority of poor Chinese and the many impoverished Russians living in Shanghai—the SMC could also be seen as a benevolent oligarchy, which introduced modern medical and sanitary practices to the city.

Tennis club, Shanghai, Kiangsu province, China, between 1890 and 1923, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The most provocative claim that Jackson makes concerns the nature of colonialism in China. In seeking to define colonialism in China, scholars have utilized terms such as “informal empire” and “semi-colonialism” that seek to capture the qualitative differences between colonialism in Shanghai and in other settings such as British-run India. Jackson contends that these terms tend to downplay the influence of colonialism on Shanghai by characterizing what the city experienced as “lighter-touch” imperial control. Jackson argues that the SMC’s touch was not especially light. The SMC dominated Shanghai as much as any as any imperial power might dominate a colonial city. But the nature of SMC’s domination and repression was complex, and that is the story that Jackson tells so well.   And in giving us insights into the “transnational nature of colonialism” we begin to see what made Shanghai distinctive. We are indebted to Jackson for opening up a way to understand a special form of colonialism.

Despite what may seem a narrow focus on a single part of a single city, Jackson’s study should interest a broad range of readers. Thematically, it addresses numerous topics critical to our understanding of urban history and municipal governance, including global financial connections, policing, public health, and social reform. Methodologically, it offers insights into how transnational elements shape local institutions. It is no exaggeration to say that scholars of urban history, Shanghai studies, modern Chinese history, colonial studies, and transnational history will all find Jackson’s monograph necessary reading.

Featured image (at top): Old Shanghai Teahouse, Yuyuan Garden, Shanghai, China, photograph by Indy Randhawa, January 16, 2013

Taoyu Yang is a PhD student of modern Chinese history at University of California, Irvine. His research interests concern colonial history, urban history, history of modern China, and critical historiography. His dissertation project examines the role of multi-imperial interaction in the production of urban space in Tianjin and Shanghai, two of the largest treaty port cities in China from 1840s to 1940s.

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