Colonial History of Shanghai


Before discussing the impact of Shanghai’s colonial history on its economic, politics, and culture, one should comprehend the meaning of terms ‘imperialism’ and ‘colonialism’. Imperialism is the political ideology based on state’s aspirations to increase own power by the means of conquering geographically advantageous territories. As for colonialism, it is a form of control maintained over one group of people (country, nation, or ethnicity) by the outlanders. Moreover, it is important to understand that the process of colonization has peculiar characteristics, the exploration of which facilitates studying the effects of imperialism. In particular, imperialism and colonization pursue financial benefits and strive for economic exploitation of the colonized lands. Besides, in order to succeed with this task, the empire is supposed to profess the militarism ideology, which requires a military buildup. Furthermore, colonists attempt to impose their cultural and religious attitudes on the natives. Apparently, it begets serious political, social and cultural issues for the colonized ethnicity. 

Apart from those features, one should remember that colonialism, as the tool of imperialism, suggests conquering only favorable and promising lands. It means that, initially, the state’s climate and geography are the basic variables taken into account, while considering the feasibility of colonization. Comprehending these significant insights, it is appropriate to observe Shanghai’s colonial history with the aim to identify its influence on the economic, political, military and cultural life of this city. 


Auspicious Climatic and Geographic Characteristics of Shanghai

In the early 18th century, travelers from Europe acknowledged a greatly favorable location of Shanghai. In particular, it had connection to the sea and river, which enabled a small cost village develop into a world-famous megalopolis. Besides, Shanghai has good land transportation roots, both inside China and with the international states. Thus, the trading possibilities in Shanghai were rather promising. In addition, the city is situated in the subtropical climate, which was also suitable for the industrialization and further growth. Therefore, western colonists (and later Japan) wanted to achieve their imperialistic ambitions by conquering the lands of Shanghai and other Chinese cities. This way, the imperialism, as the ideology of the western countries (the United Kingdom, France, and the USA), triggered the colonization of Shanghai. This process is clearly visible, while observing the approaches of militarism and economic exploitation of the conquered territory. Consequently, the geographical location of a state (city) has a crucial role in the construction of decent living standards and formation of the international relations.

Economic Exploitation

It goes without saying that the economic exploitation of the colonized lands is the main reason that motivates the expansion of imperialism. The state (city) that becomes the subject of economical exploitation is doomed to be affected by the colonizers. Speaking about Shanghai’s history, one can rightfully deduce that The British Empire decided to subordinate this significant geographical object, in order to obtain financial gain. Consider the case, “there was a high demand for Chinese tea, silk and porcelain in the British market”. It is important to understand that economic exploitation of the colonized city does not presume fair trading. Instead, the companies that belong to the imperialist country expect to get goods and resources either for free or for the insignificant payment. 

Without doubt, this approach requires suppressing the will for resistance on both state and public levels. To succeed with this task, The British Empire applied to drugs. Specifically, it started supplying opium to the Chinese using it as a payment (instead of money). As a result, a lot of citizens have grown addicted to opium, which threw the country out of political, economic and social balance. Consequently, Shanghai has been acutely affected by the issue of drug addiction. 

For the first time, opium was delivered to China from the western world at the end of the 17th century. The government of China has been trying to get under control the distribution of drugs on the Chinese territory; however, it was too weak to completely solve the issue. It is necessary to mention that during colonial times, Shanghai was controlled by the four states, which divided the city into “the French Concession, the English Concession, the America Concession, and the Japanese Concession”. The confrontation between China and western empires became more prominent in 1836. In particular, it was provoked by the government’s decision to prohibit the import and sale of drugs. Further, three years later, in 1839, “commissioner Lin Zexu seized over a million kilograms of opium and burned them”. 

In response, The British Empire sent its troops and initiated the Opium Wars, which lasted for 3 years (up to 1842). The outcomes of this military invasion had an ambiguous impact on the Shanghai’s economy. On the one hand, the weak Chinese government could not adequately repel the attack. Therefore, the economy of the entire state was significantly damaged. On the other hand, Chinese initiative to confront the western empires by means of prohibiting the import of opium is believed to be the first indicator of the increased self-awareness of the Chinese. In this way, negative social and political events triggered the advancement of Chinese economic development. 

This peculiarity is considered to be a crucial period in the history of Shanghai because it triggered further industrialization of the city. The assassinator of London School of Economics, Debin Ma, researched the history of Shanghai’s economic development and concluded that the colonization actually helped the city to evolve. That is why, it is possible to conclude that Shanghai’s beneficial geographic location predetermined its fast and successful development in the 20th century. 

Undoubtedly, the scholar’s opinion is the unusual vision of the colonists’ impact; however, it is based on the concrete evidence. For example, Debin Ma claims that Shanghai’s economy was developing in spite of the stressful events of the Opium Wars, the war with Japan, or social issue of mass drug addiction. On the contrary, it happened because the city’s location had an important strategic meaning and, thus, quickly turned from a small cost village into one of the main economic centers of China.

The development of Shanghai’s economy served as an important spot in marine trading with the western world. Later on, “in the early 20th century when central control was weakened, Western treaty ports achieved rapid expansion at the expense of Chinese sovereignty”. In a word, Debin Ma argues that colonization made a strong positive impact on the economy of Shanghai. What is more, the researcher believes that due to the western imperialism, “Shanghai began to grow and evolved into a city with three governments – the International Settlement, the French Concession and the Chinese quarter”. This division in government system enabled the relevant authorities to maintain the order in the city and create good potential for its further prosperity. 

As the result, “throughout the first three decades of the 20th century” Shanghai “produced about 40% of the national manufacturing output”. Besides, in the 1920s, the city was known for producing half of the national electricity, which was twice more than English cities as Manchester and Glasgow did. Furthermore, acknowledging a great capacity of this city, one can rightfully deduce that this city was rather attractive for foreign investors. Consider the case, the statistics claims that in 1931 

Shanghai absorbed 34% of total foreign direct investment (FDI) in China and 67% of  FDI in manufacturing; handled more than half of China’s foreign trade and one fifth     of its shipping business throughout 1896-1936; and boasted of 47.8% of the national     financial capital in 1936. 

Considering the above-mentioned evidence, it is natural to suggest that China and, particularly, Shanghai benefited from economic exploitation. Nevertheless, one should also remember that the process of colonization had significant negative effects on the financial prosperity of the native dwellers. Specifically, unfair use of Chinese’s resources pushed The British Empire to deliver opium in order to control the will of the Chinese by using their drug addiction. Moreover, this attempt led to the confrontation between the eastern colony and western colonists, which triggered the so-known, Opium Wars. Finally, assessing the influence of colonization on the local economy of Shanghai, it is critically important to comprehend that all the above-discussed processes were caused by city’s advantageous geographic and climatic conditions. Shanghai’s location made it attractive for both foreign empires and domestic government that, in spite of certain adverse effects of colonization, triggered its fast industrialization. 

Shanghai’s Geography and Militarism

Hence, speaking about the negative effects of colonization, it is appropriate to discuss why geography is closely connected with the militarism. This premise is not surprising because striving to enhance its economic prosperity, the empire tends to conquer new geographically attractive lands by using its military resources. As it was mentioned above, the colonization of Shanghai led to the strong confrontation with the colonists in the 19th century. The fact is that the ban on drugs was supposed to have adverse effects for the foreign concessioners of this city. Consider the case, being a treaty port, it was a strategically important spot for the western imperialists. Besides, Shanghai was used by its colonists as the location from which further invasion into Chinese territory was convenient.     

Therefore, foreign concessioners endeavored to control Shanghai’s “customs offices, established banks, factories and trading houses, monopolized a large portion of its financial and import-export activities”. What is more, the city was the center of a great navigation network, which consists of “a number of international routes to Hong Kong, Japan, South-east Asia, India, Europe, the United States and Australia”. Taking into account the role of Shanghai in the general colonization of China and its economic exploitation, one can rightfully deduce that the colonists started the Opium Wars aiming to return total control over the rebellious territories. The rebellion was suppressed and in 1842 the Opium Wars ended by signing the Treaty of Nanjing, which allowed the British, French, American and Japanese colonists to live and maintain businesses in this port city. It is necessary to clarify that the Nanjing Treaty granted almost unlimited possibilities to the foreign concessioners. In other words, economic exploitation of Shanghai was legalized and, thereafter, continued until the middle of the 20th century (about a century after the end of the Opium Wars). 

Considering this part of the Chinese history, it is appropriate to presume that the nature of the Opium Wars displays the connection between such variables as geography, militarism, and the country’s foreign policy. Specifically, there is a strong interdependence between the government’s (king’s) motives to conquer geographically valuable territories and the necessity to adhere to militarism. Simply put, state’s aspiration to colonize new lands presumes the development and advancement of its military system. 

Another strong example that proves the connection between the geographic position and militarism is the war with Japan, which started with the navy bombing of Shanghai in the early 1932. The event was provoked by the Chinese refusal to work on the numerous Japanese cotton mills, which were situated in Shanghai. The local workers went on strike “against wage cuts and lay-offs”. This boycott was a natural manifestation of the Chinese’s unwillingness to be exploited by the foreign concessioners. Nevertheless, exactly like with the Opium Wars, the rebellion was suppressed. Shanghai lost the battle in 1937, and was occupied by the Japanese up to the 1945. The witnesses claim that “Shanghai, chief centre of Chinese-owned industry, was reduced to ruins. What was not destroyed in the battle, the Japanese systematically razed afterward”. 

What makes the things even worse is that the Japanese decided to obtain the total control over Shanghai. Thus, the former western concessioners (the British, American and French) were deprived of their basic rights and freedoms. Consider the case, “allied nationals slowly lost their privileges and had to wear a B, A, or N armband indicating their nationality when walking in public places”. Given the situation, it is not surprising that the former allies were attempting to run away from the occupied territory. This example reveals that a state’s adherence towards imperialism and militarism makes a considerable adverse effect on the colonized lands. Specifically, the infrastructure of Shanghai was ruined, which caused the financial, social and cultural decadence of the city. 

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The Impact of Colonization on Political, Demographic and Cultural Life of Shanghai 

First and foremost, it is necessary to point to the cultural complexity of Shanghai, which is not surprising given that apart from native dwellers, the city was inhabited by the British, American, French and Japanese people. Moreover, apart from the main colonists, Shanghai became home for numerous “Russians, Indians, Prussians, Portuguese, Italians, Spanish” and other nations. Consequently, coming from all over the world people brought to Shanghai their cultural norms and values, religions and beliefs, as well as the other elements of their social background. The foreigners called Shanghai “Paradise of Adventures” because it proposed freedom and independence to every newcomer. Therefore, one can deduce that the city’s colonial history predetermined its great cultural diversity, which contributed to the openness of city’s government and citizens regarding the international communication and collaboration between Shanghai and the rest of the world. 

What is more, the colonization of Shanghai caused fast population growth. In particular, there were three groups of foreign people coming to live to Shanghai. The first wave of immigrants consisted of those coming from the western empire attracted by the richness of this port city. The second wave of immigrants was comprised of the Chinese who lived in poor areas of the state. Consider the case, Shanghai started to demonstrate the fast industrialization and economic growth, which attracted the dwellers of the nearby settlements who strived to find jobs and improve their living standards. The third wave of immigrants was rather involuntary and happened after the victory of Japanese troops. Specifically, a lot of the Japanese came to live to Shanghai in order to benefit from its resources and control the territory. Nevertheless, the main part of the incomers was taken to the city for being imprisoned in the refugee camps (those individuals were mostly Chinese, but also there were the representatives of the former Japanese’s allies). 

Observing the impact of colonization on the national identity of Shanghai’s citizens, it is necessary to state that the imperialistic ambitions of the foreign countries stipulated the occurrence of the so-called ‘Century of Humiliation’. Needless to say, it made an adverse effect on the self-awareness of the natives. Consider the example, more than a century China was controlled by the British, French, American and, later on, Japanese concessioners. The defeat in the Opium War led to the adoption the Nanjing Treaty, which presumed economically crushing terms for the people of Shanghai, in particular, as well as for the entire China. Later on, the military defeat in the Japanese War  only complicated the living conditions of the Chinese. Therefore, it is natural to conclude that the national identity of the natives was seriously damaged by the colonization. Fortunately for the Chinese, the Century of Humiliation was finished with the end of the World War the Second.  

The End of Shanghai’s Colonial History 

The colonization of China and Shanghai was finished with the defeat of the Japanese army in 1945. It was the first and the main historical event that liberated the natives from the Japan’s occupation. The second event that triggered the development of the independent China was the Communist coming to power in 1949. As it was mentioned above, the impact of the imperialism and militarism of the western empires caused significant damage in this country by exploiting its resources and humiliating the nation. Simultaneously, it triggered the important processes of industrialization and economic development of China. Shanghai, as one of the most important strategic spots, became an example of strong and rapid advancement. Therefore, when the Century of Humiliation was over, the obtained independence and wise leadership of the communistic leaders enabled Shanghai’s growth and financial prosperity. Moreover, the multiculturalism of this city, along with its geographic location (the key marine and land root) predefined its openness and tolerance in constructing and maintaining the international relations. 

As the result, nowadays, Shanghai “accounts for approximately one-fifth of the country’s gross national product, and serves as the most important industrial base in the nation”. Today, it is a commercial city that is known all over the world. The rapid development of Shanghai predetermines that the modern design tendencies and colonial architecture are naturally interwoven. That is why, apart from manufacturing, the city is famous with its well-developed service industry. 

Summarizing, it is necessary to accentuate that colonial history of Shanghai is predefined by its favorable climatic and geographic characteristics. Becoming a victim of the imperialistic ambitions of other states, Shanghai was doomed to endure the so-known ‘Century of Humiliation’, which greatly affected the economic, political, and cultural life of the natives. In particular, Shanghai was economically exploited by the British, French, American and Japanese colonizers. Besides, the political and cultural life degraded because of the extensive consumption of opium, which was arranged by the colonists, in order to suppress the will of the Chinese. Shanghai was greatly impacted by the Opium Wars and the Japanese’s Wars, which destroyed the city’s infrastructure. Apart from the economic exploitation and militarism, the Shanghais were influenced by the increased cultural diversity and the rapid population growth. These demographic processes added depletion in the lives of the local dwellers. Nevertheless, there are certain positive outcomes of colonization, among which there is the fast industrialization of the city. In addition, the international openness and tolerance towards the other nations, which is manifested in today’s Shanghai policy, is another positive result of colonization. It aimed at saving the reputation of the city that is focused on the international relations and significantly benefits from this approach. 

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