Location Is (Not) Everything: Re-Assessing Shanghai’s Rise, 1840s -1860s

Niv Horesh

Abstract

While Shanghai’s pre-war history (1842-1937) is thought to be already ‘quite well understood’ thanks to an inordinately large number of studies, other Chinese urban centres received less attention. Consequently, a number of Western scholars have recently shifted their gaze elsewhere in search of other Chinese articulations of modernity. Yet a thorough examination of the history of other Chinese cities cannot replace a continual robust engagement with Shanghai. This is not least because the vast array of materials available at the Shanghai Municipal Archives and Zikawei Library has been systematically catalogued only over the last few years. They are indispensable to understanding the city’s rise to prominence and its preponderant position within China’s economic modernisation process.

Mainly drawing on rare early editions of the North-China Herald held at the Zikawei Library, this article highlights one aspect of Shanghai’s early treaty-port development; it reprises the conventional wisdom positing that, because of its perceived advantageous location, Shanghai had been almost deterministically poised to become China’s gateway to the outside world following the First Opium War (1839-1842). Instead, it argues that location was significant but not sufficient of itself in delivering Shanghai’s economic take-off.

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