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 a 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?