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Humble beginnings make Shanghai’s rise remarkable

By Liu Shiji | 2014-12-23 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The picture shows a view of the Shanghai Bund in 1928 in the period of the Republic of China (1912-1949), which, sitting along the Huangpu River, housed numerous historical buildings like banks and trading houses.


Compared to numerous coastal ports in China, Shanghai can be regarded as a late bloomer. Evolving from a small, unknown seaside town into a world-famous transportation hub, Shanghai has undergone tremendous changes and achieved successful development by virtue of its geographical advantages. Its story is one that epitomizes the shift of Chinese society toward openness.

Ancient origins
The rise of Shanghai dates back to the flourishing period of the Tang dynasty (618-907). In the year 746, Qinglong town was established along the shores of the southern part of the Wusong River, which runs through the northeast of what is now Qingpu District in modern-day Shanghai. With further exploration and trade in the upper reaches of the Wusong River, Qinglong town became the earliest distribution and trade center in the region and was known as “Little Hangzhou.”

The Song dynasty (960-1279) appointed xuanjiansi, an official responsible for combating theft and commander in charge of the army and the people in the town. They were also required to manage finance.

In addition, bureaus for foreign shipping were established for trade management, transforming the local commercial port into an official port of maritime trade. This also highlighted the significant role of shipping and trade in the economy of Shanghai in ancient times, thus laying a foundation for the city’s prosperous future as a trade port.

In the late Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279), the Wusong River silted up and narrowed, making navigation difficult. As a result, Qinglong town began to decline. Shanghaipu, which is known as the Huangpu River today, and one of the two tributaries on the south shore of the Wusong River became significant waterways bustling with commercial ships.

In the year 1267, the Song government established a new town on the west bank of Shanghaipu, calling it Shanghai town. Twenty-five years later, Shanghai town grew into a county.

Shanghai soon developed from a small seaside town into a key trading port for the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang. During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), new water channels were opened, making Shanghai a better harbor. And during the Qing dynasty (1616-1911), the Shanghai Customs House was set up, and soldiers were dispatched to inspect waterways, which ensured an unprecedented boom in shipping and trade.

During the Qing dynasty, the North Ocean route from Shanghai to northeast China was a lifeline among others. Each year, there were ongoing exchanges of northern products, such as beans, wheat and pears, for southern products, like cloth, tea and sugar. For a long period after Shanghai was opened as a treaty port, Chinese vessels monopolized trade in coastal areas  north of Shanghai and in the Yangtze River basin.

In particular, the transportation of beans from the north and grain from the south was exclusively carried out using junks, an ancient Chinese sailing vessel design. Centered on Shanghai, the shipping industry both on the river and the sea maintained the prosperity as in former days. However, it did not last long. With the rise of modern ground transportation, traditional junk shipping soon began to decline.

Prosperity, change in modern age
In the year 1832, two Englishmen landed at Shiliupu dock, one of the city’s oldest wharf areas. They found that more than 400 merchant ships entered Shanghai from Wusong in just one week, concluding that Shanghai was the largest port in China and had the potential to become a major global port. After the First Opium War, Western powers pressed the Qing dynasty into listing Shanghai as one of the five treaty ports opened to foreign trade.

This brought new development opportunities to Shanghai, which soon supplanted Suzhou and Hangzhou as the new center in regions south of the Yangtze River. Moreover, with more overseas routes and trade, Shanghai surpassed Guangzhou to become the largest port for foreign trade.

After the 1860s, the city established itself as the trade center of modern China. At the same time, Western powers continued to establish concessions there and as a result, new urban areas appeared to the north of the Old City. Meanwhile, urban management was introduced, which made Shanghai a combination of different styles and social patterns.

Changes to the harbor district accompanied the rise of Shanghai in modern times. Shiliupu dock in the northeast of the Old City served as the traditional harbor district and was a significant gateway of Shanghai to the world.

However, development in the harbor zone of Shiliupu dock was restricted mainly because the Huangpu River also silted up and became shallow. At the same time, the commercial center shifted to the northern area, and more and more vessels chose to anchor, load and unload alongside the Suzhou River closer to Wusong.

As the city entered the 20th century, the harbor zone moved further outward. In the 1930s, affected by the January 28th Incident and the Battle of Shanghai that occurred during the initial stages of the anti-Japanese War, the boom in Shiliupu started to fade.

Going global
Since the 1980s, the harbor zone has been expanding at an increasing pace. It shifted to the Waigaoqiao Zone along the Yangtze River before Yangshan Deepwater Port was established.

Yangshan Port is built on the Zhoushan archipelago at the junction of the Yangtze River estuary and Hangzhou Bay. It is the only offshore container port in the world to be established on islands in open waters. Its establishment compensates for the shortage in the capacity of Waigaoqiao harbor zone due to its insufficient water depth.

The deepwater port has a 1,100-meter coastline and is equipped with 30 large-scale berths that can handle more than 15million TEUs ( a unit roughly the volume of a 20-foot-long container) each year. It is connected to the mainland via the 32.5-kilometer Donghai Bridge, the world’s longest sea bridge. 

With an average annual water depth of more than 15 meters, Yangshan Port allows the Port of Shanghai to grow despite the lack of deepwater areas near the shore. In recent years, Shanghai has overtaken Singapore to become the world’s busiest container port. 

Yangshan Port is also a bonded zone, the first of its kind in the mainland. The integration of an export-processing zone, a tax-free zone and harbor zone plays a significant role in promoting development in the Yangtze River Delta and basin as well as progress in import, export, intermediary trade and export-processing industry in China.

There are also some disadvantages. For instance, the port is vulnerable to meteorological conditions, such as typhoons and other extreme marine weather. Since the cross-sea bridge serves as the only means of accessing the port, any emergency on the bridge might paralyze the entire harbor zone. Moreover, its location on the open seas leads to a dependency on highway transportation, which can increase logistics cost.

The expansion of the harbor zone reflects Shanghai’s further integration into the world and the progress Chinese society is making toward openness.

Liu Shiji is from the Research Center for Humanities and Social Sciences and the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica in Taiwan.


The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 657, October 17, 2014      


     Translated by RenJingyun
Revised by Justin Ward