Shanghai is the glamorous central business hub of China’s eastern seaboard. The Huangpu River winds through Shanghai and along it lies one of the most striking skylines in all of China: on one side, the Bund, lined with colonial buildings from Old Shanghai, and on the opposite side, the new modern skyscrapers of Pudong, constructed in the 1990s and onward.
Shanghai (上海) meaning “upon the sea,” is China’s largest and wealthiest city. Located close to the mouth of the Yangtze River, this once sleepy agricultural village developed into China’s principal trading port during the late Qing dynasty.
After the signing of the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing, Shanghai became a major British trading outpost. Areas were also set aside as international settlements or concessions through several subsequent treaties, including what became the French, British, and American concessions. These foreign incursions significantly influenced the character of Shanghai’s urbanization and modernization over the next several decades.
By the 1920s, Shanghai had transformed into an internationally significant metropolis and a fashionable artistic hub with tree-lined streets in imitation of the French capital. Even today, Shanghai is often referred to as the “Paris of the East.”
In terms of basic geography, the Huangpu (Yellow Bank) River, Shanghai’s main waterway, divides the city into two major sections: Pudong (which translates to “east bank”) is the area east of the Huangpu, while Puxi (“west bank”) is the area west of the Huangpu. Whether you are a visitor or a Shanghai local, one of the first questions you will be asked is, “Which side of the river do you live/work on?”
Puxi developed first. The Bund, international concessions, universities (Fudan University, ECNU), cultural centers, and the first international airport (Hongqiao) are all on the Puxi side. Pudong was a much later development. Even 25 years ago, Pudong was mostly grass. In the last 20 odd years, it has developed at what can only be described as Maglev-like speed! Pudong’s skyline has been captured in countless images and symbolizes the rapid growth of 21st century China.
What sets Shanghai apart from other cities in China, such as Beijing or Shenzhen, is the city’s distinctly international feel. Citizens of every nation flock to Shanghai to try their hand at new business enterprises in hopes of breaking into China’s enormous emerging market. Every neighborhood in Shanghai is brimming with an amalgam of Shanghainese natives, mainlanders from every corner of China, and ex-pats.
It is commonplace to hear snippets of conversations in incomprehensible Chinese dialects, English, French, and Spanish, in addition to Mandarin Chinese throughout the city. Shanghai locals are proud of their own widely spoken dialect, called Shanghainese, which is the main spoken language in the city, but most also speak Mandarin and possibly some English. Because the city maintained partial autonomy both before Mao and throughout the Cultural Revolution, Shanghai has often carved out a separate history from the rest of China and has come out on top as the mainland’s most cosmopolitan city.