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Home : China Guide : Shanghai : History of Shanghai

Origin of "Hu" and "Shen"
Zhujiajiao old town, ShanghaiShanghai is called in Chinese "Hu" for short and "Shen" as a nickname. About 6,000 years ago, the western part of today's Shanghai dried up into land and its eastern part became a piece of land about 2,000 years ago. During the Spring-Autumn and Warring States Periods (770-221 BC), this area was once the feoff of Huang Xie, the Chun Shen Governor of the State of Chu. So, "Shen" comes from the title of the governor. During the Jin Dynasty (4th-5th centuries), fishermen living along the Songjiang River (today's Suzhou Creek) and the coast of the East China Sea created a fishing tool called "Hu"By combining the name of the fishing tool and the then term for estuary of big rivers, they coined a Chinese character "Hu'' to name the place as it sits at the mouth of the Yangtze River, the longest river in China.

Founding of the City
Fuzhou Road, ShanghaiShanghai began as Huating County, an administrative district established in 751 AD. The county, located in an area known today as Songjiang District, had its boundary reaching today's Hongkou District in the north, Xiasha in the east and the coast in the south. In 991 AD, ShanghaiTown was set up in the county. During the 1260-1274 period, the town evolved into an important trading port and in 1292, the then central government approved the establishment of ShanghaiCounty in this area, which has been widely deemed as the official beginning of the city of Shanghai.

Modern Age
British Concession, ShanghaiIn the 16th century (or the middle period of the Ming Dynasty), Shanghai became the national center of textile & handicraft industry. In 1685, Shanghai set up its first customs office. After the Opium War in the mid-19th century, Shanghai served as a major trading port and gateway to inland China. With invasion of the big powers from across the world, Shanghai was then turned into a semi-feudal and semi-colonial city for about 100 year. On May 27, 1949, Shanghai was liberated by the People's Liberation Army of the Communist Party of China from the Kuomingtang rule and began to write its chapter in the history of the development of New China.

British Concession
Shikumen civilian house, ShanghaiWhen the British established their first concession in Shanghai in 1842 after the second Opium War, it was a small, nondescript town. The French came in 1847, and 21 years later (1863) the first international settlement was established. In 1895 the city was divided into different zones that were governed according to the laws of their respective countries, rather than local law.

In the mid-19th century only 50,000 people lived in Shanghai, but by 1900 its population had swelled to more than one million. In the legendary 1930s there were over 60,000 foreign permanent residents of Shanghai, largest of all Asian ports. The city became rich from trading opium, silk and tea. It was also site of the world's most powerful banks and famous brothels.

Did you know that the name of one of the most influential banking corporations of our time, HSBC, stands for Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation? Its original building on the Bund is one of the most beautiful in the city (it is now occupied by a Chinese bank). In Shanghai's heyday, British investments alone amounted to more than 400,000 pounds - an immense sum at that time.

How about an historical paradox: decadent Shanghai was birthplace of the Communist Party of China that was to liberate it from sin and colonization in 1949. It has since become the nation's social and economic barometer.

Paradise for Rassina Immigrant
Russian architecture in ShanghaiShanghai also has strong Russian roots and connections. It is the only Asian city with a monument to Alexander Pushkin: the Russian national poet. Alexander Vertinskiy, something of a cult in Russian art circles, also owned a club here in the 1930s and 1940s. And let's not forget the Oleg Lundstrem jazz band!

And did you know that Shanghai is where Soviet jazz was first played? It was here that the famous Oleg Lundstrem band started.

Thousands of Russians escaped to Shanghai from the 1917 revolution, and by the 1930s more than 20,000 Russians lived there. They published newspapers such as Shanghaiskaya Zarya, Rubezh, and Slovo, built cathedrals and churches, and even opened a ballet school and theatre. In 1947, the Russian district disappeared and its inhabitants either returned to the then USSR or moved on to the Philippines, the U.S. and other countries.

French Concession
French Concession, ShanghaiThe French Concession was founded in 1862 in southwest Shanghai as a result of the Treaty of Nanking. It now covers the Luwan and Xuhui districts. The concession is a pleasant mix of wide tree lined streets and interesting European style architecture. The foreign diplomatic quarter, top hotels, great shopping and international restaurants and bars are all found in this area's art deco buildings. The former residences of Sun Yatsen, Song Qingling and Zhou Enlai are also in the old French Concession. In the 20s and 30s the French Concession was famous for its lawlessness and decadence. This spirit of anarchy also attracted political activists and a house in the concession is the Site of the 1st National Congress of the Communist Party. Huaihai Road once known as Avenue Joffre is one of Shanghai's favorite shopping roads. Chic shops housed in French style buildings sell Shanghai's finest goods, designer clothes and much more.

The French district is still vibrant. These days it is inhabited predominantly by Chinese professionals, with a cosmopolitan mix. Streets like Huaihai, Ximing and Huashan were all part of international settlements in the 19th century. Today they form an area famous for shops, Western (moderate to expensive) cuisine and miraculously preserved and maintained villas. If you feel like a taste of Kiev or Paris while still in China, wander Huaihai and its neighboring streets and enjoy their European ambience. Alternatively, just sit and sip coffee in a street cafe.

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