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A Small Fishing Village

The first evidence of settlements in the Shanghai area actually date to 5000 B.C., though it wasn't until the 5th to 7th centuries A.D. that Shanghai appeared on the map as a small fishing village on the banks of the Wusong Jiang (today's Suzhou River). It was then a creek known as Hu (for the crab traps in the river), and had its source in nearby Tai Hu (Lake Tai). Eventually Shanghai would be known as Hu, and to this day, the name is still in use as a short form to denote the city, for example in the Huning Expressway connecting Shanghai to Nanjing. During the Tang Dynasty in A.D. 751, the Shanghai region was incorporated into the county of Huating, but it was not until 1292 that Shanghai, benefiting from its proximity to Hangzhou, the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), quickly developed from a commercial town (zhen) to a county seat (xian). By the early 1400s, Ming Dynasty engineers had dredged the Huangpu River (also known as shen), making it the main tributary to serve Shanghai. In 1553, a city wall was built around what is today's Shanghai's Old Town (Nanshi) as defense against Japanese pirates. In 1603, Shanghai had its first contact with the Jesuits through local son Xu Guangqi who was baptized Paul by Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci in Beijing, and who later deeded some of his land in Shanghai (today's Xujiahui, meaning Xu family village) to the Catholic Church. By the end of the Ming Dynasty, in 1664, Shanghai had become a major cotton and textile center; and its population would soon reach 200,000.

Foreign Occupation

In 1832, the British-based East India Company explored Shanghai and the Yangzi River as a potential trading center for tea, silk, and opium, but was rebuffed by proud local officials. Not to be denied, the British eventually forced the Chinese to import British opium (which it produced in British India) by waging the First Opium War between 1839 and 1842 against a weak and corrupt Qing government that proved no match for the British. The war finally ended with the Treaty of Nanjing, which opened five Chinese cities, including Shanghai, to British consuls, merchants, and their families, and also ceded Hong Kong Island to the British. Soon, the British, French, Americans, Germans, and other foreign powers began to move into Shanghai, carving out for themselves sovereign "concessions" where they were not subject to Chinese laws, but to their own as established by their respective governing councils. The British established their concession in 1845, the Americans in 1848 in Hongkou, north of Suzhou Creek, and the French set up their concession in 1849 west of the old Chinese city and south of the British Concession, subjecting themselves to direct French rule through the Conseil d'Administration Municipale. In 1850, the first English-language newspaper in Shanghai, the North China Herald, was launched.

But peace and calm were elusive. Starting in 1850, a man named Hong Xiuquan, who believed himself to be Jesus' younger brother, led a group of Taiping rebels through southern China in an attempt to overthrow the corrupt Qing government. Though they bypassed Shanghai and established their capital in Nanjing, an offshoot group, the Small Sword Society, which claimed affiliation with the Taipings, took over Shanghai's old Chinese city, driving thousands of Chinese into the foreign concessions. Many Westerners became rich from building housing for the Chinese refugees. The Small Sword Society was eventually defeated by Qing troops in 1855, though the Taiping Rebellion itself didn't end until 1864.

Hardly deterred by these uprisings, the British and the Americans merged their concessions and formed the International Settlement in 1863, subject to rule by the Shanghai Municipal Council. In the second half of the 19th century, those seeking fame and wealth were starting to arrive in Shanghai in droves to have a go at making their fortune. A number of Sephardic Jew businessmen especially prospered from the opium trade and real estate, and would go on to build some of Shanghai's finest buildings of the early 20th century, such as the Children's Palace and the Peace Hotel (1929). By 1871, the term "shanghai," meaning to drug and forcibly kidnap hands for a departing ship, had entered the English language, as during this time, many sailors were literally "shanghaied," waking up at sea on clipper ships bound for China.

While Shanghai was starting to prosper, events at the national level were becoming increasingly dire as the Qing government grew weaker. In 1895, after Japan defeated China in the Sino-Japanese war, the Treaty of Shimonoseki allowed the Japanese to set up factories in Shanghai and other ports. Finally in 1911, following the abdication of China's last emperor, Pu Yi, the year before, the Republic of China was established under Sun Yat-sen, bringing to an end Chinese imperial rule. The following year, the foreign population in Shanghai topped 10,000, a number which only increased as White Russians fleeing the Russian Revolution in 1917 made Shanghai's international concessions their temporary home. It is worth noting, however, that even when foreign influx was at its greatest, foreigners never numbered more than 4% of Shanghai's total population.

War & Revolution

As Shanghai's wealthy, Chinese and foreigners alike, continued to live the high life and get even richer, corpses started to pile up on the streets, many having perished from cold and hunger, and the seeds of revolution were sown. In 1921, the Chinese Communist Party was founded in Shanghai, with Mao Zedong in attendance. In 1925, in what has come to be regarded as the beginning of the end of Western imperial power in China, a student protest on behalf of exploited Shanghai workers led to students being shot at by the foreign Shanghai Municipal police. This "May 30th Movement" coalesced anti-foreign sentiment and paved the way for Communist revolutionaries in China.

Also around this time, Shanghai's triads were making their presence felt as Du Yuesheng ("Big-eared Du") took power from Huang Jinrong ("Pockmark Huang") as head of the powerful Green Gang. On April 12, 1927, Du's gang assisted Chiang Kai-shek, the new leader of the Kuomintang (Nationalists), in rounding up and executing Communist leaders in Shanghai at today's Longhua Martyrs' Cemetery near Longhua Temple, thus forcing the Communists to go underground and initiating a protracted civil war between the two groups. All this time, wealthy Shanghai continued to prosper and party. During the 1920s and 1930s, this "Paris of the East" reached its zenith as the leading center of trade and finance in Asia, and home to the greatest architecture, finest shops, and most lavish and decadent nightlife. It was this last feature that gave Shanghai its concurrent reputation as the "Whore of Asia." In 1935, the population was nearly four million, including 60,000 foreigners, of which a little less than half were European Jews who had fled here to escape from Hitler. Shanghai was then the only place in the world that was willing to accept the "stateless refugees."

But the good times could not and did not last. In 1937 Japan attacked China, taking over the Chinese-administered parts of Shanghai on August 13. That same year, the Shanghai Municipal Council tallied 20,000 corpses of homeless people who had died in the streets. The Japanese did not occupy the International Settlement and French Concessions until December 8, 1941. (For the Chinese, World War II has always been known primarily as the Anti-Japanese War.) In 1943, in response to German requests to implement the Final Solution in Shanghai, the occupying Japanese army forced the stateless Jews into a confined "Designated Area" in Hongkou District. British and American forces also relinquished their extraterritorial powers and concessions to the Chinese that year. World War II finally ended with the Japanese surrender in 1945.

After the war, tensions once again quickly flared between the Communists and Nationalists who had agreed to a temporary truce during the war to fight against a common enemy, the Japanese. After many protracted battles all over the country, Mao Zedong proclaimed the creation of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949, thus ending the civil war (earlier, Communists had "liberated" Shanghai on May 25 without incident). Chiang Kai-shek, his wife, Soong Mei-ling, and the rest of her Soong family, except for Soong Ching-ling (the widow of Sun Yat-sen), beat a hasty retreat to Taiwan. Within a year, the remaining colonialists and foreign companies had pulled out of Shanghai and the Communist Party began to shut down the city's many industries, including vice industries, and sent the once-thriving city into a slumber for almost 30 years. In 1966, led by the Shanghai-based "Gang of Four," which included Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, a former Shanghai actress, the Cultural Revolution began. Initially a campaign to rid Chinese society of bourgeois elements and to maintain constant class struggle, it descended into social, political, and economic chaos and violence, and ended only in 1976 with the arrest of the Gang of Four.

Reform & Reawakening

Earlier in 1972, however, China's rapprochement with the outside world had started to take place. After Henry Kissinger undertook several secret missions to Beijing to reopen relations with the Chinese, Richard Nixon and Premier Zhou Enlai signed the Shanghai Communique at the Jin Jiang Hotel in 1972, paving the way for normalization of relations between the United States and China, though official ties weren't reestablished until 1979. By then Mao had died (in 1976), and a rehabilitated Deng Xiaoping had initiated "opening and reforms" (gaige kaifang) the year before in 1978. Economic reforms quickly took off, and by 1982, Shanghai had opened the Hongqiao Development Zone to attract foreign investors.

In 1989, weeks of student protest ended in violence in Beijing in the Tian'anmen massacre. In Shanghai, mayor Zhu Rongji and predecessor Jiang Zemin maintained calm, which no doubt partially helped Jiang become China's paramount leader later in 1997 after the death of Deng Xiaoping. Zhu Rongji became the chief architect of China's economic revolution and China's premier in 1998.

More importantly for Shanghai, in 1990 Deng Xiaoping designated Shanghai to spearhead China's economic reform, with the Pudong New Area on the east side of the Huangpu River slated for development into Shanghai's new financial center. Overnight, this former swamp and farmland rapidly transformed into the home of some of China's biggest buildings, including China's first (and largest) stock exchange, the tallest TV tower in Asia, the tallest building in China, and the tallest hotel and the second-largest department store in the world. The building frenzy continued throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century, with new infrastructure seemingly popping up every year, such as the Pudong International Airport, the Nanjing Lu Pedestrian Mall, the Yan'an Elevated Expressway, new bridges, tunnels, a high-speed magnetic levitation line, and a public transportation system that, when complete, will overtake London's in size. During this time, Shanghai also started to host world events such as the Fortune 500 Global Economic Forum in 1999, the APEC Conference in 2001, and the first Formula One Grand Prix race in China in 2004. As its crowning glory, Shanghai won the bid in 2002 to host the World Expo of 2010, thus returning Shanghai to what many feel is its rightful place on the world stage.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.