Overview of Shanghai

History of Shanghai

Home > Expat Guides > Asia > China > Shanghai


China was one of the earliest human civilisations and was among the first to develop writing. The Chinese script is still in use in China and Japan today. China was ruled by dynasties, the earliest reliably documented dynasty being the Shang dynasty, rulers from the 18th to the 12th century BC. Invaders from the West, the Zhou dynasty, ruled from the 12th to the 5th century BC. During this period, many independent tribal lords struggled for power, reducing the influence of the ruling dynasty. The Zhou dynasty were succeeded by the Qin, who ruled from 221 BC to 207 BC. Qin can also be written 'Chin' and is thought to be the source of the modern name of China. The Qin dynasty, while relatively short-lived, oversaw the construction of the Great Wall of China and the introduction of formal systems of weights and measures and currency. The Han dynasty ruled from 202 BC to 220 AD and was founded by a peasant named Lui Bang, who began a revolt against the Qin dynasty. Under the Tang and Song dynasties, between the 7th and 14th centuries, China prospered and became a world leader in art, literature and technology. In 1271, the Mongol lord Kublai Khan established the Yuan dynasty; this was in turn overthrown in 1368 and replaced by the Ming dynasty, which endured until 1644. The final dynasty of China was the Qing dynasty, which lasted from 1644 until the overthrow of Puyi in the Chinese Revolution of 1911. Dynasties could always be changed if they were considered to have ceased to serve the people well and it is this principle that made it possible for dynasties to be founded by families who were not nobly born, such as the Han and Ming dynasties, or by those who were not ethnic Chinese.

The title of Emperor (huang di) was created in 221BC by the ruler of the Qin dynasty and continued to be used until the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911. The power of the Emperor varied from dynasty to dynasty, with some simply acting as figureheads for the ruling dynasty and others exercising absolute power. The title of Emperor passed from father to son. Because imperial families could be replaced following a change of dynasty, the Chinese Emperor was considered to have a right to rule so long as he did so fairly and justly. If a ruler was corrupt or immoral, it was quite acceptable for him to be replaced. Women were not allowed to succeed to the position of Empress and there has only been one reigning Empress, Wu Zetian (624-705 AD), who seized power during the reign of the Tang dynasty.

During the 18th century, China was far in advance of her Central Asian neighbours but was beginning to fall behind Europe. In the 19th century, Europe's technological advances and capitalist philosophy saw huge leaps forward in trade, often with other parts of the empires established by European countries during this period. Britain exported vast quantities of Indian opium to China, resulting in two opium wars that greatly reduced the Emperor's control over the country. In 1851, China descended into a bloody civil war (the Taiping Civil War) in which at least 20 million people lost their lives before the imperial forces emerged victorious.

On 1st January 1901, the Republic of China was established and Sun Yat-sen of the Nationalist Party, Kuomintang, was named as the provisional president of the new republic. He was, however, soon ousted by Yuan Shikai, a former general turned revolutionary, who took over the presidency himself. Yuan attempted to have himself proclaimed as leader of a new Chinese dynasty, but died from natural causes before his dream could be realised. After his death, although a national government remained in place in Beijing, it had limited power and much of the country was controlled by regional warlords who commanded within their own territories.

It took until the late 1920s for the Nationalist Party to reunify the country and implement Sun Yat-sen's vision for a modern democratic state. In the mean time, Japan took advantage of China's troubled political situation and invaded Manchuria in 1931, the first step towards eventual war between China and Japan. Power in the country was once again fragmented, with General Tchang Kai-chek retaining power in the south, the weakened Communists and the last remaining warlords controlling the North and the Japanese exercising power in the North East. The Sino-Japanese war of 1937-1945 resulted in an alliance between the Communists and the Nationalists, but the two parties remained distrustful of one another and after the Japanese surrender in 1945, the country once again erupted into civil war. The better armed forces of Tchang in the south launched repeated assaults upon Mao's Communists in the North, but the Communists enjoyed the support of the peasants and with the benefit of a better network of information and the loss of public support for Tchang's increasingly authoritarian rule in their favour, were able to secure victory after victory.

The Communist Party emerged victorious after the Chinese Civil War and controlled the majority of mainland China. The People's Republic of China was formally established on 1st October 1949. Tchang and the government of the old Republic of China, along with a million followers, were forced to retreat to Taiwan, where they imposed single party rule on the island. Martial law was imposed and continued until 1987, although the laws intended to control subversive communists on the island were often turned against other opposition to the party. Support from pro-democracy and anti-communist sponsors has subsequently helped the island's outstanding economic growth and gradually encouraged a more democratic political environment. In 1996, the first full multi-party elections took place on the island. Reforms on the mainland have led to some relaxation of the Communist Party's control over everyday life, although its control over politics is absolute. Opposition is not tolerated and press control, censorship, suppression of religion and the jailing of political opponents still occur today. In 1989 the now famous student demonstration in Tiananmen Square was brutally ended by the Party in a show of force that shocked much of the outside world.


Shanghai began life as a small fishing town, which by 1000 AD was developing into a busy sea port. City walls were constructed in 1553, and this is generally regarded as the date that Shanghai attained city status. The city and its port were occupied by the British during the first of the Opium Wars (early 19th century) after which the port was opened for international trade. In 1854, the Shanghai Municipal Council was created to manage the city's foreign settlements. The British and American Settlements were merged in 1863 to form the International Settlement, while the French chose to maintain and manage their own French Concession.

Following the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) Japan emerged as an additional foreign power in Shanghai. Japan built the first factories in Shanghai, and other foreigners soon followed their example, giving birth to industrial Shanghai. In the second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) Shanghai fell to the Japanese and was under occupation until Japan's surrender in 1945. During World War Two, Shanghai was one of the few world cities open to fleeing Jews, until, under pressure from their allies, the Japanese created the Shanghai ghetto in 1941. On May 27, 1949, Shanghai came under Communist control and many foreign companies relocated from the city to Hong Kong. Economic reforms were finally authorised in 1991 and the government began a policy of reducing Shanghai's tax burden and encouraging investment. Since then, the economic growth of the city has been 9-15% per annum and it continues to rise in prominence as a major trade and finance centre.

Update 24/11/2006

Related articles:


Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Pinterest Addthis

Recommended Service Partners

International Movers

When you move internationally you are taking a big step. Lots of things are changing and you have a million things to think about and take care of. If you are able to select a top of the line moving company that moves for a modest price, it can take a big weight of your shoulders in busy times.

Our network of international removal companies can move your furniture & possessions to China and anywhere overseas.

Filling in the form at the bottom will allow you to request up to 5 quotes from various moving companies. This service is free of charge and will help you select an international moving company that suits your needs and budget.

Do you have comments or personal information to communicate about this article? Add your comment.

Go to the Forum to talk more about history of Shanghai, overview.

Find more definitions and general answers on expatriation issues in the Expat FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions).