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Isabella Jackson, Shaping Modern Shanghai: Colonialism in China’s Global City

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017
Ian Tan
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Isabella Jackson, Shaping Modern Shanghai: Colonialism in China’s Global City, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017

Entrées d’index

Indice de palabras clave :

imperialismo, colonialism, transnacionalismo

Index géographique :

Asie, Asie de l’Est, Chine, Shanghai

Index chronologique :

XIXe siècle, XXe siècle
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Texte intégral

1Known popularly as the “Paris of the Orient,” late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Shanghai has fascinated scholars with its idiosyncratic blend of Chinese and Western cultures. Out of its unique cultural milieu arose a distinctive “Shanghai style,” encompassing literature, architecture, cinema and fashion. It is via the latter of these that readers have commonly associated Shanghai with the notion of modernity. Most writing on the city has focused on the lifestyles of different classes and communities during this period. For example, Leo Ou-fan Lee (1999) has uncovered vestiges of middle-class urbanites’ lifestyles immortalised in the literary works of prominent Chinese writers; while Hanchao Lu (2004) has used ethnographic surveys and interviews to illuminate the uncertainties and fears experienced by different classes of migrant worker arriving in the city, recreating the cacophony of sounds, sights and sentiments from the street during a period of social and political upheaval. Although these writings paint a vivid picture of individual experience and interpersonal encounter in Shanghai at the time, scholars have hardly yet investigated how power relationships arising from the built environment were crucial in the construction of Shanghai’s unique modernity.

2Isabella Jackson fills this gap by presenting a richly detailed account of the Shanghai International Settlement which lasted almost a century between 1845 and 1943. Apart from its initial years of establishment, the settlement was autonomously managed by the Shanghai Municipal Council (smc). It represented the business interests of ratepayers from twelve western nations, rather than the political interests of Britain or United States, which held the foreign concessions that initially formed the settlement. Unlike colonies such as Hong Kong or Singapore, Shanghai’s foreign concessions remained under Chinese sovereignty but were leased and administrated independently by foreign nations as treaty ports. Even though the smc was both colonial in its structures and subject to colonial influence, particularly that of the British, it remained autonomous and transnational in its administration. Thus, this political ambiguity created a peculiar form of governance whereby conventional notions of national sovereignty, imperial influence, and municipal control were periodically challenged during a period of national and global upheaval in the early twentieth century. In her new book, Shaping Modern Shanghai, Isabella Jackson identifies the Shanghai International Settlement’s unique colonial urban governance as a type of transnational colonialism.

3The book examined key areas of municipal activity to explain the workings of transnational colonialism practised in the Shanghai International Settlement. It is evident that the smc exploited its ambiguous political ambit to seek advantage. Jackson describes its status as oscillating between being a “colonial city,” reliant on British protection, and that of an independent “city state,” which sought to represent itself on international platforms and to expand its judicial and territorial rights from the French Concession and the Greater Shanghai City ruled by the Nationalist Chinese government.

4In the introduction, Jackson emphasises how transnational colonialism differs from other forms of national and colonial rule within and beyond China. In her words this positions the governance of the Shanghai International Settlement as a “miniature League of Nations” rather than a colony dictated by foreign merchants or dominated by imperial powers. Jackson provides some defining characteristics in different areas that laid the foundation for further discussions on the extent of the smc’s rule. Firstly, transnationalism differed from internationalism in the sense that the latter implies a strong sense of “state-to-state relationship.” As such a “state-to-state” condition did not effectively exist in Shanghai, the idea of internationalism fails to capture the essence of an organisation made up of non-state actors from different nations and professional backgrounds (who were prone to cooperate) in the same way as transnationalism. Yet, despite Shanghai’s cosmopolitan nature, where foreign nationals and Chinese lived and worked within the settlement to advance their economic interests, Jackson regards its management as remaining distinctively colonial since the majority of the Chinese, particularly the working classes, were excluded from crime protection and municipal services which catered solely for the international traders and expatriate community before the 1920s.

5Thereafter, the book’s contents can be broadly classified in two parts. The first part (Chapters One and Two) describes the structure of the smc and how its operations were funded. Chapter One specifically examines the smc’s sources of income, including taxes, licences and loans. In particular, the author cites the ease with which the smc collected tax and fees from the majority of the Chinese population within the settlement as a sign of its legitimacy to govern and the local populace’s acceptance of its colonial rule, especially in terms of law enforcement and industrial regulation. Chapter Two elaborates how the smc’s governance differed from common colonial rule. Even though the large number of British ratepayers and mercantile firms clearly gave Britain more influence over the smc’s operations, decision-making ratepayers however retained the autonomy to elect smc councillors without Britain’s oversight. The diversity of nationals amongst its councillors, including Japanese and Chinese businessmen in the 1920s, was representative of the transnational outlook that transcended the racial prejudice prevalent during the period. This outlook was likewise reflected in the smc’s staff profile, with Asians moving from low-ranking positions as constables, health inspectors, and nurses to gradually take on senior positions within the Police Force, Health Department, and Industrial Division. These departments were also among the most visible organs of the smc, and the Chinese staff played key mediating roles in representing the municipality and interfacing with the residents of the Settlement during the course of carrying out their duties.

6The second part of the book provides in-depth analysis on the impact of the smc on the development of both the settlement’s and Shanghai’s modernisation. The following chapters (Three, Four and Five) cover topics on “Policing and Conflict in Shanghai,” “Public Health and Hygiene” and “Industry, Welfare and Social Reform” respectively. Using historical accounts drawn from archival research, Jackson explains how transnational colonialism perpetuated different scales of municipal governance and urban control, be it at a macro level involving global and national politics, or at a micro level affecting the global movement of the smc’s councillors and staff, including local Chinese whose lives were profoundly affected by the colonial-style administration of the international settlement. It was through such municipal policies that a foreign landscape could be ordered to facilitate regulation and structured to promote the flow of economic activity. Indeed, despite the differing content of these three chapters, they all foreground the smc’s primary objective in supporting and sustaining an environment conducive to business. However, those governed were neither completely powerless nor submissive. Throughout the book, Jackson provides examples of counter-strategies in which the local Chinese challenged disciplinary power through rioting, striking, or taking advantage of administrative loopholes between the foreign concession and the Chinese City, or within the Shanghai International Settlement.

7Chapter Three especially underlines the smc’s use of military-like and independent judiciary powers as a means to expand its territory and political stature. For example, it used road building in the early twentieth century to bring additional areas beyond the boundary of the Shanghai International Settlement under its informal control. The smc also extended police protection to residents served by the expanded road network and accorded their police officers with extraterritorial rights on these extended areas to enforce the council’s byelaws, licensing, and regulations. Rather than taking sides during conflicts such as strife between neighbouring warlords and the Sino-Japanese War, the smc would claim neutrality on one side or the other, treated them as opportunities to build up a quasi-military police force and volunteer defence corps.

8Chapter Four examines the work of the smc’s Public Health Department to understand widespread problems transcending the divide between coloniser and colonised. Jackson succinctly summarises diseases such as cholera as a problem which “did not respect political borders” and required concerted cooperation from Chinese and colonial municipalities. Even so, cooperation between municipalities, particularly between the British-dominated smc and the French was often waylaid by a spirit of competitive imperialism. It led to both parties upending each other’s healthcare standards and public health regulations and yet also dragging their feet when financial support and coordinated action was required to tackle plagues. Inactivity also characterised the smc’s apathy towards poorer residents, particularly the Chinese, since it did not consider its responsibility to provide for those who came “on their own volition to benefit from the city’s commercial opportunities”.

9However, the smc’s attitude towards residents’ welfare would change after the 1920s, particularly in the area of labour. Chapter Five discusses how global organisations such as the League of Nations International Labour Organisation, and changing sentiments after the Chinese government passed new labour legislation, compelled the smc to react and take stronger action to improve deplorable labour conditions. The Industrial Division in the smc found success in using persuasion rather than legislation which it was not empowered to administer to reduce the child labour situation and help its workers gain higher wages commensurate with the rising cost of living during the Sino-Japanese War. Booming industry was a significant indicator of Shanghai’s success as a modern city. It was hence logical for the smc to adopt industrial reforms that helped maintain its privileged position among treaty ports in China and other British imperial dominions in the Far East.

10The demise of the Shanghai International Settlement came swiftly after Britain and the United States ratified the Relinquishment of Extraterritorial Rights in China on 20 May 1943. It appeared as a dramatic but unbefitting conclusion to the smc’s administration of the settlement that contributed much to Shanghai’s economic success. As Jackson traces the whereabouts of former smc employees in the conclusion, readers are reminded of the book’s central idea of transnational colonialism, as most staff remained active within the Anglophone world. Some served in other British colonies, while others worked in the Allied Control Council in Germany and Austria following World War II, which resembled the smc’s nature as a transnational municipal authority with a limited legal mandate.

11The concept of transnational colonialism provides an effective analytical framework for understanding the complexity of colonial rule and municipal governance in pre-war Shanghai. The legacy of the smc can still be felt today as Shanghai continues to be China’s economic powerhouse and arguably its most global city. Jackson’s study joins the ranks of other invaluable works that present diverse and nuanced understandings of colonial rule in Asia, rejecting a simplistic relationship of domination and dependence between the colonisers and those they had colonised.

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Référence électronique

Ian Tan, « Isabella Jackson, Shaping Modern Shanghai: Colonialism in China’s Global City », ABE Journal [En ligne], 14-15 | 2019, mis en ligne le 28 juillet 2019, consulté le 20 octobre 2019. URL :

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Ian Tan

PhD Candidate, Department of Architecture, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

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La revue ABE Journal est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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