A question that people often ask me is: which is the better city, Beijing or Shanghai? This is such a loaded question I don't know where to begin. Of course, the answer depends on one's perspective, background, and interests. I always reply with the hazy but useful phrase 各有千秋 (ge you qian qiu) which literally means "each has a thousand autumns" but translates more accurately as "each has its advantages..."
Both cities boast many of the same advantages and disadvantages. Both have a relatively cosmopolitan urban culture (at least compared to most other places in China) which can be advantageous for foreigners. Both have experienced rapid growth and change over the past twenty years or so, and both have terrible traffic problems as well as significant air pollution--though in this respect, I'd have to say that Shanghai is in slightly better shape. Both have their share of historical sites, though Shanghai's sites favor the modern over the premodern.
As for differences, Beijing obviously has a richer history as a city than Shanghai, and what's left of its historical relics provide a testament to its status as the imperial capital since the Liao Dynasty. As my old friend Ed Lanfranco puts it, Beijing went through four major stages, the four Ms: Mongols, Ming, Mao, and Money. (I'll leave it at that, since this is Ed's proprietary material--he's writing a book on the subject and hopefully we'll get to do a film together next year as well).
(Beijing expert Ed Lanfranco in his home/office in Beijing)
Shanghai goes back at least to Song times, though it didn't have much status until the Ming when it was a county capital. Yet it wasn't until the treaty port era that Shanghai emerged as a major metropolis in China, overtaking other regional cities such as Yangzhou, Suzhou, Hangzhou, and Nanjing in status and importance.
Beijing has a very different environment and surroundings to Shanghai. Beijing is a northern city located on a plain surrounded on three sides by mountains, beyond which lay the steppelands of the nomads, particularly those people known as Mongols. For adventuresome types, Beijing is a great place to be, since it's only an hour or two away from wonderful hikes and explorations of the rugged rural environment.
Shanghai is a megalopolis located on a flat expanse of muddy, river-laden land created over the centuries by the effluvia pushed ever outward by the Yangzi River. One has to travel several hours to find mountains (for example, Huangshan in Anhui, or the more nearby mountains of Zhejiang, notably Moganshan). Instead, one finds other notable cities nearby (Suzhou, Hangzhou, Shaoxing) as well as beautiful little river towns exemplary of the Jiangnan culture (Jiangnan means "south of the Yangzi" and refers to the lower Yangzi region, particularly Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces).
My own experiences in Shanghai are of course much more significant than my time spent in Beijing, and I've also done quite a lot of research on the history of Shanghai, so I can talk about Shanghai with some authority, but when it comes to Beijing I'm relying on less field experience and on the viewpoints of friends like Ed Lanfranco who've lived there a long time and have developed considerable local knowledge. I therefore invite Ed to join in this conversation and let us know what he thinks the distinct advantages are of living in the northern capital.
Of course it is also helpful to talk to "native" Chinese Beijingers and Shanghainese, but let me warn you of one thing first: expect them to trot out the well-worn cliches. This conversation has been going on a long time in China--at least a century or so--and since most people like to let others do the thinking for them, they tend to resort to the same old shibboleths. Shanghainese claim that Beijingers are rough and uncultured, naive and unsophisticated. Beijingers say that Shanghainese are slippery and oily, deceitful, twisted, and not honest or forthright. This goes for cuisine, fashion, style, and other forms of culture as well as people. In fact, there's a whole discourse on 海派 京派 "Shanghai style" vs. "Beijing style" that goes back at least as far as the May Fourth era (1919-1923), when the two cities were contending for status as the leading intellectual metropolis for China.
If you want to look to deeper roots for this comparison, you can look all the way back to ancient times and the North vs. South debate. There's been a pronounced difference in northern and southern Chinese culture at least since the Zhou period, but I think it's a bit of a stretch to carry this forward to the contemporary BJ vs. SH rivalry. Still, both cities claim to represent their respective cardinal direction (it is debatable whether they do so in reality).
Recently Timeout Magazine in Beijing published a survey that compared the two cities in a number of different categories. It's actually a pretty useful method of comparison, though I found some of their categorical analyses problematic. I have scanned the pages of this article and they can be found in my Beijing photo gallery.
One thing I can say is that in Shanghai there's been more of a consistent and effective effort to preserve what's left of the old city. One can still find old neighborhoods of longtang-style housing (though these are fast disappearing) as well as apartments, hotels, and office buildings from the early 20th c. Not much left of Old Beijing, I'm afraid, and the new Beijing isn't very pretty. Of course, there will always be the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and a few other chosen historic sites, but most of the rest of the old city has disappeared. While there are efforts to preserve the bits that are left, they don't strike me as all that effective when stacked up against the big-name developers , but at least some are trying .
Both cities are in the grip of a huge identity crisis, trying to figure out how to connect their current status to the past while also dealing with the gaping black hole of the Mao era (which apart from a few Cultural Revolution restaurants and other "nostalgic" memorabilia, everyone seems to be in a hurry to forget). The struggle to preserve the old is just part of an ongoing political struggle to seek meaning in the present and define the future.
That's about all I have to say for now on this topic. I invite interested readers to partake in a discussion on Shanghai vs. Beijing in my discussion section.