Xu Jilin on Arts and Culture in Shanghai

Today the MCLC list announced the publication of a special journal issue on Shanghai:

‘China Heritage Quarterly’, Issue 22 (June 2010) Launched
http://www.chinaheritagequarterly.org  ‘
The Heritage of Shanghai’

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

It’s my pleasure to announce the publication of Issue 22 of ‘China Heritage Quarterly’. This issue takes advantage of the 2010 Expo Shanghai to discuss the heritage of China’s most famous port city. 

The advent of the ‘2010 Expo Shanghai China’, which opened on 1 May and continues until 30 October, has rivaled the 2008 Beijing Olympics as an event designed for national display and the celebration of Chinese acumen in everything from industry to culture. In this issue of ‘China Heritage Quarterly’ we consider the heritage both of the obloquy suffered and the reputation enjoyed by Shanghai in the context of the official exuberance of the 2010 Expo.

Features include a recent essay by the historian Xu Jilin on the paucity of Shanghai’s culture, Jonathan Hutt on attempts to revisit the Republican era, Gloria Davies on Lu Xun in Shanghai, as well as other work on writers, artists and thinkers closely involved with the city.

This issue was produced with the assistance of Daniel Sanderson. The September 2010 issue of ‘China Heritage Quarterly’ will focus on Matteo Ricci who died in May 400 years ago. Our guest editor will be Dr Jeremy Clarke, SJ.

As ever,

Geremie Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, ‘China Heritage Quarterly’


As an "Old Shanghai" expert and a long-term resident of New Shanghai I was intrigued by the articles in this special issue.  I just finished reading Xu Jilin's article on Shanghai culture (or lack thereof) and found it very interesting (thanks to Geremie Barme for his excellent translation of Xu's article).  Over the years I too have participated in many discussions about the paucity of Shanghai's arts and cultural scene compared to Beijing, and share many of Professor Xu's complaints.  I was a bit surprised however that he didn't delve more into the history of why Shanghai had such a burgeoning, independent cultural scene back in the pre-Liberation era.  The condition of extrality, which allowed foreigners to live under their own national laws, was in fact a principal reason behind the freedoms enjoyed by Shanghai's media.  It was this same condition that Chinese nationalists, who ironically benefitted greatly from the freedoms enjoyed in the concessions, rallied to struggle against and defeat in the nationalist movements of the early twentieth century.  In other words, the very special type of colonialism that Shanghai experienced through the "treaty port system" both paved the way for the freedom of expression of early twentieth century Chinese artists and for the political movements that ultimately gave birth to the Communist Revolution of 1949 (although the treaty ports themselves were returned to Chinese sovereignty during the Pacific War era).

Since then, as Professor Xu remarks, Shanghai has been more or less under the yoke of Beijing, certainly in economic terms until the 1990s, and in cultural terms til the present day.  It has even been remarked that the Expo is Shanghai's way of showing its obedience to the political center, Beijing. 

In addition to the reasons laid out by Xu Jilin in his article, I would also venture the opinion that Shanghai's urban geography and real estate market serves as a limitation to its arts and cultural scene.  In Beijing, where things are spread out very widely, it is not as difficult to set up an arts district or a live music club in the city.  In Shanghai, where the population is densely concentrated and stacked in multi-story buildings, it is much more difficult to do so.

These are just some thoughts and I'd be interested to hear what others have to say about this issue as well.