Printer Friendly

Shanghai: From Market Town to Treaty Port, 1074-1858.

To recount in a scholarly fashion almost eight centuries of urban history in 346 pages is a formidable challenge. Making use of a wide variety of sources, including local gazetteers, Linda Johnson has met that challenge in an impressive manner.

The author traces the origins of the great port of Shanghai back to a market town which by 1292 had already become a county seat. She thereby demolishes the myth of the minuscule fishing village brought to life by the impact of the west. The west, in fact, had nothing to do with the city's initial growth, as Johnson makes clear in "Cotton: The Development of Shanghai County" -- perhaps the most fascinating chapter in a fascinating book. Under the Yuan dynasty, the town was already becoming the focal point for the cotton cultivated to its east and the cotton goods produced to its west. The cultivation was itself facilitated by the invention of a cotton gin, first mentioned in 1314, although it is perhaps fanciful to speculate, as the author does, that Eli Whitney might have heard of this device five hundred years later. Equally important for the city's prosperity was the diversion early in the Ming dynasty of the Songjiang river away from the sea to the Yangzi estuary. Trade in cotton goods could now flow north in return for the massive amounts of soybean cake needed to fertilize the cotton fields. The story, however, was not one of unalloyed success. The troubles at the end of the Ming crippled trade, and eventually the west did make its impact. Even before its opening as a treaty port in 1842, Shanghai was already exporting its cotton textiles, especially its "Nankeen" textiles to the west through Guangzhou. The abolition of the slave trade, but especially the industrial manufacturing of British and American textiles brought this lucrative trade to an end after 1830. The draining of silver from China only exacerbated the economic decline. Nevertheless, by the time it entered the depression, the city had centuries of prosperity behind it.

The author sketches the urban landscape and its inhabitants in two chapters, "Ming Shanghai: City of Temples and Gardens" and "Qing Shanghai: A City Built by Guilds." Encompassing native place name associations, common trade associations, and combinations of the two, the discussion of the guild structure of the city and its growing suburbs is especially good. The author argues that the incorporation of both Chinese and foreign outsiders or "sojourners" into urban life paved the way for the treatment of westerners after the Treaty of Nanking. Qing officials perceived the development of the British (soon to become the International) and French concessions not so much as an abrogation of sovereignty as a continuation of the old technique of "using barbarians to control barbarians." To persuade the indigenous merchant community to accept the new arrangements, Qing officials even held out the advantages of a "Great Scheme for Commercial Intercourse." The situation, however, was inherently unstable, not least because the British had brought their Cantonese compradors with them, engendering tensions between the different Chinese mercantile communities.

It became even more unstable as the British and the Americans, though not the small French community, displayed an interest in the burgeoning Taiping rebellion. While the Taipings did not advance on the city, Shanghai experienced its own rebellion in September 1853 when the Small Swords, composed in part of boatmen left unemployed by the change in the course of Yellow River which had closed the northern reaches of the Grand Canal, took the governmental heart of the old city, the Ming city. Some British and Americans actively co-operated with the rebels, trading weapons and providing physical aid, while the French favoured the besieging Qing forces. Only in February 1855 was an arrangement made whereby the British agreed to enforce strict neutrality in return for changes in Qing methods of collecting customs. After some initial confusion over whether what was involved was customs collection (the British view) or tax-farming (the Chinese view), the Imperial Maritime Customs Service was established in 1858, which is where Professor Johnson brings her well-documented study to a close.

If somewhat repetitious on occasion, Johnson's account is well-written and challenges some of the received scholarly wisdom. The main criticism that I would level at this study is that it falls to delve more deeply into the realm of theory. Johnson is clearly aware of the debates over "the sprouts of capitalism," the nature of antifeudal movements, and imperialism. But perhaps because Chinese scholars are still debating these matters, her treatment of them is rather cursory. Yet while facts are vitally important, empiricism can only carry one so far. In addition, the brief comparisons of European and Chinese guilds and the uses of public spaces are insufficiently developed. Overall, however, Professor Johnson's book is a welcome and useful contribution to the literature.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Canadian Journal of History
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Laffey, John
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1996
Words:807
Previous Article:Telltale Hearts: The Origins and Impact of the Vietnam Antiwar Movement.
Next Article:The Origins of the Great Leap Forward: The Case of One Chinese Province.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters