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  • Why Shanghai? On Engagement and Empiricism in the Field of Chinese Urban History
  • Niv Horesh (bio)
Wen-Hsin Yeh. Shanghai Splendor: Economic Sentiments and the Making of Modern China, 1843–1949. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. xiii, 305 pp. Paperback $39.95, isbn 978-0-520-24971-4.
Marie-Claire Bergère. Shanghai: China's Gateway to Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009. xix, 497 pp. Hardcover $80.00, isbn 978-0-804-74904-6.


The books under review here are two of the most important studies of Shanghai's prewar history to be published in recent years. Their respective authors, Wen-Hsin Yeh of UCLA and Marie-Claire Bergère of École Normale Supérieure, can point to near-lifetimes of intricate engagement with the city on different levels. Each has contributed a trail of previous publications that have become standards in the field of Shanghai studies, at least in the West. In that sense, the two books can also be read as exceptionally erudite summations of decades of scholarship that have shaped the contours of the field, coupled with insightful concluding notes on what might become of Shanghai in the future.

I will offer an economic historian's reading of these two books along with broader observations on the direction of Chinese urban historiography in Western academe. The issue that concerns me most as a younger academic is precisely the sort of issue that is often raised by more senior China historians in job interviews or informal gatherings: "Why Shanghai?" In more concrete terms, what additional insight could one offer the world, given that so much research of Bergère's and Yeh's high caliber is already in print? Have Shanghai studies not become a trendy cottage industry that is luring young scholars away from the urgent but harder task of conducting archival or anthropological fieldwork in neglected urban centers across China's interior? Is there really a need to continue investing in Shanghai intellectually when we know so little about what went on in the rural hinterland of the country during the prewar era?1

Later, I will try to unfurl this "why-Shanghai" canvas a little further in order to provoke other questions: Need Shanghai scholars engage with one another's work [End Page 419] more extensively if they are to offer a coherent defense of the field's future viability? Does previous Shanghai scholarship sufficiently address the question of why Shanghai is significant? Why has Shanghai's image become strongly associated with mystique, vice, and promiscuity? Most important, what really accounted for Shanghai's rise to prominence?

In 1981 Bergère, who was later to become the doyen of Shanghai studies in the West, reviewed Rhoads Murphey, whose work had embodied conventional wisdom in the field in the 1950s. In his Shanghai: Key to Modern China (1953), Murphey cast prewar Shanghai as a longstanding bridgehead of Western innovation in East Asia against the backdrop of the Communist takeover of the Mainland. By 1977, however, Murphey had come to revise prewar Shanghai's historic role within the Mainland as a "fly on an elephant's back." In other words, Murphey recast prewar Shanghai as a small enclave of modernity that was ultimately insignificant to the lives of most ordinary Chinese.2

Bergère, on the other hand, identified significant prewar manifestations of what may be loosely termed as Confucian civic responsibility. She also identified institutional maturation and free enterprise in golden-age Shanghai (1920s), when Chinese state power was in decline. At the same time, she pointed to the resurgence of dirigisme and the stifling of free markets in the 1930s, after the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) had come to power. To wit, Bergère suggested that, in the 1920s, China saw for the first time the emergence of a bold streak of entrepreneurs, steeped in the internal dynamics of China's rural hinterland, but equally conversant with market conditions around the world.3

Authoritative Gateway to Shanghai History

In her recently published book (hereafter Gateway), Bergère seems true to her influential thesis concerning the nature of Shanghai prewar capitalism. This capitalism, she suggests, was underpinned by a bold streak of...