Indigenous Urban Tradition of China’s Hangzhou compared with Urban Life in Early 20th Century Shanghai



Shanghai and Hangzhou are two Chinese cities with interesting histories and a rich tradition of Chinese cultural heritage that continues to impress on those who visit them. In the medieval European times, Marco Polo visited Hangzhou and declared it the largest city he had ever seen. In the 14th century, the Moroccan explorer known as Ibn Battuta also said the same of Hangzhou when he visited (Berge're, pg. 12, 1981). These cities are currently the centers of important trade, diplomacy, industrial development and significant progressive ideas of science and other intellectual pursuits in China. However, in terms of the urban tradition of China and the urban life of the 20th century, there is a marked difference between Hangzhou and Shanghai. In the case of Shanghai, its early connection to the western world had made it an important city with a lot of sea trade happening over a long period and many westerners settling in the city in the early 20th century. On the other hand, this was demonstrated as an important center for business with some marked business including the Hardoon & Company as well as important transportation routes such as Nanjing-Shanghai Railway lines ( MacPherson, pg. 235, 2002). However, Hangzhou retained a majorly Chinese image and was the center of much of Chinese culture and intellectual pursuit compared to Shanghai which was now home to many international interactions. The purpose of this paper is to discuss the impact of the indigenous urban tradition of China’s Hangzhou compared with urban Life in Early 20th Century Shanghai. In particular, the paper shall try to look at the cities with a comparison of Shanghai in the past and Hangzhou in the present (Huang, 2006).

Urban Culture vs Traditional Chinese Urban Culture

The one significant similarity between Hangzhou’s present day realities is that you would move around the city and see the distinct Chinese environment and much of the Chinese society’s connection to this city. It has always been in this way for a long time. Its lack of connection to the western world in the early 20th century made it inclined towards a much more rural based town with the urban culture accompanied with the few manifestations of modernization. Besides, the end of Imperial China and the beginning of modern China had enabled it to grow some specific markings of urban culture. This urban culture was marked by a presence of schools modeled on the western engagements as well as the underlying force of development guided by the presence of a few charity hospitals (Rowe, pg. 10, 1984). However, Shanghai had a much more meteoritic rise. Aside from railway constructions, there were companies getting stationed in the city and railway lines connecting the city with other parts of the country such as Nanjing. It was becoming the New York of China. This enabled it to develop a much more multicultural urban culture as we know it today. This urban culture is often underscored by the presence of extreme modernization and the diversification of religious affiliations that confront indigenous Chinese with a sense of foreign presence that creates either revulsion for the traditional man or excitement for the explorative person ( MacPherson, pg. 238, 2002). This urban culture came to Shanghai much earlier. It reflected the significant attention that the City needed in order to grow and become more in tune with the demographic composition it had at the time. The coming of the Kuomintang in 1927 to take control did not change it much since the Kuomintang had wanted a more western environment ( MacPherson, pg. 241, 2002). However, the Communist takeover transformed it into a different environment.

            The traditional cultural environment for the Chinese was a bit different. It was established on a platform of Buddhism and Confucianism with a hint of Agriculture. Life was a bit Agrarian for Hangzhou because, despite its glorious moments in the middle ages, it was a temporary stop for the Imperial majesties that governed these lands (Berge're, pg. 15, 1981). As a result, in the early 20th-century, it was a much quieter and still agrarian environment. Its economic infrastructure was still agriculturally based and lacked the sophistication and the internationalism that Shanghai could boast of at this time. It also endured Japanese occupation until 1949 when the Communist party took it over. This makes it a bit different from the kind of city it is today. Its strategic significance and interaction with foreigners during war time had made it a focal point in the functionalities of the cities that were needed to develop China after the Cultural Revolution (Huang, 2006). However, from the Hangzhou Jianqiao airport’s opening in 1957, the Hangzhou Zoo in 1958, the Hangzhou Xuejun High School and Hangzhou Botanical Garden in 1956, and the Hangzhou Ri Bao (Hangzhou Daily) newspaper beginning publications and the city electing mayors, Hangzhou was on its way to joining Shanghai in its global status. It began to develop its own culture and image as a 20th century modern city.

            In the 21st century, the connections between Hangzhou to the world have been increased and it has attracted global attention over the years. Its indigenous urban culture has given way to an international city’s culture, adapting to the global scenarios while struggling to maintain some of its elements of the previous cultural image (Lowe, 2010). This is not only critical for the present realities but quite important for the city’s image. Its rail system has come to mirror that of Shanghai and the Chinese people living in Hangzhou have a greater feeling about the urbanized environment as they accept the globalization that Shanghai seems to have benefited from a century earlier. However, both are now Chinese cities with significant attachment to the same kinds of interactive measures. In its international recognition, it was the site of the 2016 global G20 meetings (Lowe, 2010). This is the significant understanding that the city now has. Therefore, in comparison to Shanghai, one would say that that indigenous urban tradition of China’s Hangzhou in China today compares to an extent with Shanghai in the 20th century, except that the two cities are now under communist experience while in the 20th century Shanghai’s development had no communist leanings. In order to understand the differences further, it is important to look at indigenous urban tradition of China in Hangzhou compared to urban life, before the Communist takeover as this will provide an opportunity to compare how life with international interaction in Shanghai differed from life in Hangzhou with little international connections at the time ( MacPherson, pg. 246, 2002).

Shanghai and Hangzhou in Early 20th Century

Shanghai in the early 20th century was unlike Hangzhou. It had received the initial interactions between the western world and what was China at the time. It had experienced a more improved lifestyle compared to Hangzhou. In other words, the interchange of cultures, religions, and architecture had enhanced its appeal as an international city to a level that Hangzhou at the time could not compete (Rowe, pg. 4, 1984). This is the reality of Shanghai at the time. Professor John Hall (1960) provided a somewhat telling description of the kind of characteristic that a modernizing Chinese city had. First and foremost, the concentration of population brought about by the increase in the exchange of commodities. China had a lot to offer, not just silk. Much of these shipments were often coming through China’s Shanghai through shipping from the Coast of China to the Americas, mostly the United States of America ( MacPherson, pg. 243, 2002). This population explosion required a significant number of housing units. Now, China’s architecture is quite different. It consists of a housing structure of not more than three levels. This mirrors the same kind of vernacular architecture of the rural areas replete with stone masonry, minor and major carpentry, and masonry. Shanghai had a good number of these. However, it had to be supplanted with taller buildings that would accommodate the increased population of the 20th century as more and more people came to do business and live in Shanghai (Berge're, pg. 17, 1981). Furthermore, the existence of government in Shanghai was much visible in the 20th century. This was promoted by the expansion of social institutions that were meant to expand the capacity of the city to handle the social services that people needed to flow. The Fudan College was established as early as 1905 to enable intellectual advancement. This was followed by other institutions such as St. Ignatius Cathedral, Shanghai Railway station among other important infrastructural benefits (Huang, 2006).

            The most critical aspect of this development was the increase in social interactions between different people of different cultures. Since it was a major Chinese center, it is safe to argue that other social institutions like Buddhist temples existed. However, the establishment of modern colleges and Christian and Muslim houses of prayer was a testament to the modernization of Shanghai (Lowe, 2010). It was not until the emergence of Communist China that these institutions were allowed to grow. The growth was nonetheless more progressive and very critical in the long run.

            The first two important manifestations of an indigenous urban culture in China were the infrastructure and the existence of social infrastructure established by the government. In the case of Hanzhou, the infrastructure was the most visible ( MacPherson, pg. 233, 2002). This is established through Chinese infrastructure that consists of buildings not taller than three stories high. Furthermore, since it was a traditional Chinese city with fewer interactions with the outside world, one would expect that the city had minimal trade with small towns and had smaller roads going through different cities. However, the mode of transportation may have included water as well because of the significant realities that most Chinese cities had ( MacPherson, pg. 244, 2002). Furthermore, the city of Hangzhou also benefited from schools that taught much of Chinese traditional cultural values as well as minimal education required for the employment in government offices as well as serving in the local social and economic organizations. The Hangzhou reality of education was realized through Quishi academy founded in 1897, the Hangzhou high school established in 1899, and the Kwang Chi medical school opened in 1885. It is important to note that these centers of learning focused a lot on learning through the Chinese culture without limiting the challenges of an established position of taking advantage of a thriving international trade. This was the forte of Shanghai and it was maximized to the fullest extent (Rowe, pg. 8, 1984).

            In spite of the indigenous traditional urban culture of the Hangzhou limiting its connections to the outside world compared to Shanghai, there was a much more impactful foreign influence that had impacted on its operations earlier (Lowe, 2010). The existence of the imperial properties and military garrisons there as well as the welcoming of many Chinese visitors from Europe such as Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta, the city had also attracted some external religious activities. These included the building of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception as well as the invasion of and rule by the Mongols. Nevertheless, its people were still rooted in the old Chinese systems with the understanding that people did their business quietly and capitalism was not yet adopted fully (Berge're, pg. 34, 1981). One would argue that the Confucian and Buddhist way of life existed deeply within the Hangzhou cultural construct than in Shanghai where there were already interactions that introduced a more capitalistic environment into the society. For instance, in the case of Hangzhou, the economic activities were pushed in the line of communal living with people believing more in their internal person and looking to reform their behavior as a guarantee of quiet and comfortable life while in the other case the challenge was for the people to adapt to external challenges in order to effectively do business without interruption (Huang, 2006). The flow of capitalist money made Shanghai begin having the bustle and hustle of a 21st-century city when Hangzhou was a quiet commercial center for the Chinese. On the other hand, any Chinese in awe of the city of Hangzhou would be mesmerized by the architecture of the city of Shanghai where the old Chinese infrastructure was adopted into the new high-rise buildings of the international city of Shanghai (Lowe, 2010). This is the reality that makes the difference between Shanghai and Hangzhou.


In conclusion, it is important to underscore the significant similarity between the two cities in the 21st century because of the understanding that they both re-emerged after Communist takeover. However, the difference between the cities during the 20th century is marked by exposure ( MacPherson, pg. 242, 2002). While Hangzhou remained the closed rectangular shaped city with two public places for the people, Shanghai became an important industrial center with maximization of city space and more aligned streets that reflected its current status (Rowe, pg. 13, 1984). It is important to note that the eventual development of China’s Shanghai would have made it look like New York or Chicago or London much earlier because of the meeting between the west and the east which made for good infrastructure and the basic development of business which opened much of the city to exports and imports businesses (Lowe, 2010). In fact, until the communist takeover, successive governments had been excited by the ability of the city to expand on its own without much government investment. On the other hand, Hangzhou also represented what was most precious to China as it sought to establish its own level of commitment to the realities of the 20th century when the society was still not sure about the impact of a modernized China on its people.