Shanghai: China's Gateway to Modernity

By Goodman, Bryna | The China Journal, July 2011 | Go to article overview

Shanghai: China's Gateway to Modernity


Goodman, Bryna, The China Journal


Shanghai: China's Gateway to Modernity, by Marie-Claire Bergère, translated by Janet Lloyd. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009. xxii + 497 pp. US$80.00 (hardcover), US$29.95 (paperback).

Do cities have destinies? Shanghai doyenne Marie-Claire Bergère has crafted a new grand synthesis of Shanghai history around this theme. The English title of Bergère' s book both affirms the city's historical mission and recalls Rhoads Murphey's Shanghai, Key to Modern China (1953), which portrayed Shanghai as fertile soil for the transplantation of modem Western commercial, financial and industrial institutions. Bergère's own meticulous scholarship of the 1980s, particularly her acclaimed Golden Age of the Chinese Bourgeoisie, illuminated the social and economic structures of Shanghai's early-20 -century business class, and examined the ways in which Shanghai's economic dynamism of the early 1920s was built upon traditional Chinese social foundations, not simply upon the dynamism that developed from the transnational flows of trade and ideas that characterized Shanghai's existence as a treaty port. In this fashion, Bergère's Golden Age offered a nuanced critique of both simplistic models of Western influence and those of Marxian class analysis.

We may ask, then, how Bergère's current invocation of a "gateway" metaphor builds upon her earlier rethinking of a Western-modeled modernity. Given the explosion of Shanghai studies both outside and within China in the past quarter century, we may ask, as well, how Bergère positions her new Shanghai history in the context of recent studies.

In her new book, a survey of the twists and turns of Shanghai's development from the Opium War until the present, Bergère clarifies Shanghai's role in the production of Chinese modernity: "The originality of the town ... lay not in the implantation of a colonial modernity ... but rather in the welcome that its local society had given to that implantation, adopting and adapting it, and turning it into a modernity that was Chinese" (p. 2). Bergère appropriately notes that Shanghai was not "a wretched fishing village just waiting for foreign intervention" (p. 2). Nonetheless, the narrative begins at the moment of implantation, "when Shanghai's destiny was sealed" (p. 3). Bergère affirms Chinese as well as Western agency and mutual commercial cooperation. In this work of synthesis, attentiveness to the former integrates, more than extends, her earlier insights. An eagerness to dispel the excesses of an earlier generation of anti-colonial Chinese historiography leads her to hew to issues of economic development, and avoid theoretical analysis of the semicolonial structuring of the city. The book's judicious conclusion is ambivalent as to Shanghai's - or China's - ability to fulfill its mission and become what Bergère might consider truly modern.

The book is structured by four chronological parts that register the political tectonics behind the flows and ebbs of Shanghai development: 1) the late Qing treaty-port years (1842-1911); 2) the pre-war Republic (1912-37); 3) war and revolution (1937-52); and 4) the People's Republic. Parts I and II contain 10 of the 14 chapters, reproducing the focus of the bulk of Bergère's formidable earlier publications (which enrich the current book with their insightful detail). The parts covering 1939 to the present are shorter, and consist of two chapters each. …

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