Cosmopolitan (Dis)Illusion, Migration, State Policies, and the Mirage of the Shanghai Exception

Throughout contemporary Chinese history, Shanghai has been perceived as an exceptional cosmopolitan space. While these days this exceptionalism is generally framed in terms of the city’s status as a global financial hub, it should not be forgotten that Shanghainese cosmopolitanism is rooted in more than a century of migration, grassroots activism, and the rejection of traditional hierarchical social structures by the city’s residents.

When Shanghai went into lockdown in the spring of 2022, a sense of shock and disbelief prevailed among both the city’s residents and outside observers. This astonishment came from the idea that Shanghai enjoys an exceptional level of autonomy, freedom, and a Western-influenced lifestyle that is at least partially immune to the more repressive aspects of rule by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This perceived exceptionalism might be partly true because Shanghai is the largest financial centre in mainland China and a direct-controlled municipality (直辖市); also, the city is imbued with the legacies of past extraterritorialities (Bickers and Jackson 2016; Jackson 2017). However, while the sense of Shanghai as a bourgeois liberal cosmopolitan exception free from CCP control is largely an illusion, it is important to remember how this perception is also rooted in a long history of grassroots activism, migration, and a quest for change against elite hierarchies, rather than being solely a reflection of the city’s place as a key hub of global capitalism.

Migrant Cosmopolitanism in the Late Imperial and Republican Eras

Underneath today’s shiny bourgeois consumerist impressions of Shanghai, the city’s cosmopolitanism is largely the result of the actions of generations of Chinese migrants and activists, rather than simply a reflection of the metropolis’s rise as a global financial centre. The impression that Shanghai is the key to and exemplar of Chinese modernity under Western influence ignores local agency and histories.

Although the beginning of Shanghai’s cosmopolitanism is often associated with the first Opium War, after which the city officially became a treaty port under the Sino-British Treaty of Nanking of 1842, Shanghai had been connected to international currents much earlier. It was an important hub of intellectual and economic exchange long before the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368), serving first as the capital of a district or county (县) and becoming a circuit (道, meaning ‘road’ or ‘path’, a political division in imperial China) in 1725 (Wasserstrom 2008: 27). During the late imperial and early Republican periods, as Shanghai linked an elaborate system of domestic trade to the international market, it allowed greater social mobility for migrants and refugees with varied skills and capacities to establish themselves in the city based on a sense of a social-contract alternative to Confucian, native-place, or lineage identities. Although there was the community of literati—the traditional elites in imperial China—associated with the various administrative bodies set up in the city (Henriot 2001: 22), the structure changed rapidly as lineage declined through modernisation.

As a city comprising mainly merchants and migrants, rather than Confucian literati, Shanghai swiftly came to represent a more open environment, relatively unburdened by patrilineage. Migrants—who, by the early Republican era, had become the majority of the city’s population—were unable, or simply did not want, to trace their family origins, and thus escaped the control of traditional clan authorities. In this way, Shanghai allowed more heterogeneity and mobility as changing lifestyles and modernising ideas began to challenge the lineage and clan authorities that structured traditional Chinese societies. Lineage is a product of descent and inheritance. Traditional lineage authority is based on the principle of patrilineal descent for males of privileged bloodlines entitled to family inheritance (Faure 2007; Szonyi 2002). Without such traditional structuring authorities, Shanghai came to be a place where migrants enjoyed the freedom to reinvent themselves, particularly those who would not otherwise have been able to because of their gender or social background—though not without new prejudices and negotiations (see, for instance, Honig 1992 on the racism that people from certain areas faced). In a poignant example in one of her articles, Yeh Wen-hsin (1997) tells the story of how, in the Republican era, a casually dressed Shanghai woman dominated a public conversation and underscored her points by pounding on the table when debating with three frustrated provincial gentlemen.

Rural lineage contained the nexus of provincial power, as the rural gentry was able to take advantage of its social power in the countryside to assert its authority even in the cities through formal and informal networks. In the early twentieth century, major reform movements—from the May Fourth and New Culture movements to socialist revolutions, and from Sun Yat-sen to Mao Zedong—began to attack lineage and clan powers. Chen Duxiu, the CCP’s co-founder, for instance, proposed replacing the clan with individual subjectivity (Chen 1915, quoted in Ye 2015: 49). Mao more specifically criticised the clan alongside the political authority of previous ruling regimes and traditional theocracy in his famous Hunan Peasant Movement Investigation Report, stating that government, clan, theocracy, and patriarchy represented the totality of feudal patrilineal clan law (宗法) and were the four ropes that enslaved Chinese people, especially peasants (Mao 1966, quoted in Ye 2015: 49). He then advocated for peasants to overthrow ancestral halls and take over clan authority and feudal establishments. The critique of clan lineage legitimised the CCP’s agenda to consolidate its power and extract resources from the villages, as the Party began to establish land law in its territories and confiscate ancestral properties that belonged to the clans.

As mentioned, in a migrant society such as Shanghai, lineage and rural land concepts were undergoing changes and challenges long before the CCP was established. Since the late Qing period, reform-minded new elites and immigrants from nearby Jiangnan Province (which administered Shanghai) began to distance themselves from their native clans and traditions. Yang Ping of Jiangnan Province, a member of the first National Assembly of the Republic of China, claimed in 1928: ‘Since women and men are equal according to our constitution, it reflects the progress of time and the Confucian etiquette law [礼法]. Women and men come from the same family origin and they then should enjoy the same rights of inheritance’ (‘Genealogy of the Yang Family of Bilin Xing Village, 1928’, quoted in Ye 2015: 54). Another family in the same region revised their genealogy (家乘) in 1916 to include the notion that ‘now men and women are not that different in their learning, vision, and professions, therefore our family will begin to record the names of the women, married or unmarried, from this generation on’ (‘Genealogy of the Hui Family’, quoted in Ye 2015: 54). Such visions were more pioneering than official policies. It was only in 1927 that the Supreme Court of the Republic of China officially granted women rights to inheritance, which took a few more years to actualise in practice (Ye 2020: 36–37).

More importantly, the organising structure of lineage began to change as well, represented by the emergence of clan society (族会, zuhui) in Shanghai in the late Qing and early Republican periods. Different from lineage in the traditional sense, zuhui were founded on the principle of modern social groups, representing the idea of voluntary and common will, with their own principles and agendas (Ye 2020: 28). The meritocratic examination system from imperial China had already gradually replaced the birthright-based authority of lineage. In response, clans began to establish new types of authority through control of land and property. As such, the issue that emerged for reformers was how to justly mediate property rights with clear rules. For instance, families with means and familiar with modern science and philosophy began to discuss ‘lineage constitutionalism’ (家族立宪)—an idea modelled on modern constitutional democracies that entailed zuhui being allowed to elect their managers and representatives. Lineage constitutionalism emerged in this context of transforming the private and the familial in the eyes of the larger public and signified a new way of defining community and structuring society. Accordingly, some zuhui became self-organised, self-purposed, and self-principled, with democratic elections and management, in contrast with the patriarchal authoritative system of traditional lineage. In this way, they were clearly connected to civil society and arguably emerged from the broader social contract. The decline of the clan lineage in Shanghai is consistent with the observation of some scholars, including Yeh Wen-hsin (1997), that early twentieth-century Shanghainese society deemed the inherited and established Chinese way of life problematic. New social practices and redefined boundaries of community identities rendered new gender dynamics that persisted in later times, as we shall see in the following sections in the case of ‘househusbands’ and LGBTQ activism.

After 1949: Between Historical Legacies and State Policies

The urban planning and financial and industrial developments in Shanghai in the late imperial period and the early twentieth century laid out the infrastructure for post-1949 developments. Since the late nineteenth century, the textile industry—a sector dominated by female workers—embodied such new bourgeoning social changes, though not without often gendered limitations and contradictions (Honig 1986; Cliver 2020). This industrial development and associated forms of urban planning created—perhaps unintentionally—large public spaces for women outside the domestic sphere. As Leo Ou-fan Lee argues in Shanghai Modern (1999: 94), the new public structures and spaces of the Republican period served as the material background for further interpretations of Shanghai’s urban culture and Chinese modernity, with the emergence of a new public persona for women in particular. As patriarchal control over women is often manifested through the control of their social space, their being able to occupy meaningful public spaces constituted significant empowerment. In addition, much like the city of New York, to which Shanghai is often compared with pride, public space is woven into the fabric of the city. Open spaces provide places for public interaction and potential solidarity, as individuals invest in places with social and cultural meaning, thereby empowering themselves collectively (Hayden 1995: 78).

Shanghai cityscape observation. PC: Franck Michel (CC),
Shanghai cityscape observation. PC: Franck Michel (CC),

The CCP inherited the Republican government’s state planning and selected Shanghai to be the driving force for industrial growth for the new socialist state. In the 1950s, Shanghai became the base for the industrial development of the newly established People’s Republic of China. The Shanghai Military Control Committee took over the textile industry, which then became state-owned. In the context of such industrial changes, the female employment rate in Shanghai rose to the highest in China. As the textile industry became the frontline of socialist development, women who were its main workforce gained more respect and were paid more, under both the new socialist policies and the legacy of earlier gender equality before 1949. Socialist propaganda and discourses emphasised gender equality. The image of female workers represented socialist modernity against Confucian, feudal, and capitalist patriarchal forms (Chen 2003). The All-China Women’s Federation also called for role-sharing in domestic labour. Such ‘women hold up half the sky’ propaganda does not necessarily mean a utopian reality, of course, as there are multiple contradictory social realities, including gendered employment and other subtle discrimination contributing to women’s subordination. Nonetheless, traditional male privileges and entitlements had already been weakened in Shanghai before communist industrialisation, as we have seen in the previous section.

Moreover, the industrial history of Shanghai before 1949 had entailed more than mere economic development, including a legacy of feminist activism as well. Textile factories improved women’s social visibility and participation in public discourse. As Emily Honig (1986) and Steve Smith (1994) have pointed out, strikes were not only crucial to the development of class identity, but also a vehicle through which women explored a new gender identity. In August 1911, decades before any labour unions existed in Shanghai, thousands of women took part in self-organised protests and coordinated action across different filatures by electing delegates. They were capable of organisation, confident, and determined to make their voices heard, exhibiting a sense of women’s liberation long before the CCP took control of the country. My grandmother recalled her time at a textile factory with pride for two reasons: it not only allowed her to earn wages and develop friendships and solidarity with other women that lasted for life, but also introduced her to study groups and activism—including strikes—through networks from the factory. Both types of experience enhanced her and her co-workers’ understanding of economic modernity and their own subjectivity. Therefore, the story of early twentieth-century Shanghai women factory workers’ strikes should be read alongside other types of class struggle and the formation of political consciousness, as feminism and broadening perspectives of gender in the public sphere had already begun to challenge and even change forms of patriarchal subordination.

The material advantages ordinary urbanites were able to enjoy before and after 1949 because of Republican and socialist state policies also became an incentive to create new and more prosperous types of private life even during the socialist rationing era. As a city that was granted more resources, during periods of national hardship, people in Shanghai were still able to live a relatively comfortable life. One way this was manifested was in the phenomenon of Shanghai’s ‘househusbands’, who were devoted to domestic work while their wives were busily involved in socialist industrialisation—a domestic configuration that was, in part, made possible by Shanghai’s material privileges. In this way, the equality and progressiveness of Shanghai’s gender relations reflected the inequality of socialist policies and national development, demonstrating what Zheng Wang refers to as ‘multiple contradictory social realities’ (2016).

Today: Between Neoliberal Exterritoriality and Activism

The cosmopolitan legacies from the late imperial and early Republican eras, as well as the state policies in the Republican and socialist eras, enabled Shanghai to enjoy greater liberties in relation to its international connections, including diplomatic, financial, educational, and cultural ties. For instance, Shanghai Pride, founded in 2009 as the first LGBTQ event in China, was sponsored by foreign consulates. In the early 2000s, Chi Heng Foundation sponsored an LGBTQ course at Fudan University that I was able to attend as an undergraduate student—the first of its kind in mainland China. The political atmosphere was relatively liberal at the time and To Chung, the founder of Chi Heng, was able to share in class his story of coming out as a gay man to his elite peers. In addition, the special connection Shanghai has with Hong Kong—the place To Chung is originally from and a global financial centre in Asia with more freedom (Chase 2011)—helped facilitate the establishment of Chi Heng in Shanghai. The international attention Shanghai receives also makes it easier for nongovernmental organisations to gain support (BBC China 2017). Many LGBTQ-related events have been held in Shanghai, such as the 2009 Pride Week, and Shanghai’s queer social spaces also grew with the rise of the internet, social media, and international connections.

However, this queer environment developed during China’s economic and ideological neoliberalisation, which coincided with the emergence of an ‘imagined cosmopolitanism’ (Bao 2011) and the development of forms of culture to be consumed, rather than rooted in communities. Shanghai’s imagined cosmopolitanism must also be seen in the light of the era of Reform and Opening and the shifts in the household registration system (hukou) that have placed serious limitations on the choices and resources of many rural–urban migrants who work in the city. In this way, the mobility afforded Shanghai’s residents since the onset of reforms has mostly benefited college-educated middle-class (im)migrants. Many have noted that the LGBTQ liberties in Shanghai, such as the annual pride parade, were only linked to small groups with middle-class backgrounds and international connections, while gender activism in other places—most notably, Guangzhou—has been built on a broader community of activists, artists, and social workers due to the city’s tradition of citizen activism and civil society since the early 2000s (Hand 2006; Zeng 2017).

In short, Shanghai’s relative freedom has been conditioned by local and international histories and state policies with legacies in both the Republican and the socialist eras, owing to generations of migrants and activists challenging Confucian, capitalist, and patriarchal authorities. Shanghai also reflects larger inequalities in national development and social policies under different regimes. However, it is important to remember how, under the illusion of liberal cosmopolitan freedom, Shanghai is not exempted from central policies, particularly during periods of crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic. This explains why the kinds of grassroots activism and bottom-up quest for change and reforms in the first half of the twentieth century became more limited in the second half, and today are severely hindered in a more repressive environment. In the context of today’s state capitalism and neoliberal authoritarianism, it is increasingly urgent to recognise Shanghai’s often neglected legacy of grassroots activism and bottom-up demands for change and reform by diverse actors, which complicates the more dominant depiction of the city as a place of (neo)liberal bourgeois-cosmopolitan exceptionalism.

This essay draws from a forthcoming chapter penned by the author for the Cambridge World History of Sexualities.
Featured Image: Covid-19 lockdown in Shanghai. PC: Hsiuan Boyen (CC),


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Ting Guo

Ting Guo is a scholar of religion and Chinese/Sinophone studies, focusing on religion, politics, ideology, and gender. She received her PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Edinburgh and was a research fellow at the University of Oxford and Purdue University. Her first book monograph, Politics of Love: Religion, Secularism, and Love as a Political Discourse in Modern China, is forthcoming with Amsterdam University Press.

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