Thursday, December 10, 2015

Shanghai: The Emperor’s Ugly Daughter

by Roy Griffis

Words, like species, can evolve and even die out. Take the word Shanghai. As a noun, it is an English rendering of two Chinese ideograms which stand for “above the sea” (referring to the city’s precarious elevation), while as a verb, it came to mean to lure or force sailors into unwanted service aboard a sailing vessel or, more generally, through deception to lead someone into a very bad place.

Shanghai, the city, the experience, could embody that very bad place. There were many jewels in the Empire’s Crown; the Settlement might have been one of the more flawed of those ornaments.

In an early example of the philosophy later espoused by Chairman Mao (“Power only comes from the barrel of a gun”), Shanghai as we came to know it was created courtesy of HM’s Navy – and in particular its gunboats – in 1842. After ignobly extracting a ransom of 3 million silver dollars from the wealthy of the city, the Royal Navy returned several weeks later, threatening to bombard nearby Nanking. Some one-sided negotiations between the emperor and the “devils from across the sea” resulted in an equally one-sided treaty that included: reparations to the British, the ceding of Hong Kong to the Empire, and the opening of five ports to the foreigners, allowing both trade and residency.

These concessions (along with the opium trade) would prove to be an ultimately fatal crack in the dam that had kept China isolated from the West for centuries. Other powers (including the United States) requested similar access to China’s goods and potential customers. Hoping to buy off the barbarians, the Tao-Kuang emperor agreed to these additional demands, likely to his ever-lasting regret. One provision of the treaties was extraterritorial jurisdiction; citizens of other nations were immune from the laws of China. Time would show that a land with two sets of laws could be said to be a place with no law at all.

The British were the first major developers in that Chinese port city. Given a 140 acre plot of marsh land (“not much more solid than dirty water,” according to one American), they set about creating a foreign Shanghai according to their own desires, not realizing that Shanghai was going to subject them to a very different kind of evolution, from the food they ate and the domestics who served them to even the way they wore their clothing. Unwilling to adopt more meteorologically sensible modes of dress in the face of Shanghai’s brutal steam-bath summers, British men and women changed clothes as often as three times a day while suffering from skin complaints like athlete’s foot, ringworm, and ferocious prickly heat.

It was the Chinese Civil War’s explosion in 1860, however, that would elevate the barbarian’s new city over the nearly thousand year-old settlement that preceded it. Refugees (including many wealthy merchants and less-than-scrupulous public servants) fled the mainland fighting, washing up homeless and not entirely destitute in the port. “Money-making, practical men” saw an opportunity, and tenements quickly sprang up anywhere a wall could be convinced to stay reasonably vertical. Garden plots, alleys, rice paddies; all were converted into housing. Profits as high as 10,000 percent were not uncommon.

As the Chinese Civil War spread unrest, British and French troops defended their city; first in 1860 by driving off a rebel-backed army and repelling the insurrectionists again in the winter of 1862. When the Yankee commander of a mercenary force (paid for by concerned Shanghailanders, as the British and other foreigners called themselves) was slain in battle, another famous English name stepped into history as Major Charles George Gordon took over. Gordon, who would be nicknamed “Chinese” for his successful leadership of the mercenary troops (Gordon would go on to his own dubious immortality two decades later by falling under the sword of a Muslim Madhi after a spirited one-year’s defense of Khartoum). Given the tumult of this period of the city’s history, no one would be surprised to learn that dealing in arms and weaponry was second only to opium as the primary industry of the day.

Immediately after the second rebel assault on the city, the British and other colonial powers – using the moral suasion granted by good English sterling pounds –set up the Shanghai Municipal Council, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Western interests which was responsible for the management and oversight of the British and American settlements, even as a somewhat less-forceful Chinese governing body was allowed to continue to deal with the natives. This dual system of government appeared to serve the interests of the powerful and well-connected much more efficiently than the poorer majority inhabitants of the port. The two governments would end up running the fraternally twin cities, subject to increasing tension and resentment from the numerically superior Oriental citizens. The opportunities this friction presented would be put to good use by various criminals, communists, and capitalists for at least the next half century; while fortunes were made, vice, in its many malignant varieties, flourished as well, creating a miasma of misery that helped to poison the city.

It was probably about this time the Chinese began to describe Shanghai using this observation: “She is like the Emperor’s ugly daughter, she will never want for suitors.” The major suitors (British, French, American, and native Chinese) would continue to vie to control that ugly daughter for nearly 80 years before Mao’s People’s Army would emerge victorious from their Long March to claim sovereignty over China and Shanghai.


Roy M. Griffis has written short stories, plays, poetry, novels, and screenplays. He is a member of the Writer’s Guild and a former U.S. Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer. He lives in Southern California with his family. By the Hands of Men, Book Three: The Wrath of a Righteous Man will be released in May, 2016.

By the Hands of Men: Book One: The Old World
By the Hands of Men Book Two: Into the Flames

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