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Based on the work of Alexander Major

Picture Source: China Discovery

The French Concession has always been the most desirable part of Shanghai to take up a residence, due to its modern and exciting vibe as well as aesthetical appeal. As a result, the city was nicknamed ‘The Paris of the East’. Yet, this understanding was largely superficial and by 1900 France had irrevocably lost the battles for economic, political and cultural dominance.


First of all, though – what does a ‘concession’ actually mean?


Picture Source: Old Map of Shanghai

In International law, a concession is a territory within a country that is administered by another entity than the state which holds sovereignty over it. This is usually a colonizing power. The French Concession at Shanghai was formally part of the French colonial empire, directly administered by a consul, and initially under the direction of the Governor-General of Indochina. Administration was later transferred to the office of the Ministère des Affaires Étrangères, with the ambassador in Beijing and the Minister in Paris providing direction. The mergeof the British and American concessions into the new International Settlement in 1863 left France with the only  national concession in the city.

Picture Source:Bamboo Compass

The French Concession and International Settlement did hold certain aspects in common.After fifty years, both communities were beginning to identify themselves with the city. The emergence of self-referential nicknames such as ‘Shanghailander’ and ‘Old Shanghai-hand’ was indicative of the attachment felt for their community. This melting pot of foreign settlements led to the serious inconsistencies in the reputation of Shanghai as a French city. For the economy, geopolitical power, and cultural manifestations, it can be shown that interests other than French provided the identity, if not the face, of the city.

Picture Source:China Discovery

#1 The Myth of the French Economic Power

Yes, the French settlers did install financial institutions and business practices and hoped that eventually the ‘backward’ Chinese merchants would emulate their system. What’s more, the French concession represented the best of French technology , as the Concession had electric street lights while most towns in France were still using gas.

However, in reality it was the Chinese middle class, who livid within the concessions, that kept the order in the society. They operated shops, provided skilled labor, and formed the bulk of the police force. The Chinese of Shanghai had a profound effect on the practical composition of the city.In 1905the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce launched an anti-American boycott as  a show of political force. A marginal consequence was an increase in trade with French businesses and new interrelationship with the French economy. The economic power structure demonstrates that with Britain on top and the Chinese occupying a position of increasing power and providing critical services, French influence on this aspect of city life was peripheral. Shanghai certainly did not operate as a French economy. French goods were available, but English business interests dominated the economy.

Picture Source:Two suitcases and a pin

#2 The Myth of the Geopolitical Power

French identity was further manifest by the institutions established in Shanghai, including the political administration, the chamber of commerce, the Université Aurore and other schools. The first French Jesuit school opened at Xujiahui in 1850. The Law school, added in 1911, taught French philosophy, ideology and legal method, and had a great influence in shaping Chinese public policy in later years. Thanks to the Université Aurore, Shanghai was most French city in China. At some point, though, The French direction and ambition faced the Boxer Uprising which was anti -imperialist, anti-Christian movement. The initial success of the Boxers prompted fears of similar movements against Christians and foreigners in other parts of the country. This affected Shanghai’s French community, administrators of the largest Catholic centre in China. What’s more, it was a tough reality check for the French, as it revealed their military inferiority to other foreign powers.

Picture Source:China Discovery

# 3 The Myth of Cultural Manifestations

Some contemporary French observers felt a responsibility to instill European values in the local community. The assimilationist nature of French presence was central to creating the Paris of the East, as the Francisation of indigenous people broadened French impact on Shanghai. That took many forms including theatre, books, cinema, recreation and nightlife.13 The desire to import a French lifestyle went as far as journal articles on maintaining a typical French garden in the challenging Shanghai climate. The enthusiasm that the French administration took in promoting the French language as a means of exerting influence was tempered by the results. Even within the French Concession, French and English were at least equally useful. Despite the best efforts to maintain the French language in education and business, success was minimal. Other cultural customs also tended toward British norms.

The French presence in Shanghai was somewhat French in the manner of the home country, but also unique, owing to its geo-political circumstances. The French Concession was overshadowed economically and never attracted a large number of settlers from France. In 1900 France was still competing to be the dominant foreign influence in Shanghai and China. But, by mid-decade had given up this goal – influence over economics and language was lost to English-speaking interests, the French military was numerically unable to be a regional power. The Concession looked French, but French and English

language were at least equally useful within its borders. French identity was able to manifest itself in concentrated areas where it could be more influential – Catholicism, intellectual life, and entertainment – in part leading to the maintenance

of the Paris of the East reputation through the ensuing decades.

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