Looking at a map of Shanghai, it’s not hard to surmise that the oldest part of the city was once walled in. A circular road interrupts the city’s mostly criss-cross road lay-out, and some of the area’s subway stops and residential communities are named after gates that are no longer there, such as Laoximen, or “Old West Gate.”
But there are few remnants of the wall itself. Like other Chinese cities, including the capital Beijing, Shanghai grew beyond its wall and tore it down. Instead of keeping out invaders, it was seen as keeping out commerce.
Pirates and rebels
For more than 260 years after the establishment of Shanghai as a county town, during the early Yuan dynasty (1271 to 1368), Shanghai had no walls. By the middle of the subsequent Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644), Shanghai had become a densely populated center of commerce and trade, and as such a target for the Wokou — East Asian pirates — who frequently plundered and harassed Chinese coastal settlements. In 1553, the decision was made to build a wall around Shanghai to fortify itself against the raiders.
Shanghai officials and its people worked side by side, and in only three months a wall appeared near the bank of the Huangpu River. It had six gates and a moat alongside it. Once completed, the wall was effective in resisting the pirates and keeping Shanghai safe.
Pirate activity subsided toward the end of the Ming dynasty; Shanghai County found peace. Some scholars and gentry took the initiative to move temples onto the city wall, making it a place for people to worship and relax. One of the most famous temples was the Dajing Guandi Temple, which was dedicated to Guan Yu, a deified general.
The borders of Shanghai's "old town" overlaid on a modern map of the city.
In 1843, when Shanghai was opened to foreigners after China lost the First Opium War, British and French powers established concessions to the north. Their importance would soon rival the old walled city.
From 1850 to 1864, the Taiping Rebellion swept across the country. During that time, Shanghai was also occupied by rebels of the Small Sword Society. The imperial court of the Qing dynasty (1644 to 1912) colluded with the British and French to suppress the rebellion, allowing their troops into Shanghai to assist in its defense. After imperial power was restored, Shanghai’s walls were pockmarked and partly ruined. A large hole had been blown into the northern part of the wall to facilitate troop movements and artillery barrages.
The Qing court forced Yu Taifeng, a member of a famous shipping family who was under suspicion of aiding the enemy, to fund repairs of the city wall. The hole in the northern part became a city gate.
Shanghai city gate, 1860s. From Virtual Shanghai
Revolutionaries and the gentry
In subsequent years, as Shanghai became an international trading center, the city wall increasingly hindered the development of the old city, commonly called the South City. Many people proposed demolishing it. In 1906, Yao Wenshan, a county gentry, wrote to a senior official that “in Shanghai, business is at the top when compared to other ports; the concessions are becoming more and more prosperous every day, while the South City is declining ... We should demolish the city wall and build a road there.”
The official immediately supported this idea. He wrote to the regional governor and persuasively presented the four benefits of demolition: First, the wall’s foundation could become a road that would improve traffic. Second, the bricks could be used to fill waterways and create more roads, and third, build sewers. Lastly, housing prices would increase, benefitting both the population and tax coffers.
But this proposal soon received strong opposition from the conservative majority of the gentry, who formed the City Wall Preservation Association and began gathering support against the demolition. They also used the press to spread the opinion that “the time has not yet come to demolish the city wall, as it has the function of preserving the city and eliminating unforeseen dangers.”
There were many appeals to the governor to save the city wall. “Demolitionists” and “preservationists” attacked each other in the press, and argued with each other in the street. However, the initiative to demolish the city wall was supported by the government and the majority of residents, so the powerful preservationists had to accept a compromise — creating more gates to facilitate traffic while preserving the remaining city wall. By the 1911 Revolution, which would overthrow the Qing, there were ten gates in the old city wall of Shanghai.
An interior view of Shanghai’s northern gate around the turn of the 20th century. From Virtual Shanghai
Amid the revolution, Yao and others saw the opportunity for the total demolition of Shanghai’s city wall. They sent a joint petition to Li Pingshu, the Minister of Civil Affairs of the Shanghai Military Governorate, which was part of the new republican government. It was approved immediately. Li announced: “Today the time has come, what we want to demolish will be demolished! We cannot lose this opportunity, or we will never be able to demolish the wall!”
Soon an office for the demolition of the wall was established — the City Moat Office. Workers used hammers, chisels, and farming tools. The discarded bricks and tiles were immediately used to fill in the long-abandoned moat, creating the roads that still exist today.
Only one section of the wall remains — not out of sentiment, but as a result of bureaucratic coincidence. The City Moat Office had been set up inside the Dajing Guandi Temple, which sat on top of the wall. Today, it is the only piece of the old fortifications, which stood in the center of Shanghai for 350 years, that remains, allowing Shanghai residents to connect with that era.
Dajing Guandi Temple in Shanghai. Shanghai Local Chronicles Library
A version of this article originally appeared in the book “Old City, East Meets West,” published by the Shanghai Local Chronicles Library. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Lu Hua and Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: A view of the Fangbang water gate, near the East Gate of the county seat of Shanghai, 1880s. From Virtual Shanghai)