Fragmented Nationalism in Shanghai

From the period of 1842 to 1943, Shanghai possessed a worrying lack of sovereignty due to the fragmentation of its political power.[1] Bickers (2012) argued that this led to a myriad of nationalist activities.[2] At this time, foreign imperial powers held power over portions of Shanghai.[3] This resulted in a multitude of often contradictory laws that made regulation within the city highly difficult.[4]

This essay will be explaining and giving examples of Bickers’ five layers of nationalism: Settler, Cosmopolitan, Imperial, Anti-Imperial and Asian. It will then be extrapolating how such a state could come to be.

This essay will ultimately find that the myriad of nationalist identities were possible due to Shanghai’s government’s inability to centralise law and the cosmopolitan nature of the city.

Settler Nationalism formed in Shanghai along similar lines as those in Rhodesia, South Africa and other Imperial colonies.[5] This was the identity that sought to form a native “Shanghailander” and create an autonomous and independent Shanghai.[6]

As argued by Bickers, this form of nationalism rejected control by the Chinese state but would seek out help from the British Empire. The Empire itself tolerated this nationalism as long as they continued to benefit.[7]

Shanghai was a diverse society made up of a myriad of races, nations and ideologies. In order to maintain peace and cultivate diversity, cosmopolitan policy aimed at limiting offence against foreigners.[8] Due to the intersecting laws and regulators, governing bodies could not expect to control conflicting factions within Shanghai. Instead, they sought to remove possibilities of conflict by creating an air of peace. This could be seen as necessary, seeing that calendars were police-issued in order to specify flashpoints for potential violence.[9] One such regulation imposed as a part of Cosmopolitan policy was a restriction on discussing Japan’s wars in the 1930s and a prohibition on Austrian refugees criticising Germans over the Nazi party.[10]

As a result of the presence of Imperial outposts in the form of the International and French sectors in Shanghai, it is to be expected that there would be an identification with respective European Empires in Shanghai by some citizens. The idea of Imperial nationalism was to incorporate expatriates and diaspora with the wider Empire.[11] While people lived in Shanghai, the Empire always made its presence known in the form of constant visits by monarchs and Imperial officials,[12] as well as providing the pomp which signified the Imperial interest in Shanghai.[13]

As is to be anticipated with Imperial activity within such a fragmented and multinational city, Shanghai was home to a multitude of anti-Imperialist movements. The nature of Shanghai Imperialism was multinational and this meant a range of Imperial subjects who, within Shanghai’s fragmented streets, could work together to oppose the common enemy of Imperial control. As a result, groups such as Indian nationalists, Anti-French Vietnamese Communists, Japanese Communists, Bolsheviks and other subversive groups were able to hide in and use Shanghai as a sanctuary similarly to that of the flourishing criminal underworld.[14]

Pan-Asian solidarity posed a risk to imperial sentiments. It was a common strategy of empires to divide colonial subjects to make them easier to control. Solidarity between Asians, seen quite poignantly in the wearing of Chinese army uniforms by Koreans,[15] posed a threat as Asian nations could work together to subvert Imperial power in their respective nations. The Indian Youth League, for example, no longer had to fear persecution in British-controlled India but could use cities such as Nanjing to send representatives.[16]

As Bickers opens his conclusion, “fragmentation created opportunity.”[17] The diverse population of Shanghai, coupled with a disunited and decentralised judiciary and executive, resulted in an inability to enforce the law. Criminal elements and political movements were able to form as a result of this. Diversity led to a range of ideologies and a failure to efficiently repress subversion which resulted in increased subversion.

Ultimately, Shanghai experienced political diversity due to the nature of its settlements and population.

This essay has shown how the fragmented nature of Shanghai led to a variety of nationalistic identities. These include: Settler, Cosmopolitan, Imperial, Anti-imperial and Asian nationalisms. Ultimately, the essay found that the population diversity and lack of central authority contributed to the creation of these identities.


  • Bickers, Robert. “Incubator City: Shanghai and the Crises of Empires.” Journal of Urban History 38, no. 5 (2012): 862-878.


[1] Robert Bickers, “Incubator City: Shanghai and the Crises of Empires,” Journal of Urban History 38, no. 5 (2012): 862.

[2] Ibid., 862.

[3] Ibid., 864.

[4] Ibid., 863.

[5] Ibid., 867.

[6] Ibid., 867.

[7] Ibid., 868.

[8] Ibid., 868.

[9] Ibid., 862.

[10] Ibid., 869.

[11] Ibid., 870.

[12] Ibid., 869.

[13] Ibid., 870.

[14] Ibid., 872.

[15] Ibid., 872.

[16] Ibid., 873.

[17] Ibid., 874.