Shanghai in Comparative Perspective

(Shanghai Studies)

 (Subject to change)



Course Description

Shanghai is one of the most powerful cities in China, in East Asia, and in the World. Its global stature is evident from the powerful architecture – a mix of cutting-edge contemporary designs and grand Western-style edifices dating from the 19th and 20th centuries. At the same time, it is distinctly Chinese and yet occupies a unique place with challenges and issues arising from its position as the financial lead in China’s rapid economic development.


Shanghai took shape after China was forced to open itself to the outside world in the second half of the 19th century, amidst the clash between, and interaction of, Oriental and Western cultures. Its history taken into consideration, there is no doubt that Shanghai presents an excellent case study of Western influence on Chinese cities in their modernization process and their adaptation and creation of local cultures in the past 170 years.


To researchers, Shanghai may best display the interaction of such elements as geography, economy, humanism and society. As the economic center of China, Shanghai’s transition from planned economy to market economy is also worthy of further study. Many people are also impressed with the diversity of cultures that have left their imprints on Shanghai over the past 170 years, such as the Western colonial culture, the revolutionary culture (Shanghai is the founding place of the Communist Party of China), the city’s own civic culture and the modern pop culture. Together they have molded the city’s culture and made it a natural ground for metropolitan cultural study. The ability to assess critically current and future development mechanisms from a comparative perspective is essential in our increasingly interdependent global world.


This course combines theory with first-hand exposure to and research about Shanghai. The class will address seven different themes that touch on past and especially on contemporary Shanghai from both a local and global perspective. A highlight of the course will be a week-long field trip in the fall term to Taipei and in the spring term to Hong Kong or Singapore These cities rival Shanghai as major economic and financial centers in East Asia, both with strong Chinese cultures and histories of foreign influence. They will allow for challenging and insightful comparisons to Shanghai.


Course Objective

The aim of the course is to provide students with Shanghai discourse and facilitate their personal experience in the city. Students will use their own first-hand observations, coupled with broad-based readings in a range of social science areas, to reach their own understanding about Shanghai and the rapid pace of China’s modernization.

Empirical experience is highly valued throughout the course. By fieldwork as well as observation, students will see the city through their own eyes. The reflection over first-hand empirical experience will be included in the assignments, the end-of-term presentation and the final paper. Students are expected to engage critically with their empirical experiences by making comparisons between Shanghai and other cities, by looking into the cultural or institutional background of their observation, etc.


Course Contents

Seven themes will be explored:

  • History of Shanghai:  from a cosmopolis to an eldest son of socialist China (1840s -1980s)
  • Renaissance of Shanghai: China’s future global city as a state strategy (1990s -2010)
  • Urban planning and urban social space
  • Contemporary religious beliefs and practice
  • Education:  systems and policies
  •  Finance and  trade
  •  Aspects of Shanghai Studies


Course Organization

Guest lectures and seminar discussions, combined with site visits and independent explorations in small groups.

First-hand experience is highly valued throughout the course. It will be reflected in the fieldwork, assignments, group presentation and final paper.


Course Evaluation

The assignments are based on the City as Text learning strategies, through mapping, observing, listening and reflecting, combining lectures, readings and fieldwork.

1) Attendance and class participation – 10%

Attendance to lectures and fieldtrips is required for all students. Please inform TA in advance if you want to ask for a leave with an eligible excuse.

2) Group fieldwork and end-of-term presentation – 20%

Group fieldwork: students’ groups (of three to four) follow the lecture and group-work instructions in order to meet the fieldwork requirements.

Group presentation: one presentation is arranged at the end of the semester. It is supposed to last 10 minutes (8 minutes for presentation with Powerpoint, 2 minutes for Q&A) and is meant to share the observation and analysis of the group. First-hand empirical experience, critical thinking, reflection and arguments are expected.

More specifically, the end-of-term presentation is meant to be based on one specific theme among the following: religion, education, trade and finance, urban planning and development. The presentation will also have to be comparative in nature. (Example: If you’ve picked education as your presentation theme, you ought to examine how what you have been learning and researching with regards to education plays out in the context of Shanghai on the one hand, and in the context of a second city on the other.)

As a presentation is a group effort, grades for presentations (as opposed as grades for papers) are collective: each member of a group will have the same grade as his or her group co-members.

3) Short papers – 30%

Students will write two four-to-five page assignments about Shanghai on the basis of their own observation, critical thinking and reflection during the field trips.

One of the two papers will be entitled “Shanghai Impressions”.

For their other short paper, students have to choose one theme among those studied during the semester, namely: religion ; education; trade and finance; urban planning and urban development.

4) Term Paper – 30%

Students will choose one of the themes covered in the course and write a ten-page term paper that combines primary and secondary research in order to compare and contrast some aspect of this theme in Shanghai with the social reality in Foreign Countries, or other cities they are familiar with.

Students from the course group who have been to Foreign Countries on may choose one of cities as their point of comparison with Shanghai, while the other students who have not travelled to Foreign Countries may pick any another city that they are familiar with as their main concern for comparison. The theme chosen for the term paper does not have to be the same as the one chosen by the student group for end-of-term presentation.

5) Picture-taking – 10%

Out of the many pictures you may take during your stay in Shanghai, please pick ten of them and explain how they illustrate what the most impressive things in Shanghai are. Write at least fifty words of explication below each picture. Please include the pictures in a Word file or PDF file.

You may choose any scenes, people or aspects of city life. But you will have to set out in writing:

1. Why you choose these pictures.

2. (If you are a foreign student)  What kind of difference or common points between Shanghai and your home city can be noticed in the picture?

3. (If you are a Chinese student) what aspect of city life does this picture remind you of?

4. Any pictures you provide as the assignment must be taken by yourself. The pictures from other resources would be taken as plagiarism ones.


Reading materials

You can download the reading materials at:



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