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The urban formation process of China’s treaty ports, 1840s-1940s: Case studies of Shanghai and Tianjin

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This paper aims to explore the process of urban formation in China’s treaty ports. In order to do so, it examines the urban development conducted by British and Japanese authorities from the 1840s to the 1940s in Shanghai and Tianjin. Most architectural historians both in China and abroad place a lot of emphasis on the iconic architecture built in the former treaty ports, while little attention has been paid to urban infrastructure. In addition to this, many historians, especially in Britain and Japan, try to describe the history of treaty ports in China as a part of British or Japanese colonial history. As such, most of them have focused on their own countries’ colonial policy or the individuals who were based in China at that time, while less attention has been paid to how treaty ports developed from their original form to modern foreign settlements.

In fact, when many British merchants first came to Shanghai in the 1840s and Tianjin in the 1860s, they had to discuss with Qing Chinese governors to decide what kind of settlements or concessions they could build outside the Chinese Walled Cities. Meanwhile, the British had to lease lands from Chinese landowners or villagers to build their own Hongs (commercial buildings) and residences individually. The intentions of these individual British merchants affected the shape and structure of the British settlements. It was the starting point of the urban development of the former treaty ports in China.

Fifty years after the British opened the first treaty port, the Japanese also advanced into China after winning the first Sino-Japanese war in 1894. The Japanese government was very keen to establish Japanese concessions in the treaty ports, but they were confronted with opposition from British authorities and merchants, who enjoyed extremely strong political and economical advantages in China at that time. In order to gain their own land and harbor facilities, the Japanese had to negotiate with the British authorities prior to negotiating with Qing governors. Thus, the international negotiations between British and Japanese became one of the important driving forces of the urban development in China’s treaty ports from the 1890s.

By exploring the above two points, this paper will provide not only a new perspective of the urban formation process of the China’s treaty ports from the 1840s to the 1940s, but also demonstrate how political intentions and inter-communal dynamics affected the spatial character of foreign settlements.

Numerous cities in contemporary China, including Shanghai, Tianjin, Wuhan, Canton, Amoy, all developed on the basis of former treaty ports, however, due to the rapid pace of urban redevelopment and regeneration, many historic buildings are now being demolished before they can be adequately recorded by architectural and urban historians. This project aims to analyze the character of historic architecture and urban infrastructure of the former treaty ports before they have been removed from these cities. In addition to broad archival researches on the urban planning of Shanghai and Tianjin’s foreign settlements in Japan, China, America and the UK, this research project also analyzes the remaining traces of treaty port architecture and infrastructure in order to provide new understanding of the pattern of urban development from the 1840s to today.

This talk is part of the China Research Seminar Series series.

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