The best books on twentieth-century Shanghai

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom Author Of Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink
By Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom

Who am I?

I have been fascinated by history since I spent a year in Britain as a ten-year-old. I became hooked on novels set in ancient Greece and Rome and found it incredibly exotic to walk through old buildings and imagine the lives of the people who had walked through those same doors. In college, I began studying history in earnest and grew intrigued by China, especially Chinese cities during periods of upheaval and transformation. My first passion was Shanghai history, and I spent time there in the mid-1980s before the soaring Pudong skyscrapers that are now among its most iconic structures were built. I have since shifted my attention to Hong Kong, a city I had enjoyed visiting for decades but had not written about until after I completed my last book on Shanghai. My fascination with cities that are in China but enmeshed in global processes and are sites of protest has been a constant.


I wrote...

Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink

By Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom,

Book cover of Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink

What is my book about?

Written between June and October of 2019, while Hong Kong was in the midst of the most dramatic social movement it had ever experienced, Vigil combines elements of history and reportage. A short book, it is written in a lively and engaging style and draws on the author’s deep familiarity with Chinese history and expertise in the comparative analysis of protests and authoritarianism. It is also shaped by the experiences the author has had during many visits to Hong Kong, some before and most after the 1997 Handover changed it from a British colony to part of the People’s Republic of China. While introducing many events from Hong Kong’s complicated past, it is above all a work to read to understand and place into perspective recent developments in a David vs. Goliath struggle, in which activists, facing impossible odds, pushed back against efforts to tighten controls on local political life.

The books I picked & why

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Champions Day: The End of Old Shanghai

By James Carter,

Book cover of Champions Day: The End of Old Shanghai

Why this book?

Shanghai, which was once called the “Hollywood of Asia,” has always been a cinematic city par excellence, so a good way to describe the charms of this book is via movie terms. In one sense, it zooms in tightly on a specific day in the history of the city and what was happening in a single setting. It mixes close-ups of a horse race and some people who came to watch it, though, with wide-angle shots and flashbacks. The author, a skilled historian with deep knowledge of Chinese history and a stylish writer, moves effortlessly between Shanghai in the early 1940s as the Japanese military’s World War II era grip on the city and much of China was tightening and earlier points in its past. He also moves fluidly between the racecourse—a potent symbol, as during the height of the British imperial period, Britons would often build these to mark their presence in an urban center—and other parts of Old Shanghai. All in all, the book provides a wonderfully readable introduction to the city during the decades leading up to World War II and captures well the unusually cosmopolitan character of the great port.

Champions Day: The End of Old Shanghai

By James Carter,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Champions Day as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

12 November 1941: war and revolution are in the air. At the Shanghai Race Club, the elite prepare their best horses and most nimble jockeys for the annual Champions Day races. Across the city and amid tight security, others celebrated the birth of Sun Yat-Sen in a new centre which challenged European imperialism. Thousands more Shanghai residents attended the funeral of China's wealthiest woman. But the biggest crowd gathered at the track; no one knew it, but Champions Day heralded the end of European Shanghai. Through this snapshot of the day's events, the rich and complex history that led to…


Shanghai Style: Art and Design Between the Wars

By Lynn Pan,

Book cover of Shanghai Style: Art and Design Between the Wars

Why this book?

Lynn Pan, who was born in Shanghai before 1949 and then returned to live there early in the twenty-first century after spending time in many other parts of the world, is in many ways my single favorite Shanghainese writer. So, when I put together a list like this, the question is not whether a work by her will be on it, but rather which one of several excellent ones by her will make the cut. This volume is a beautifully produced one that complements Champions Day nicely, focusing on similar themes but coming at them via a focus on architecture and creativity. It is a book for those fascinated by Shanghai, for obvious reasons, but like a lot of books on the city’s past, it is also intriguing to read by those who have been fascinated by Hong Kong’s cultural and creative vibrancy and have been following the news about the way it is now being threatened. That city, which was one where Pan spent time between her two periods living in Shanghai, is also one where the mixing of cultural traditions led to the emergence of a very special style—a style that could only flourish for a time but has left a complex lasting legacy.

Shanghai Style: Art and Design Between the Wars

By Lynn Pan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Shanghai Style as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the 1920s to the 1940s, no place was more modern than Shanghai: a veritable playground amid a sea of Asian and European influences; an urban population clamoring for all that was new and Western, but whose aesthetic sensibilities remained profoundly Chinese. In this rich social and cultural history of Shanghai’s art and culture, Lynn Pan guides the reader through the myriad world inhabited by commercial and underground artists and designers, performers, architects, decorators, patrons, as well as politicians, generals, and crime bosses. What emerges is a singular portrait of a city and its art—its life blood, in an era…


Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao's Revolution

By Helen Zia,

Book cover of Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao's Revolution

Why this book?

This is a spirited and emotionally resonant read that follows the lives of a group of Shanghai residents who grew up in the city before it fell under Communist Party control and then left it to start new lives in other parts of the world. Based on extended interviews, it is by a journalist who has done important work on people of Chinese descent in the United States, and as impressive as it is in bringing Old Shanghai to life, it is equally good at capturing elements of the time the people she profiles spent in other parts of the world, from Taiwan to New York to Hong Kong. There is a personal angle to it as well, as the author is writing in part about her own relatives.

Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao's Revolution

By Helen Zia,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Last Boat Out of Shanghai as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The dramatic real life stories of four young people caught up in the mass exodus of Shanghai in the wake of China’s 1949 Communist revolution—a heartrending precursor to the struggles faced by emigrants today. 

“A true page-turner . . . [Helen] Zia has proven once again that history is something that happens to real people.”—New York Times bestselling author Lisa See

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NPR AND THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR • FINALIST FOR THE PEN/JACQUELINE BOGRAD WELD AWARD FOR BIOGRAPHY

Shanghai has historically been China’s jewel, its richest, most modern and westernized city.…


Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life

By Jie Li,

Book cover of Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life

Why this book?

At this point in a list, it isn’t bad to note connections between works, so I’ll begin with those. This is the only book other than Champions Day that is by an academic, but Li, like Carter, is one who knows how to write for general audiences in a compelling and accessible way. Hers is another book, like Zia’s, that is partly an effort to reconstruct the history of the author’s own family, as key figures in this author’s reconstruction of the changing (and enduring) rhythms of life in a Shanghai neighborhood in the 1950s and beyond are relatives she interviewed. There is also a tie to Lynn Pan’s work, in the sense that Li has moved between different parts of the world in her life. All this said, Shanghai Homes is a unique work that reminds me of the best ethnographically minded studies of connections between people and patterns of quotidian existence I’ve read about any time and place. There is also a charming use of photographs.

Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life

By Jie Li,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Shanghai Homes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the dazzling global metropolis of Shanghai, what has it meant to call this city home? In this account-part microhistory, part memoir-Jie Li salvages intimate recollections by successive generations of inhabitants of two vibrant, culturally mixed Shanghai alleyways from the Republican, Maoist, and post-Mao eras. Exploring three dimensions of private life-territories, artifacts, and gossip-Li re-creates the sounds, smells, look, and feel of home over a tumultuous century. First built by British and Japanese companies in 1915 and 1927, the two homes at the center of this narrative were located in an industrial part of the former "International Settlement." Before their…


Years of Red Dust: Stories of Shanghai

By Qiu Xiaolong,

Book cover of Years of Red Dust: Stories of Shanghai

Why this book?

There is a lot of wonderful fiction set in Shanghai, so I wanted to make sure to include one such work. Figuring out which wasn’t easy, as there are good short stories and novels by a range of important authors, from deceased writers like Mao Dun, Eileen Chang, and J.G. Ballard, whose partly autobiographical Empire of the Sun was based on his Shanghai childhood, to living ones like Wang Anyi. I chose this collection of vignettes by Qiu Xiaolong (who is best known for his Inspector Chen Shanghai-set police procedurals and grew up in Shanghai and now lives in the United States) because it pairs so well with Shanghai Homes. You can read it as a fictional cousin to Jie Li’s book, as this work by Qiu, in which his famous detective does not appear, is made up of tales set in a single alleyway neighborhood. Reading them together, as they both deal largely with the 1950s and 1960s, you can imagine the real-life figures in Li’s book and made-up ones in Qiu’s (who were likely based on people the author knew or heard stories about) crossing paths with one another.

Years of Red Dust: Stories of Shanghai

By Qiu Xiaolong,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Years of Red Dust as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Published originally in the pages of Le Monde, this collection of linked short stories by Qiu Xiaolong has already been a major bestseller in France (Cite de la Poussiere Rouge) and Germany (Das Tor zur Roten Gasse), where it and the author was the subject of a major television documentary. The stories in Years of Red Dust trace the changes in modern China over fifty years―from the early days of the Communist revolution in 1949 to the modernization movement of the late nineties―all from the perspective of one small street in Shanghai, Red Dust Lane. From the early optimism at…


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