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Researching Treaty-Port Shanghai (1843-1943)

Bryna Goodman
Department of History - University of Oregon


Transcript of a colonial-era authorization for construction of a new customs house in Tientsin, an important port city near the mouth of the Peihao River. From Foreign Of- fice section of British Public Records Office.

During Spring term 2009 I taught an undergraduate history research seminar on treaty-port Shanghai. History research seminars at the University of Oregon are “capstone” courses especially designed for senior history majors and minors. The goal of the class is to engage students in the process of historical research and interpretation by means of the exploration of primary sources and the careful design and execution of a research paper. It is challenging to offer a history seminar on China, since most of our undergraduate history majors have few if any skills that would enable them to interpret Chinese-language materials. Shanghai, however, works well as a topic, because of the city’s historically semi-colonial character and its enclaves of foreign residents. During its century of existence in Shanghai, the Anglo-American International Settlement—which, together with the Shanghai French Concession, operated under rules of extraterritorial jurisdiction—generated a trove of historical documents concerning the city that facilitate research in English.


My efforts to gather an extensive and varied body of English language materials on Shanghai for the students’ research were substantially aided by the rich CRL holdings. The University of Oregon library holds some of the major Shanghai English-language papers, including the North China Herald, China Weekly Review (Millards Review of the Far East), together with U.S. Consular dispatches (microfilm), Shanghai Municipal Police Files (microfilm), a recently published Shanghai Municipal Archives reprint of the Minutes of the Shanghai Municipal Council (1843–1943), and a number of relevant missionary papers (in Special Collections). But the UO newspaper collections are incomplete, and we lack British archival materials. To counter these deficits students relied on CRL holdings.


Prior to teaching the course, I was particularly glad to learn of the 2008 publication of the Cambridge Archive Edition of British archival materials, Shanghai: Political and Economic Reports, 1842–1943, and arranged to borrow the entire 18 volume (14,500-page) collection through interlibrary loan from CRL. I placed the set on library reserve for the students for the duration of the teaching term. This voluminous collection heavily features communications from the British consul in Shanghai to the British ambassador in the capital, but includes as well many economic and political reports and intelligence summaries, as well as various wartime reports, materials on public health concerns and crises, and matters related to the Shanghai French Concession. There also is considerable material on the opium trade.


The seminar begins with an introduction to Shanghai historiography, both to consolidate the students’ backgrounds in Shanghai history, and to enable them to consider interpretive threads and debates. After reading and discussing various historiographical approaches, the emphasis of the course shifted to the interpretation of primary sources. The students considered different topics and types of evidence in turn: Shanghai maps, Shanghai newspapers, Shanghai police reports, visual materials (photos and films), British “Shanghailander” memoirs, and consular and municipal archives. Because the students were generally restricted to English-language sources, we spent time, in particular, considering the nature of the Shanghailander community, its biases, and the nature of—and power relations constituting—encounters between Chinese and various groups of foreigners in the city. In the first weeks of class students also were given short research exercises that ensured an engaged encounter with the major source collections. Once the students developed their paper topics I asked them, for example, to locate a document relevant to their research topic in either the Shanghai Municipal Police Reports or in the Shanghai Political and Economic Reports, and to copy and bring it to class. In class they made brief presentations on these materials, indicating how they might interprete them in the context of their projects, and listening to their classmate’s reactions. This type of exercise acquainted students with each others’ interests, leading to more collaborative research. Students concentrating on different sources often found materials for each other as they progressed in their research.


The Shanghai Political and Economic Reports were important for several students’ research projects. For one student, who was working on the Shanghai opium trade in the 1930s, the Political and Economic Reports were the major primary source, in addition to the Shanghai Police Reports. Another student who found them essential examined British responses to the popular nationalism of the May 30th Movement 1925. A third student, probably the strongest student in the class, systematically paged through the collection for the dates of his project, which focused on the unusual, strongly anti-imperialist English-language newspaper, the Shanghai Courier. Although the British archival collection did not contain directly relevant materials for his project, it did help him develop a better sense of context for understanding the English-language press in Shanghai and the relations between municipal and consular authorities and the local press.


All of the students found the collection convenient and easy to read because of the chronological organization of the volumes and the fact that they were available in hard copy rather than microfilm. In certain respects the lack of indexing was an advantage, since it forced the students to skim the contents, increasing their chances of discovering related materials. One student found the collection particularly useful for understanding the different segments of the British community and their interaction. As he commented to me in a brief email when I asked about his reading of these records, “I found that the cables between the British embassy in Beijing and the consulate in Shanghai revealed some of the tension between the latter’s Shanghailander community and the policy of the entire empire. This difference between local interests and imperial interests is well-documented, but any work on British political interests in Shanghai and China, whether focused on the Shanghailander community or regional British policy, would benefit from a perusal of these reports.”


This particular student was quick to grasp the significance of these materials. Some of the other students would have benefited from more explanatory front matter, which the collection unfortunately lacks. Nonetheless, with some contextualization through other course materials, the CRL collection offers a highly valuable and accessible addition to a research seminar on Shanghai history. I anticipate using it again in a similar fashion when I teach the class in the future.