Becoming familiar with a new people and culture is one of the most exciting aspects of traveling and moving. With a population of over 20 million, Shanghai is one of the world’s biggest, most vibrant and most diverse cities. Getting to know and understand people in Shanghai will no doubt be a source of endless wonderment. On the other hand, it will also be a challenge that will require effort, patience, respect and, at times, a good sense of humour. Overall, Shanghainese are very friendly and welcoming to foreigners, eager to share their culture and learn from yours, and you won’t have trouble meeting new people and building short- and long-term friendships and business relationships.
Before 1843, Shanghainese culture came from the ancient kingdoms of the Wu and the Yue, from Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. Since Shanghai emerged as a commercial centre in the 19th century, the city has always been a melting pot, drawing people from all over China and the world. Its port location and infamy as a commercial hub have attracted migrants from the countryside for decades. And since foreign companies were welcomed in the 1990s, the number of foreign visitors has ballooned. Today, there are at least 100,000 foreign nationals on temporary residence visas living in the city.
Shanghai has long been known throughout China – and much of the world – as the nexus of East and West. Indeed, the city became known for its haipai (literally ‘ocean culture’) well over a century ago after the Treaty of Nanking, when the first British traders settled on a muddy riverbank along the Huangpu. The reputation of Shanghainese as welcoming to foreigners and foreign customs gained currency during the century of Western control over the city from 1841 to 1937, when the city was considered a foreigners’ play- ground. The Shanghainese are still proud of their international and cosmopolitan history, although Chinese from other parts of the country interpret this pride as arrogant, and even unpatriotic. On the other hand, other Chinese people can be considered by Shanghainese to be waidiren (outlanders) or tubaozi (country bumpkins). Indeed, many of the throngs of newcomers that have migrated to Shanghai over the past few decades have arrived from impoverished rural areas.
First impressions often lead Westerners to falsely believe that Shanghai is a city blindly enamoured by all things foreign. The common presentation of Shanghai as a rapidly Westernising city where designer labels and KFC are the new face of the town is simplistic. There is a contrast between Shanghai’s outward shell and the people that prop it up. Just scratch below the surface and the underlying adherence to Chinese tradition is obvious. Most Westerners with significant experience interacting with the locals will testify that there is far more to Shanghai than glittery new shopping malls and swanky restaurants.
This stereotype has been exacerbated by the emergence of a relatively affluent middle class, comprising primarily white-collar middle managers, who go to great lengths to appear wealthy and Western. The business boom in Shanghai, both domestic and foreign, has made Shanghai quite wealthy by Chinese standards. But this is an example of a superficial Shanghai masking a reality. Ordinary Shanghainese are better classified as residents of a developing rather than a developed nation. The government’s own figures, which are widely criticised as inflated, calculate the city’s average disposable income at around RMB20,000: higher than the national average, but not enough to compete in Shanghai’s inflated housing market. Many of the sleek apartment towers are owned by outside investors or sit empty while rural migrants toil away during the night for a pittance to erect them as fast as possible.
The pursuit of individual wealth is encouraged and even glorified in Shanghai, in stark contrast to the China of a few decades ago. Social status in Shanghai is largely a factor of material wealth. Shanghai has exemplified China’s economic boom and the Shanghainese have embraced economic opportunity and cultural freedom wholeheartedly. On the other hand, traditional culture still permeates Chinese behaviour and perspective, and Shanghai is no exception.
Confucianism, though officially eradicated from Chinese society during the Cultural Revolution, is still very evident in all aspects of Shanghainese life and now even encouraged by the government. Shanghainese have great respect for hierarchies. You will find this in reverence to the government and to employment rank, and within families. This is in contrast to many Western countries where decisions are made collaboratively and more value is placed on the young than the elderly.
Also, despite the do-it-yourself disposition of many affluent Shanghainese, individual autonomy is not valued in Chinese society as it is in the West. In China, the individual is perceived as a small part of a larger nexus of social relationships. And, more important than merit, guanxi (connections) is what will propel a successful career or personal life. If you want to build successful business relationships in China, be prepared to lay the guanxi groundwork first, even if that means greeting the occasional sunrise after a night at karaoke bars. Apparently, 2,000-year-old habits are hard to break.
Though Shanghainese today enjoy a remarkable amount of freedom compared to a few decades ago, politics is still generally a tricky subject. If you broach any sensitive topics, such as Taiwan, Tibet or media censorship, be prepared for boilerplate answers. Younger Shanghainese are often eager to engage in these topics, though you’ll likely get sincere nationalistic responses followed by directed critiques at Western culture and values. Shanghainese are often very direct in their questioning, be it about your politics or your personal life, although it’s best not to take any offence. In most cases, this is genuine curiosity.
Women are equal to men by law, but in daily practice and in the home women are often considered as they were in traditional society: second to men. Male children are preferred over females by many couples, occasionally causing stress in terms of modern China’s one-child policy. Shanghainese are considered more progressive than people in other parts of China, and women sometimes seek out a Shanghainese man because he is likely to maintain a more egalitarian outlook in relation to family duties and chores than men from other parts of China.