Shanghai has its own Culture



by Will Harasta,

Shanghai has its own language, food, and attitudes that set it apart from the rest of China. Shanghai is China’s most populous city, and known as an economic hub. However, this seemingly cookie cutter metropolis is quite unique compared to its fellow Chinese cities.

The people of Shanghai

Because Shanghai’s history is short, many of its inhabitants are 2nd or 3rd generation immigrants. Just like many Americans who can tell you what country their ancestors are from, Shanghainese know which provinces their ancestors emigrated from. As much as half of the population of Shanghai are immigrants from other parts of China. Many of these migrants work in Shanghai as construction workers or at low paying jobs, in order to send money home to their families. In recent years tensions have grow between the local Shanghainese population and the immigrants. Tensions have been easier to notice due in part to language differences.

Shanghainese – The Language of Shanghai

Technically Shanghainese is considered a dialect. The question of what is considered a dialect or a language is best shown in the quote by Max Weinreich, “A language is a dialect with an army and navy”. In other words, because Shanghai is a city within the confines of China, and the officially recognized language of China is Mandarin, this delegates Shanghainese to a dialect, not a language.

To be clear, it is not an accent, such as that of Boston or New York; it is completely different than Mandarin. Shanghainese is barely intelligible to Chinese from other cities, though nearby cities have an easier time understanding the dialect. Almost all people who were born in Shanghai speak Shanghainese as well as Mandarin. Some elderly however have limited Mandarin fluency. Because Shanghainese have their own language, it is easy to tell who is a native and who is an immigrant. Although nearly all Shanghainese speak Mandarin, amongst friends, family and co workers, Shanghainese is still the norm.

Food – An Inspiration from the Mainland

Although Shanghainese wish to think of their cuisine as unique, many of the dishes are inspired by dishes from other provinces. The immigrants of Shanghai come from all over China, and with them comes their food. Shanghai does however differ overall in the world of food. The food of Shanghai is generally considered more oily compared to other Chinese regional cuisines. Being a prominent seaport also means there is a high selection of quality seafood dishes. I personally find Shanghainese dishes to be quite salty as well. Lions head meatballs and hairy crab are delicacies in Shanghai.

Culture – The Opposite of the rest of China

Upon first glance, Shanghai seems like any industrial city found in China. But there is a stark difference here that you can witness every morning. Early in the morning at “wet markets” where seafood is sold, you can see men shopping for their families dinner, before they go off to work. Shanghainese women work in the same numbers as men. Compared to neighboring countries major cities like Tokyo and Seoul, there are more women managers in Shanghai.

Shanghai woman regularly keep their last name after they marry. In Shanghai it is common practice for parents to buy their son his first apartment. For this reason, among others, female children are more favored in Shanghai because they cost less to raise. This is perhaps more odd because most families in other Chinese provinces hope for a boy, in order to work, and continue the family name. These developments have made Shanghai women well known (or notorious) for being strong-willed and independent. I personally believe that women have a higher status and are treated better in Shanghai than women in the US.

The economic prowess of Shanghai must also be mentioned. The average Shanghainese makes far more money than other Chinese in neighboring provinces. Shanghai has become a city of people who are nearly addicted to luxury goods. Immigrants who visit or work in Shanghai also gaze upon these items and envy them, thus creating a city whose people are trying to have enough money to buy these goods.

Shanghai ….to the Future !

After the World Expo, many visitors from across the globe were able to see Shanghai, and walk its streets. For many, I’m sure it appeared to be like any other city, but I feel differently. Shanghai is a head scratcher, a mystery, a peculiarity. A city with a population of 18 million, half of whom come and go between the city and their hometowns. A city with its own language, food and culture, all of which is in the confines of the People’s Republic of China. Shanghai’s very existence is a miracle, will the city retain its character? We will see.


Sharon Owyang, Frommer’s Shanghai, 2009 Wiley Publishing Hoboken New Jersey

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *