Project history

Virtual Shanghai started as a project focused on Shanghai historical photographs. It emerged in 2000 as a collaborative project between the Institut d’Asie Orientale (CNRS-University of Lyon) and the Center for Chinese Studies of the University of California, Berkeley. The project received seed money from the France-Berkeley Fund. From its inception, “ Shanghai in Images ” as it was called by then,  developed under the aegis of ECAI and its wonderful mentor, Lewis Lancaster. In 2002, the Institut d’Asie Orientale received a MIRA grant from the Rhône-Alpes Regional Assembly to develop the initial database into an instrument devoted to a complete coverage of Shanghai history through photography. In the course of our work, however, we realized that new tools - especially GIS – offered a tremendous potential for a more systematic approach of Shanghai history. Inspired in part by experiences implemented within ECAI, we decided to apply historical GIS to Shanghai. Eventually, in relation with previous research in cartography1, we moved toward a reflection about issues and methods in the writing of history in the digital age and reframed our approach under th perspective of implementing a spatial and visual history of Shanghai.


Virtual Shanghai represents an attempt at writing the history of the city through the combined use of textual (essays, original documents), visual (photographs, movies, images, drawings, etc.), sound (sound tracks, tunes, etc.) and cartographic documents. In its present stage, it provides mostly essays and textual records, photographs, and maps. Because it is in a process of elaboration, parts of the project are accessible only to the scholars involved in its development through login. Yet the largest part of all resources are available to the public.


There are three main gateways into Virtual Shanghai. The first one takes the reader to textual documents. This section includes essays written by scholars, original archival documents, and chronologies. It is possible to read through the texts as in a book, or to browse through topics, or move alternatively between text and related visual and cartographic documents. The second gateway opens various visual paths. While topics are suggested in the way of albums, the reader is free to wander around within the visual database. All items of the visual collection are related either to textual records or/and cartographic data. They carry their own set of information and metadata. The third gateway offers a cartographic account of the city. It includes a large collection of historical maps from the earliest ones to satellite views of the city. A representative sample of historical maps is available in georeferenced format (GIS) and linked to the visual database. Finally, the GIS server presents numerous possibilities to see Shanghai at various times, under different angles, from the city level down to the block level. Through continuous research and additions – contributions are welcome – it will offer a complete collection of cartographic and territorial representations of Shanghai.


Virtual Shanghai is made up of a series of interconnected relational databases. The elaboration and interconnection of the databases is following an incremental process. During phase one, the emphasis was on the construction of the photograph database, with a systematic search for photographs and research to identify their content. This phase is behind us in terms of conception, structure and operation. It now requires further expansion in terms of new images and functions. Phase two started with a focus on cartography. It included various stages and interrelated tasks such as the digitiziation of maps, their redrawing as vectorial maps and their georeferencing in GIS terms. At the same time, we undertook a thorough survey of the individual buildings and blocks of the city for various periods. This was meant to provide a tool for historical geography to scholars and students. As a result, we have been producing thematic and adding layers onto our GIS server (see Live Maps) for online real time mapping. Phase three will restore the articulation of the visual database and the cartographic database around a common timeline.

Current state of the project

Virtual Shanghai has been under construction since 2003, with a major boost in 2006 with a 3-year grant from ANR. The Virtual Shanghai platform has now reached a stage that actually provides a very complete environment for  scholarly production, thanks to the tools made available and the resources accumulated in the course of the project. We are now aiming at new develoments in collaboration with international scholars involved in the study of Shanghai and in the use of new technologies in urban history.


[1] See Henriot, Christian & Zheng Zu’an, Atlas de Shanghai. Espace et représentation de 1849 à nos jours, Paris, CNRS-éditions, 1999.

Last update on Thursday 26 January 2012 (10:33) by  C. Henriot

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