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TitleShanghai in Post-1949 Maps: Secrets, Lies, and Urban Icons
AuthorChristian Henriot

Maps are arbitrary representations of space. They can never be straightforward renditions of spatial reality. Depending on their avowed purpose -- we do not necessarily read hidden agendas here, but simply for what and for whom maps are produced practically -- maps will provide more or less subtle and refined layers of information. One can read the production of maps in various ways: graphic representation of a physical space, competition for the definition and control of space, practical guide to move around in space, etc. The production and reading of maps is also based on cultural differences that political and economic circumstances are bound to affect in various way.1 Considerations of size and cost also come into play in the use and reading of a map. The more detailed a map, the larger it will be, unless it is divided into a succession of sheets. A map produced for tourists, distributed for free in hotels, will generally provide simple or even sketchy information (major streets, main landmarks, tourist attractions), whereas a field map produced for military purposes will carry as much detail on physical features or structures as possible to serve as a tool for maximum anticipation by soldiers in the field.

City maps fall in-between these two extremes, even in such maps are also produced as tourist maps with basic information. Yet, in most countries, especially for large cities, one can find a variety of maps to suit one's needs: traveler, resident, company, taxis, real estate, urban planning, etc. Maps are above all practical tools that 'reveal' the city in a different way and in various guises to meet the specific needs of a wide variety of users. A taxi driver would hardly make any use of a map of the underground sewage system that a city engineer will find indispensable. Both the street map and the sewage system map are relevant representations of the same city. The nature of the information to be found on a map and its degree of detail or accuracy are generally not considered sensitive materials. In most countries, such maps are available to the public. In Europe or in the United States, citizens even have an established right to access the cadastral maps of any city.

Access to maps was also an established right in Shanghai before 1949. In fact, there was no dearth of maps in Shanghai, from the simple leaflet-like sketch printed in hotel booklets or the commercial maps published by newspapers and real estate agencies to the cadastral maps of the municipal agencies. The Shanghai Municipal Council and the French Municipal Council both sold their maps at standard and public rates, as well as related documents like the 'Land assessment schedule'. Every five year, a new map of the city was prepared and made available to the public. Announcements were posted in the Municipal Gazette of the Shanghai Municipal Council.2 The diversity of maps to be found in libraries and archives worldwide is a testimony to the wealth of cartographic material produced on Shanghai until 1949. The availability of a wide range of maps in public and private institutions outside of China is a blessing for the historian as access to such collections is not available in China proper.

In Shanghai, city maps are kept in three major archiving institutions. The first one is the Shanghai Municipal Archives (上海市檔案館). It is a small collection for which a specific mulu [handwritten catalog] had been prepared.3 Unfortunately, the current computer catalog no longer lists the maps originally included in the mulu. It is quite surprising as the Municipal Archives are a wonderfully organized and open institution. Yet the collection of the Municipal Archives is significant above all for post-1949 maps. The second location for maps, including detailed blueprints of buildings, is the City Construction Archives (城建檔案館). It seems to have inherited most of the archives of the pre-1949 from the Municipal Land Bureau (土地局) and Bureaus of Public Works of the two foreign settlements. The main issue with this archive is the absence of a public catalog and a policy meant to dissuade readers to check out and use its documents. The City Construction Archives is an old-style institution that does not meet the standards of openness and service to the public that the city government is officially promoting.

The last institution is the Shanghai Library (上海圖書館). And this is the most unfortunate case. The library boasts it owns several thousands sheets () of Shanghai maps in a published volume of 66 historical maps of Shanghai4. Yet the library does not even have a 'map division'. In my last foray into the library in 2007, I only managed to learn that there was no (public) catalog and that all the maps were unavailable for consultation. Again, this is a far cry from international standards, especially for one of the leading libraries in China. Other more minor collections can be found in various places like the Real Estate Management Bureau (上海市住房保障和房屋管理局) or the Shanghai History Museum (上海市歷史博物館). On the whole, however, there are huge holes in the identified series in the Shanghai collections. For instance, the land assessment schedules and associated maps as well as the numerous cartographic surveys of the Land Office in each settlement are missing. There is also a serious imbalance in the quantity and quality of maps produced in and on the foreign settlements versus those that covered the Chinese-administered areas. Moreover, the splendid work of mapping made after 1927 by the Nationalist municipal government of Greater Shanghai is nowhere to be found. The archives for the whole 1927-1937 period are missing entirely, a gap for which the Municipal Archives have never come up with a proper answer.5

The present essay is based on cartographic materials kept at Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley, Harvard University, the Library of Congress, and the Lyon Institute of East Asian Studies (Institut d’Asie Orientale), supplemented by maps in private hands that their owners generously made available to me.6 It is an old project I conceived very early when I started using maps of Shanghai in my own research on the reform of state industries in Shanghai. Using maps to do field work and to record the location of factories, I realized very soon that the cartographic material available to the public was highly defective, sometimes even misleading. In my more recent effort at using maps and GIS to address historical issues and to produce 'base maps' for the use of scholars, I became convinced that the process through which cartographic production operated in Shanghai (and elsewhere in China) was one of constant ‘data impoverishment’. When preparing the 'Atlas of Shanghai' in the late 1990s, Zheng Zu'an and myself had observed how difficult it was to use the statistical data because the spatial units to which these data were attached had been changing constantly.7 The limits of the city districts and their sub-units, the street circuits (街道), were redrawn sometimes every other year. This difficulty had forced us to offer 'snapshots' of a given issue for a given year rather than diachronic representations. The use of GIS allowed us to overcome this difficulty as the systematic analysis of a full series of maps eventually led to the reconstruction of all changes at the district level between 1949 and 2008. It also revealed a process of deformation as discussed below.

Before 1949, there was a wide array of maps available for sale in Shanghai. They were produced by various actors, both private and public, and reflected the concerns, objectives or purpose of their producers. There was a free market of cartographic representations of the city. The availability of detailed maps was still true in 1949 after the CCP took over the city, as map ID376 shows. Yet, the production of maps and the nature of the information printed thereon gradually changed. Private publishers either had to conform to new directives or came under the fold of the committees in charge of supervising the transformation of the various industries, with a view toward their nationalization. While we know very little about the transformation and merging of the different Land or Public Works Bureaus that co-existed in the city until 1945, map production eventually came under a single agency, now called the Shanghai shi cehuiyuan 上海市測繪院 (it was given various names through time). The control over map production resulted in a process of increasing erasure of information on city maps with clear political concerns about what to show and to highlight, and what to dismiss.

I shall take New street map of Shanghai [最新上海市街圖] (ID376) as my point of departure in this comparative study of Shanghai maps after 1949. This a standard commercial map of Shanghai. It provides the user with the basic information one needs such as the name and limits of city districts, street names and a street index, name of bridges and rivers. The map also shows the major public parks, tramway lines, major buildings and institutions (university, hospital, theaters, companies). The wharves on both sides of the Huangpu River are described in full details. Despite its lack of precision, this map is actually very rich for intra muros Shanghai. While we do not know its exact date of publication, the covers shows explicitly it was published after the takeover of the city by the CCP (see below). The map carries only Chinese characters and still uses the street names of the Guomindang period (such as Zhongzheng Lu or Jiang Jieshi Road). It is very similar to the 1946 map of Shanghai (ID341) in style, range of information, degree of accuracy, and exclusive use of Chinese. Bilingual or Western-language maps seems to have gone out of fashion in the post-war period. Although this may reflect a bias in our collection, it is striking that the last map found in English was published in 1945 (ID255), shortly after the war.8 None of the library or archival collections I visited possessed Western-language maps of Shanghai for the 1945-1949 period.9 This reflected a radical change in the administration of the city after 1945 that saw the complete disappearance of foreign-dominated municipal administrations.

For the first year of the new regime, one can find two maps, one Detailed map of the urban districts of new Shanghai [上海市市區圖] (ID196) dated accurately December 1950 and one Street map of Shanghai Municipality [上海市街道詳圖] (ID371) with imprecise dating, but with data that indicates a very early map after 1949.10 The resolution of our copy of the first map (ID196) published in December 1950 is too low to see clearly at street level. Street names are blurred, but it is clear that the major data are provided (such as public parks and cemeteries, wharves, etc.). The map is scaled properly. The wharves and companies along the Huangpu River are all itemized. Even the Longhua and Dachang airports are identified and located clearly, including the runways. The new features on the map are the sharp delineating of the urban districts with a thick line and the clear demarcation between the urban area (shiqu) and the rural area (jiaoqu).11 This is the first map that I have found that divides city space into the two different realms (each represented by a different color, pink for the urban area and yellow for the rural area) that, eventually, will become two separate administrative and social worlds. The second map (ID371) is quite different. It was published by the same Yaguang Geographical Institute that published the 1945 map (ID255), but in its design and color code it resembles much more the 1946 map of Shanghai 上海市街道详图 (ID341). Both actually carry the same title. The map covers strictly the urban area within the Zhongshan ring road to the West, the Hongkou Park to the north, and Xiexu Road to the South. Street names are still written from right to left. The level of information is strikingly similar to the 1946 map, including scale. One important feature, however, is the indication of the location of Public Security stations (gong’anju). This is an item that would eventually be banned from city maps.

It did not take long to see changes in map-making. The only 1951 map (ID147) I have come across is the one published in the Lao shanghai ditu volume of the Shanghai Library.12 Unfortunately, the original, like all the maps held at the library, is not accessible to the public or to scholars. Its title Transportation Map of Shanghai Municipality 上 海市交通全圖 indicates it was meant to serve city dwellers and travelers to find their way around the city. The scale is indicated, but not the administrative districts. It also highlights the tramway lines. The map is quite detailed about groups of dwellings in the suburban areas, but the caption box at the bottom aptly covers the Longhua Airport. The former walled city and the central district receive separate detailed maps. By then, however, the wharves have already been turned into "empty" areas. One can still see the protruding jetties, but their name is gone. The companies along the riverbank in the immediate hinterland have not yet disappeared, but names and details are gone. A more concrete example is the riverfront in the Yangshupu district that presents totally empty blocks. The only significant additions were ship symbols in the middle of the Huangpu River, to indicate the various ferry lines and points of departure.

By 1954, Shanghai maps 新上海街道詳圖 (ID248 & ID377) presented a much richer profile in terms of color codes. The range of information, however, still bent toward greater restriction. The map covered only the urban area, with three separate maps to show the entire lower Yangtze area, the municipality and, quite surprisingly, the eastern section of Yangshupu. The caption box, however, concealed again the Longhua [airport] area. The various urban districts are clearly identified by different colors. Public parks are still part of the cartographic landscape, but many appear only as nameless green squares and those with names now carry new names. Cemeteries have all lost their names and appear like the anonymous parks. The major buildings shown are the hospitals and universities, but some guildhalls or funeral parlors are also displayed (surprisingly since all death-management agencies were ordered out of the city center). There is no mention of individual buildings, however, in the formerly Chinese-administered districts. The jetties are shown clearly, but the riverbanks are displayed as empty spaces. Finally, for the first time there is no mention of any scale.

In 1956, the tone for ulterior maps clearly set in. The 1956 map 上海市市区图 (ID249) shows the urban districts as well as a larger segment of the rural area around them. It provides a convenient point of comparison with earlier maps, especially the 1950 上海市市区图 map (ID196). One can note the change of title. It places the emphasis on "urban districts" (shiqu). There is no longer any mention of "streets" (jiedao), or even less of "detailed" (xiangxi) map. It was also true of one 1950 map, but titles continued to vary. After 1956, it will basically alternate between references to the urban area or to transportation (jiaotong). Within the urban area, a major change has occurred: the limits of the districts have changed with some districts incorporating areas previously categorized under "rural area" (jiaoqu), including one on Pudong across the river. The Longhua and Hongqiao airports are missing. Almost all the buildings have disappeared, except for some theaters and hospitals and a few major landmarks actually represented as magnified icons on the map.13 Public parks are now all listed with their proper names, while the former Recreation Ground (Racecourse) shows its new shape with a vast artery (People's Square) cutting through its lower middle section.

A new type of urban marker also appears: the workers' "new villages" (xincun) built all around the city. The ferry lines across the Huangpu River are still visible, but the riverbanks have been cleaned of any sign of jetties or wharves. They have become fully empty areas devoid of any apparent activity. This map also shows numerous rivers in the rural areas around the city, as well as the location and names of rural villages. The 1959 map (ID250) presents a very similar landscape with a few alterations, mostly about parks and cemeteries. Thus the Pahsienjao Cemetery has been turned into a public park (Huaihai gongyuan) while the Muslim Cemetery has been moved next to the Luwan Park (Shaanxi nanlu/Zhaojiabang lu). The Hongqiao Cemetery has also been turned into a public park (Hongqiao gongyuan). Another new public park (Tilan gongyuan) has been created in the Tilanqiao District and a new cemetery appears to the West above Xijiao gongyuan (it was not on the 1956 map).

The 1963 map (ID599) offers two sides, one with the urban area (上海市市區圖) and one with the full municipality (上海市全圖). The urban area is presented without its administrative districts. Shanghai appears as one single whole with its major landmarks (the same as in 1956 but shown as icons). The two westernmost cemeteries are still displayed, but the Muslim Cemetery and the Luwan Park have disappeared. The map includes a separate detailed map of the central district with all street names. This small map shows the location of all movie theaters, opera theaters and shuchang (story-telling) in the area. Some buildings are indicated, but the choice seems to be random. One cannot discern any pattern. There is no indication of any airport.

I have found a set of three Shanghai transportation base maps [上海交通簡圖] for the 1970s, but no ‘full map’ as in the previous decades. In fact, although this may be due to loopholes in the consulted collections, I am not aware of Shanghai ‘full maps’ for the 1964-1972 period. The Cultural Revolution era was not prone toward population movement, except for the Red Guards.14 Of course, due to their nature (simple mapping) and small size, one cannot expect much detail (e.g. ID639). Basically, they show the grid of streets, but only the main thoroughfares appear. The major parks are also displayed as well as the bus and tramway lines. There is no street index (only a list of the main bus and tramway lines). On the 1970 map (ID670), the back of the map is filled with a quotation of chairman Mao, the eight rules of discipline (三大紀律八項注意), and the music and lyrics of four songs (東方紅,國際歌, 三八作風歌, 大海航行靠舵手). At least, the lack of proper information to find directions on the map could be compensated with a cheerful revolutionary heart. In the later editions (1974 and 1976), the musical section was replaced with a map of the Shanghai municipality and indications on the long-distance bus lines.

In 1973 a new map (上海市市區交通圖) was established that set another level of misrepresentation (ID582). Formally, the ten urban districts were shown in different colors, although their name was not provided. The grid of streets presents only the main thoroughfares. The riverbanks are empty and there is hardly any indication that there could be any type of economic activity (especially on Pudong where only a crude set of streets is displayed). All the rivers and canals in the rural area have also disappeared, partly as a result of urbanization, but most probably as a result of the cartographer's generous use of the eraser. Buildings are represented only through magnified icons. The selection has now changed to highlight the lifestyle of the masses. The most numerous buildings -- 11 altogether -- are the high-rise towers called “workers' villages” all around the city. They seem to be the architectural pride of the city. The other 14 selected buildings are numbered, except the seat of the city revolutionary committee located in the former Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank and the remotely located Institute of physical education, north of the city, previously the seat of the municipal government under the nationalists.15 All cemeteries have disappeared from the map. Only the public parks are displayed (with a map for each of the six major ones), though not in detail. Finally, one can see the Hongqiao airport, but at the cost of an impressive compression of the map on the East-West axis.

In 1975, the mapmakers seem have found the names of the urban districts again. The map (ID580) is smaller than usual, but it seems to present much less deformation than its immediate predecessors. The level of information and type of presentation remains pretty much the same as in 1973. The major urban landmarks are represented by icons and include the same set as before, minus the official sites now labeled on the map itself, and a few additions: television tower (電視台), sports hall (上海體育館) in the south-west corner, the former City God Temple (Chenghuangmiao) in the South. The television tower, built in 1972, has replaced the Bund as the representative urban icon of Shanghai. The image of a plane represents the Hongqiao airport, although the airport itself must have been outside the limit of the map. The 1978 edition is exactly the same, showing that map production was tightly controlled and showed only slow evolution.

The 1981 edition (ID579) follows the same pattern as the maps of the late 1970s. The size is more generous and comes back to the 1950s-1960s format. The preference for orange for the built-up urban area gives way to grey. The system of representation of buildings still favors large icons on the map. In this edition, however, the workers' villages have been cast aside. They are no longer part of the architectural landscape. The novelties in this regard are icons meant to describe specific activities or features in the parks (rowing, pandas, robots, peacocks). The new People's hall (市人大) also receives due recognition. Some old “feudal” buildings like the Jing'ansi temple or temple of Confucius also make a comeback. There seems to be a renewed interest for the few Chinese tourist landmarks of the city, even if tourism was still at low ebb at this period. After less than three years of reform, however, the population had a little more freedom to move around, at least between cities, and the heavy hand of political condemnation of the past was being lifted slowly.

The pattern set in the early 1980s did not change much thereafter. Sometimes, more colors were used, especially to show the different districts, but the level of information remained pretty much the same. In the 1984 edition (ID369), the color base is grey. Cartographers have also reverted to using names to indicate less prominent buildings. The range of identified locations is by and large the same (workers villages, universities, etc.). Icons have come back in a prominent way, but in smaller numbers and reduced size. There is a new icon for the Yufosi temple (Reclining Buddha). As time passed, the targets for icons have also changed. For instance, in the 1993 map (ID644) Tourist map of Shanghai municipality [市區交通遊覽圖], one can see the new foreign-managed hotels built in the southwestern corner (Huating Hotel, Qianhe Hotel) or city center (Hilton Hotel). Pudongnow designated "new area" is shown with greater details, notably the grid of street and, of course, the new Nanpu Bridge over the Huangpu River and the two tunnels under the river. As new major urban infrastructures appear, they become the urban icons of the sought-after modernity the municipal leaders want to display for internal and external consumption.

Secrets for friends and foes

Obviously the increasing simplification of Shanghai maps and the systematic erasure of otherwise innocuous information could only result from a deliberate policy sanctioned by the authorities. There was an explicit, though covert policy, to impose strict censorship on the making and distribution of maps in China. From the Shanghai municipal archives, it appears that the initiative came from the central government in Peking, which all local authorities had to emulate. In the case of Shanghai, such decisions and instructions first came through the Military Committee of the East China Region (Huadong junzheng weiyuanhui 華東軍事委員會), more particularly its Bureau of information and publishing (xinwen chubanju 新聞出版局). On 27 January 1951, it enacted a ‘draft directive’ that prohibited the mention of any official agency or bureau, except for the seat of the Military Committee, the People’s Government, and the People’s Bank. Of course, all military installations and anything related to national defense (military school, plants, ports, airports, wharves, etc.) could no longer be represented on maps.16 This ‘draft directive’ actually reproduced a similar ban by the central authorities about the capital. The ‘draft directive’ was turned later into an ‘instruction’ (zhishi 指示) with the same title and dispositions.17 Over time, the list of ‘banned items’ was further enlarged.


The regulation was strictly enforced, as in the early years of the PRC Shanghai still had a host of small private publishers on which the authorities had no direct control. One can find repeated admonitions or warnings by the Information and Publishing Bureau of the municipality (Xinwen chubanju) of the municipality about maps considered either as faulty or that presented information from ‘before liberation’. The bureau actually had full powers to ban such maps and force the publisher to withdraw them form circulation and even destroy them. Probably the context of the Korean war made the Chinese authorities more nervous about maps and anything deemed useful to China’s potential enemies. Yet the context does not explain everything. The policy on maps reflects the politics of secrecy that progressively shrouded the whole country after 1949. Even basic city maps came to be seen as documents that came under the category of ‘state secrets’. It did not matter that maps of Chinese cities could be found in great numbers abroad, especially in military archives. The Chinese government was determined to prevent any update on its cities by all means. Maps became a matter of serious concern throughout China.


From a preliminary foray into the archives, one gets the sense that July 1951 was a time when the Shanghai authorities tightened their grip on map publishing and forced publishers to strictly abide with the municipal regulations. Failure to do so could have serious consequences. In July 1951 the Shanghai guoguang yudishe (上海國光輿地社) published a Pocket Map of Shanghai Districts [袖珍上海分區地圖] that the authorities found faulty. When the bureau banned the 5,000 run, the publisher still had 4,614 copies in its hands.18 The Shanghai guoguang yudishe made an attempt to argue its case. With 2,500 still in stock, it could not survive if it had to destroy them19. Its appeal it was not heard and the company filed for bankruptcy on 27 September 1951. On 11 July, the Bureau banned another map by the Shijie yudi xueshe (世界輿地學社). It carried the locations of the Public Security offices, city district offices (區政府), and all the wharves. In a hand-written note, the publisher replied he still had 3,000 copies. If there were issues of state secret, he would correct before republishing. While he did not say what he would do with the remaining 3,000 copies, we can safely assume they were destroyed. The Bureau left no alternative.


In September the Daxu chubanshe also came under attack for its Shanghai xin ditu (上海新地圖), which the Bureau asked to withdraw from the market. The owner tried to plead for a permission to sell his 3,500 copies of the map. He argued he had no political intention, that he was not a counter-revolutionary and had even participated in the May 30 movement. The owner had raised the capital (2,100,000 yuan) for the printing of the maps among various companies (bookstore, press). Without the proceeds from the sale, he was bound to go broke. To make it acceptable, the publisher offered to cover the disputed names on the map with rubber stamps. Yet the Bureau maintained its stand.20 At about the same period, the Bureau took issue with maps released by four other publishers. The main reason was that they reflected situation of pre-Liberation Shanghai, especially street names. The publishers were certainly faulty in that they had not updated some names, but it could at worst mislead a newcomer to Shanghai, not the local residents. All these maps were banned. Obviously political considerations dominated the judgment of the Bureau when it came to allowing the circulation of maps. It referred explicitly to “reactionary agencies that had already been eliminated” (反動機構已被清楚).21 The regulation applied not just to Shanghai. In September 1951, the Shanghai Bureau of Information and Publishing explicitly demanded the erasure of broadcasting station, telegraph offices, train and ferry lines, water plants, power plants, goals, shipyards, courts, etc. in a map book of Chinese provinces.22


Quite clearly, the logic of preserving “state secrets” or banning any remnants from the “reactionary” past overrode all considerations, even that of causing small publishing houses to close down. Somehow, this went hand in hand with the project of the new regime to move toward the nationalization of the private sector, especially in a field as sensitive as publishing. Yet, even after the authorities took control of all the means of information and publication, the concern about “leaking secrets” remained. By 1955 all private publishers were almost history and maps were published by state-run companies. Nevertheless the release of a new map went through a careful process. In April 1955, the municipality found that there was a lack of maps to facilitate the movement of people and goods in Shanghai, especially for those not familiar with the city. A new Public Transportation Map 上海市公共交通路線 (ID659), was prepared for public use. The Bureau of Information and Publishing felt necessary to submit the draft to the Office of transportation (Shanghai shi renmin weiyuanhui jiaotong bangongshi 上海市人民委員會交通辦公室), the Department of Propaganda, and the Committee on State Secrets (Shanghai shi renmin weiyuanhui baomi weiyuanhui 上海市人民委員會保密委員會). As one can readily observe, this was a simple transportation map of Shanghai with only the indication of bus, tramway, and ferry lines. Yet the Bureau wanted to make sure there was no risk of “leaking state secrets” (洩密).23


While there is undoubtedly a greater degree of openness about cartographic materials in China, the official policy presents loopholes and contradictions. In 1989, at a time when only basic tourist maps were available, the Shanghai Toponymy Office (Shanghai shi diming bangongshi 上海市地名辦公室) and the Shanghai Land Survey Institute (Shanghai shi cehuiyuan 上海市測繪院) published a remarkable two-volume block survey of the city.24 This was the most detailed cartographic record ever published on Shanghai since 1949.25 The two volumes were meant to provide updated and accurate knowledge about the city for visitors, businessmen, administrators, etc. with a view to “fit in with the development of reforms and opening up”.26 The survey covered the whole urban area and provided details on roads and rivers, factories and enterprises, party and government offices, schools, recreation and sports facilities, etc. including the constructions and installations on the riverfront. A second multi-volume (7) edition provided even more details on the city’s spatial organization and productive forces.


The practice of officially sanctioned maps is still very much the norm today. In the most recent document (Municipal decree no. 71, October 1999) I was able to unearth from the archives, the full monopoly of the municipal government on map-making is reasserted with clarity. The regulation has come into force on 1 January 2000. It covers all the forms of map-making and map-publishing, with the municipal Shanghai Land Survey Office as the sole agency for overseeing the publication of all maps. Most of the content in the regulation is technical in nature, but it commands clearly that any map must be cleared by the Land Survey Office before publication. While there is little risk of unapproved maps, the regulation includes a whole section on sanctions and fines for maps that would not abide with the terms of the regulation.27 Basically, only Chinese-owned and officially-licensed agencies or companies can produce maps. The introduction of satellite imagery and Google-type mapping failed to change this set up. Foreign companies can only be fed maps and data produced by Chinese companies. A recent article in Cankao xiaoxi reasserted the exclusive monopoly of Chinese agencies on land survey.28 Despite such dispositions, bugs may happen. In 2001 the municipality issued a detailed aerial coverage of the whole city.29 Two weeks after its release, the volume was withdrawn from sale and circulation. The successive updates published since 2001 were never made public. In the 2001 edition, the airports around Shanghai were replaced by ‘genuine’ rice fields.


Maps do tell lies

Another issue about post-1949 Shanghai maps is their degree of distortion. Maps always present a ‘distorted’ view of reality due to the application of a system of projection. This is inevitable. Yet this visual representation of space normally remains within reasonable limits that do not radically alter the sense of spatial distribution or measure/representation of distances from reality. After 1949 Shanghai maps, however, underwent more than projection-related changes in their content. Mapmakers introduced subtle alterations of how distances were actually represented and introduced distortions beyond the mere application of a system of projection. The absence of scale and bearing indications on maps does not allow the casual map user to notice these distortions. The compact nature of Shanghai makes it almost insensible even to the biker who would crisscross the city in all directions. Yet, post-1949 Shanghai maps display deformations that cannot possibly result from the lack of technique or inaccuracies in measurements or drawing. These are deformations introduced on purpose by the city mapmakers of the Bureau of Land Survey of the municipality.

While a close look at maps in comparison with pre-1949 maps provides a visual sense of such discrepancies, we applied a more systematic method to assess these deformations.30 Since we had no formal indications on the system of representation (scale, bearing, projection), we decided to work from the Spot satellite image that serves as our reference for map-georectifying. We selected seven points located on the waterway system deemed to be stable in time and at various extremes of the city so as to provide coverage of the major distances. These seven locations, of which one served as the point of origin of our graph, were used for all our measures and data processing. The point of origin (B) is located at the mouth of Suzhou River (Soochow Creek) where it meets the Huangpu River. The six segments (BA, BC, BD, B, BF, BG) that served to measure distances all started from this point (see Graph 1).


Graph 1: Location of the points of reference


To calculate the distances (length of segments), each point had to be placed on a four-axis graph (see Graph 2).31 Then all measures were translated into a 100 base in order to have all the maps on a common scale. The AB segment was selected as 100 base for all maps from which the coordinates of each point were recalculated. Last, to be able to compare the sample maps, each was reoriented on a North bearing and realigned on the reference map/graph (point of origin and AB segment).


Graph 2: Axis of reference


We applied this method to six maps, including a 1945 map produced by a professional geographical institution, and compared to what extent cartographic representations of Shanghai varied. As can bee seen on Graph 3, distortions are visible on all maps. There are major differences, however, between pre-1949 and post-1949 maps. The 1945 map presents a distortion with an elongation to the West (beyond G) and a smaller one to the North (beyond H). This could be related to the system of projection, the other points of reference being well aligned with the selected locations on the satellite image. With the 1956 map, one can observe a different distortion that, while still minor, seems to set the pattern that Shanghai map-making followed thereafter. The cartographic shape of the city jumps out of the image-based graph on all sides, revealing a constriction of the Eastern part of the city (AB segment) that explains the Western ‘overflow’ and, in parallel, an elongation of the North-South axis. This is particularly obvious in the 1963 and 1973 maps, and less so in 1975. The 1981 map returns to a less distorted representation of city space.

Graph 3: Distortion effects of Shanghai maps

The discrepancies are such that they could result only from a deliberate attempt to produce distorted maps. Our analysis shows that the deformations are more or less pronounced from one map to the other. Over time there was an “aggravation” of the distortion with a peak in the early 1970s. There is no obvious explanation to this phenomenon beyond a political reading. Maps were (and still are) considered sensitive material from a political and military perspective in China. Today, despite the existence of online mapping services similar to Google map in China, electronic maps are produced in proprietary formats to avoid copying. Access to such maps, especially those produced by the Bureau of Land Survey of the municipality, is severely restricted. Chinese companies are allowed to use them for commercial purposes, though at very high prices. Foreign companies or individuals are barred from such acquisitions. Access for educational or academic purposes is not on the horizon. There is no access to printed maps, beyond the commercial sanitized ones produced under the strict guidance of the municipal authorities. As mentioned above, event the collection of historical maps at the Shanghai Library is out of bound.


What” is Shanghai? Urban icons and visualization

Shanghai city maps, as for many cities, come as folding maps with an illustrated cover. This illustration is a visual representation of the city in a snapshot. It can be a building like the Eiffel Tower for Paris, a particular location like a riverfront (e.g. the Bund in Shanghai), a photograph or a drawing, etc.32 In the case of Shanghai after 1949, the official control over what is to be shown on maps makes it relevant to examine which elements were selected to represent the city visually. This study is based on a sample of 22 map covers from 1949 to 2005.

Up to 1950-1951, the presence of private publishers probably meant certain diversity. Yet the two maps published in 1949 and 1950 both chose the Park Hotel as the emblematic figure for Shanghai. On the 1950 cover, it is a drawing with a view from the West that includes the Foreign YMCA. The 1949 cover offers a photographic view from the front, with a long banner celebrating the new regime hanging from the top. A crowd seems to be assembled at the foot of the building in the nearby racecourse. The Park Hotel was completed in 1934. It was the tallest building (83.8 m) in Shanghai in 1930s, which may explain its choice as an urban icon for Shanghai. Its highly recognizable shape could be turned into a proud symbol of Shanghai modernity.

Our next series, from 1956 to 1973, however, takes the Bund as the icon to represent Shanghai.33 It is somehow fascinating to see this row of obviously Western-style buildings along the riverfront – a definite legacy of Shanghai’s imperialist past – turned into the visual representation of socialist Shanghai. Of course, these buildings had been confiscated and invested by agencies of the new regime, including the People’s City Government, the City Party Committee or the Headquarters of the General Trade Union. Was it a way of mocking the past and asserting the regime’s confidant rule over defeated imperialists? The Bund was given a place of choice in visual representation that it failed to have in the Chinese city guides, both before and after 1949.34 In 1956, the long view of the Bund, from the former Hong Kong and Shanghai Bang to Shanghai Mansions, conveys the sense of a busy riverfront, with rows of boats and ferries moored at the jetties. In 1963 and 1973, the dominant impression from the two views is one of a place for a leisurely stroll well in tune with the idealistic tone and images extolled in most Western city-guides in the Republican period.35 The perspective in the 1973 view is actually pretty much the same as a painting made in the mid-19th-century (1860), from the location of the future ‘Consular Row’ in Hongkou. One can notice the tremendous transformation of both the Bund and the Hongkou riverside.36

In the mid-1970s, the iconic representation of Shanghai took a new turn with the appearance of a new symbol of modernity, the Television Tower. It would appear systematically on the map covers until the end of the 1970s and well into the early 1980s. The Television Tower had the shape of an Eiffel Tower, a form of architecture common to several cities in Europe and Asia.37 The 210-meter new structure was completed on 25 September 1972 and became the tallest construction in the city, dwarfing the Park Hotel by 126 meters. It was a new element of pride not just in architectural terms. Shanghai Television was the first television station established outside of the capital. It broadcasted from 1958 in the former building of the Sincere Company on Nanjing xilu. With the new tower, the Shanghai TV Station shifted to color TV along.38

By the early 1980s, map covers no longer presented one single major urban icon. The 1982 edition constitutes an interesting mix of past and present. Shanghai Mansions, formerly known as Broadway Mansions, represents the past, with Garden Bridge at its foot providing metaphorically a ‘bridge’ to the present symbolized by the TV Tower and the new Shanghai Sports Hall built in 1975.39 Was there no longer a clear sense of what could best represent Shanghai? Were the city leaders trying to link up again Shanghai with its sensitive past? Only direct interviews with cover designers could shed some light on this issue. The covers of 1984-1985 that followed marked a return to the Bund, though from a somehow bizarre perspective. It is a view taken from the back of the Bund, a few blocks behind the Customs House, looking north over the Huangpu River. One might argue this is not the best perspective on the riverfront. It is a “roof view” with those of the Customs House, Peace Hotel, and Bank of China protruding above the neighboring undistinguished rooftops. By 1988-1989, cover designers had come back to a conventional bird’s eye view of the Bund.

The reforms of the 1990s, especially the major operations of urban renewal implemented with the blessing of Deng Xiaoping – most notably his support to the Pudong development scheme – marked a new shift in graphic representation of the city. It was no longer about height, but about finally overcoming the massive barrier – the Huangpu River – that separated Shanghai from its new promised land (or in the new administrative parlance, Puxi from Pudong). Pending the materialization of this new Far East, Shanghai came to be symbolized by the structures than now linked the two parts of the city. Bridges, especially the Nanpu Bridge and its long swirling ramp, as can be seen on the 1993 map cover and elevated roadways figured prominently. The Nanpu Bridge, completed in November 1991, was propelled at once to the status of urban icon. It remained in the limelight for the next decade, most of the time alone (1996, 2002) and sometimes in association with other structures like the new opera (1999) of the Jinmao Tower (2006). Yet another building joined in the ‘competition’ for representing Shanghai: the Pearl of the Orient Television Tower. When it was about to be completed in 1995, a map cover issued in September displayed it as a monstrous spire rising from a sky-inflamed horizon, dwarfing the whole city viewed from the People’s Square. Two years later, a real picture showed it as the central piece in a night view of the illuminated Bund in the far background.

One must also admit that map covers became more varied, with the Bund cropping up again on some covers although the emphasis was more on roadways than on the buildings (2000). Some specialized maps offered less standardized covers, like a 1996 map of commerce (Shanghai shangye tu 上海商業圖) that very aptly adopted a view of the Department Store No. 1 (formerly the Sun Company Department Store) on Nanjing Road or a 1996 3D map of major buildings that chose to display the Customs House on its cover. Above all, covers also favored collage for a time. My sample also includes a 2001 map showing two newly erected structures, the City Hall on People’s Square and the Jinmao Tower (completed in 1998). In 2003, it was a mix of the Nanpu bridge, the Pear of the Orient, and the new Pudong Airport. Yet none of these two buildings managed to rise to the status of urban icons despite Jinmao Tower being the tallest building in the PRC from its completion to 2007.

What actually became the new urban icon of Shanghai from 2003 onward was the dream come true: the Pudong riverfront, the new 21th-century Bund of Shanghai. Maps of the 2003-2005 period all display views of the Lujiazui district with the domineering Oriental pearl Television and the Jinmao Towers as well as the spate of small skyscrapers around them (2003, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2009). Map cover designers, no doubt under guidance from the higher authorities, have turned their back to “Shanghai” for good. Pudong has dethroned Puxi as the iconic symbolization of Shanghai. Allegorically, whereas looking at the Bund meant looking ‘West’, Shanghai is looking ‘East’ for its future. Yet the Pudong focus may change again as new visual opportunities arise or meet new circumstances like the 2010 World Exhibition, unless eventually publishers are given a free rein on map cover design. Only the future will tell.


Concluding remarks

Maps do not show the world the way it really is. Lippard is right to point out maps are “cultural and even individual creations that embody points of view”.40 It is also true that map making implies scaling down reality, focusing on specific aspects, and selecting the items to be included and encoded into a system of symbolic representation. In the case of post-1949 Shanghai maps are above all political creations in which the individual dimension is almost nil. Shanghai maps show what the political authorities have decided or allowed to show. Was there really a concern that such maps could be shipped abroad and used by ‘imperialist’ powers in a potential conflict? Did this condition the production of deliberately distorted maps? There is no certain answer to these questions beyond the observation of obvious and significant distortions in the officially sanctioned maps of Shanghai.

One can well imagine that the concern for maps was not central in the 1950s-1980s when the mobility of population was restricted and few people from outside Shanghai actually had the opportunity to travel to the city. The same holds true of city guides that virtually disappeared or presented only elementary information or guidance oriented toward ‘production’ rather then sightseeing. Accuracy and precision in map-making, therefore, became accessory considerations. Sometimes, as in the 1950s-1970s, this entailed a deliberate distortion of even the basic parameters of map making. While the process of simplification and selection is common in all map-making work, the most striking feature of post-1949 maps is the heavy weight of political concerns and the dismissal of any possibility of diversity. There was – and still is – a single source for map-making which also doubled as the supervising agency for all commercial map publishing.

The study of map covers unveiled another layer of political message through their design and choice of representative urban icons. There was less at stake than in the actual content of the maps, but one can also read in the successive icons or illustrations the changing focus of the city leaders about what image they should project to the outside world, which aspect was deemed to express and embody best the allure and the progress of the city. While single structures prevailed at different times (Park Hotel, Nanpu Bridge), the dominating icon remained the riverfront on the Huangpu River. The most obvious transformation was the shift from the ‘Old Bund’ (waitan 外灘) on the western bank to the ‘New Bund’ on Pudong. No such Eiffel Tower figure as in Paris emerged or gained enough strength to remain as the everlasting urban icon of the city. After all the Huangu River and its banks played a major role in the rise of the city into a formidable trade and financial hub. That they became enshrined as Shanghai’s urban icons constitutes a well-deserved acknowledgement of the river’s strategic function as Shanghai’s lifeline.


1 Lippard, Lucy R., “All at a glance” in Montmann, Nina; Dziewior, Yilmaz, Mapping a City, Hamburg, Kunstverein, 2004, p. 94

2 Municipal Gazette, 11/10/1929, uncolored maps at $5, colored maps at $7. The practice must have started early, but the earliest record I have found dates back to 1913. Yet the documents already refer to the “quinquennial issue of plans for public sale”. The SMC collated updated maps from the various local authorities and produced a general map that up to the 1920s was printed in the United Kingdom. See correspondence and documents in SMA, File U1-14-6479.

3 I used this mulu several times in the 1990s at the Xianxi Road location (Gubei) and was given generous access to post-1949 maps. These maps are no longer available.

4 Lao shanghai ditu 老上海地圖 (The Album of Shanghai during the Past 150 Years), Shanghai, Shanghai huabao chubanshe, 2001, “Qianyan” (Introduction), p. 10. It is even more unfortunate as, from the library’s own admission, most of its maps came from private collections established by Chinese and Western scholars who meant to gather cartographic materials for the public good and the advancement of knowledge: North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Hongying Library (鴻英圖書館), Shanghai Historical Documents Library (上海市歷史文獻圖書館). Lao shanghai ditu, pp. 10-11

5 Ever since my Ph.D. dissertation on the Shanghai Municipal Government between 1927 and 1937, I have been hoping that these archives would be made public. At regular intervals, I would probe into the catalogs and inquire about the status of theses archives. The reading of archival documents and the press allowed me to trace a portion up to July 1940 when the land registration archives (312 boxes) were transferred from the Shanghai Municipal Council to the Chinese municipal administration under Fu Xiao’en. The land deeds had been turned over to the French Concession, then to the International Settlement for protection against the invading Japanese. I failed to find any record about the fate of the rest of the archives of the Chinese municipal government. China Weekly Review, 13 July 1940, p. 256; Shanghai tebieshi zhengfu chuzhou jinian tekan 上海特別市政府初週紀念特刊, 1940, p. 311

6 I would like to thank Prof. K. in Japan and Prof. L. in Shanghai for their generous contribution to the map collection on the Virtual Shanghai project.

7 Henriot, Christian & Zheng Zu'an, Atlas de Shanghai. Espace et représentations de 1849 à nos jours, Paris, CNRS-Editions, 1999, p. 11

8 It was published in July 1945, shortly before the defeat of Japan by the Asia Geographical Institute. Even though street names have been changed since the retrocession of the two foreign settlements in 1943, the map lists the original foreign names. The area of the former settlements appears as a single "special district" (although there were two, no. 1 and no. 8). A caption box details the major types of buildings (police stations, theaters, churches, consulates, etc.) to be found on the map.

9 See ‘Base maps’ on Virtual Shanghai, “Maps” menu.

10 There is no actual publication date on the map itself. On its back, one can find a "map commercialization permit" (ditu faxing xukezheng 地圖發行許可證) valid from February 1944 to January 1945 delivered by the Ministry of Interior (with Sun Yat-sen's portrait and the national flag). Yet it is obviously a re-used permit as street names on the map have been renamed according to the rules of the new regime. The old English names are indicated between parentheses in their Chinese transliteration.

11 In fact, the limits between the rural districts are also indicated, but only a small part is visible since the maps cover mostly the urban area.

12 Lao shanghai ditu 老上海地圖 (The Album of Shanghai during the Past 150 Years), Shanghai, Huabao chubanshe, 2001, p. 31

13 Seat of the Federation of Trade Unions on the Bund, the three hotels open to foreigners (Shanghai Mansions, International Hotel [ex-Park Hotel], and Jinjiang Hotel), the Workers' Palace, the Sino-Soviet Friendship building(中蘇友誼大廈), and the Cultural Hall (文化館) [ex-Temple of Confucius - 文廟].

14 It would be interesting to have a survey of map publishing in China for the major cities to see whether there were indeed periods when maps were also withdrawn from public hands.

15 The other buildings are shown without any caption: Peace Hotel (ex-Sassoon House), Shanghai Mansions, International Hotel, Huaqiao Hotel, No. 1 Department Store, Shanghai Exhibition Hall (ex-Sino-Soviet Friendship Building), etc.

16 See “Shanghai shi chubanye yinzhi dushi ditu zanxing banfa caogao” 上海市出版業印製都市地圖暫行辦法草稿, undated, in ‘Communication’ (通知), Huadong junzhengweihui xinwen chubanju, 27 Jan. 1951, SMA, File B1-1-1966.

17 See “Shanghai shi chubanye yinzhi dushi ditu zhishi” 上海市出版業印製都市地圖指示, undated, Huadong junzhengweihui xinwen chubanju, 11 May 1951, SMA, File B1-1-1966

18 Letter, 12/7/1951, SMA, File B1-1-1967

19 Letter, 27/9/1951, SMA, File B1-1-1967

20 Letter by the publisher, 6/9/1951, SMA, File B1-1-1967

21 Document, Xinwen chubanju, 19/9/1951, SMA, File B1-1-1967

22 Zhonghua renmin gongheguo fen sheng jingtu 中華人民共和國分省精圖。 Letter, Xinwen chubanju, 21/9/1951, SMA, File B1-1-1967

23 Letter, Xinwen chubanju, 16/4/1955, SMA, B1-2-1802

24 Shanghai shi shangyong dituce (Shanghai business atlas) 上海市商用地图册, Shanghai, Shanghai fanyi chuban gongsi, 1989. A fully reconstructed version of the atlas (urban area) is available on the GIS map server at Live Maps: “1989 – Shanghai Business Atlas”.

25 The Shanghai shi shangyong dituce is very similar, though less detailed, to the Shanghai shi hanghao lutu lu 上海市行號路圖錄 (Shanghai Street Directory) initially published for the foreign settlements in 1939-1940, and later extended to Nanshi and parts of Hongkou (1946-47 and 1948-49 editions). The Shanghai shi shangyong dituce, however, covers a much larger area.

26 Shanghai shi shangyong dituce, “Introduction”.

27 See “Shanghai shi ditu bianzhi chuban guanli ruogan guiding” 上海市地圖編制出版管理若干規定”, municipal decree no. 71, 18 October 1999, SMA, File J4-0-1998-160. For a fuller study of the use of GIS and government contro in Shanghai, see Leung, Kai Chi, "Geographic information and urban development in Shanghai", Ph.D. dissertation, University of Minnesota, 2007.

28 Cankao xiaoxi 參考消息, 27 March 2009.

29 Shanghai shi yingxiang dituji 上海市影像地图集 (Atlas of aerial views of Shanghai), 2001, Shanghai.

30 I wish to acknowledge the assistance of Isabelle Durand, GIS engineer of the Visual Shanghai project, who suggested the methodology on which this section is based.

31 On this four-axis graph, we calculated the x2,y2 coordinates and the length of each segment (=√(Bx22+By2)) [with x1,y1 = 0].

32 On Paris, see Thompson, William, "The Symbol of Paris": Writing the Eiffel Tower”, The French Review, Vol. 73, No. 6 (May 2000), pp. 1130-1140

33 This reading takes issue with Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s stimulating essay “A Big Ben with Chinese Characteristics: The Customs House as Urban Icon in Old and New Shanghai”, Urban History, 33, 1 (2006), pp. 65-84 (see online version, last visited, 13 May 2009). While the Customs House was definitely a major urban landmark in Shanghai, various candidates may also qualify depending on time (a point Wasserstrom also makes) and sources (a point I make with a study of map covers). Moreover, Western-language publications before 1949 offer, and actually built, an image hardly to be found in Chinese-language publications (see my essay on the Bund before 1949). In this essay, I take a different take on what represented Shanghai “iconically” in the post-1949 period.

34 See Henriot, Christian & Woodburry, Matthew, “The Shanghai Bund: A History through Visual Sources”, ‘Western visions of the Bund’, on the Virtual Shanghai platform.

35 See Henriot, Christian & Woodburry, Matthew, “The Shanghai Bund: A History through Visual Sources”, ‘Chinese visions of the Bund’ on the Virtual Shanghai platform.

36 The 1860 picture was reproduced in Maybon, Ch.-B.; Fredet, Jean, Histoire de la Concession française de Changhai, Paris, Plon, 1929; Denison, Edward, Building Shanghai: the Story of China’s Gateway, Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Academy, 2006.

37 Eiffel-style steel structure television towers were built from the late 1940s in the US. In Asia, Japan led first with the Nagoya tower (180 m) in 1954 followed by the Tokyo tower in 1958. With 333 meters, it is the tallest steel structure in the world and the tallest artificial structure in Japan. In the socialist block, similar structures emerged later, with Saint Petersburg taking the lead in 1962 (310 m). Thereafter, various cities (Tomsk, Kiev, Yerevan, etc.) built their own in the late 1960s-early 1970s as in Shanghai.

38 Shanghai guangbo dianshi zhi 上海广播电视志, “Dashiji大事记. Actually color broadcasting was inaugurated on 1 August 1973.

39 Shanghai tiyu zhi 上海体育志, “Dashiji大事记. The Sports Hall was completed in July 1975.

40 Lippard, Lucy R., “All at a glance” in Montmann, Nina; Dziewior, Yilmaz, Mapping a City, Hamburg, Kunstverein, 2004, p. 102

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