From a scholar's legacy, East-meets-West culture creates a unique domain

Yang Jian
The historical sub-district of Xujiahui owes its charm and vitality to the integration of Chinese tradition and Western influence.
Yang Jian

Editor’s note:

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was Shanghai. Once dubbed "the Paris of the East,” the city has evolved into a fusion of multiculturalism. Along the way, Shanghai has accumulated a repository of stories about the people and events that have shaped its history. Five areas of the city occupy pride of place in that journey: People’s Square, Jing’an Temple, Xujiahui, Lujiazui and Xintiandi. This series, a collaboration with Shanghai Local Chronicles Library, visits them all to follow in the footsteps of time.

Xujiahui sits at vanguard of a unique “East meets West” culture, known as haipai, that developed in the 20th century and became a hallmark of Shanghai continuing into the 21st.

This blend of Eastern tradition and Western influence settled in an area that was once fertile farmland at the confluence of the Fahuajing and Zhaojiabang rivers. From roots in agriculture and water trade, it developed into a hub of education, commerce, science and the arts.

The legacy of these rivers is now preserved in the names of streets and roads in the area.

From a scholar's legacy, East-meets-West culture creates a unique domain
Zhou Wenqiang

Xujiahui has become a major sub-center of Shanghai.

At the heart of Xujiahui’s story is Xu Guangqi, a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) scholar whose contributions laid the groundwork for what the area was to become.

Born in 1562 on the southern banks of Shanghai’s Qiaojiabang Creek, Xu was a prodigious learner from a young age, deeply influenced by his father’s dedication to agriculture and his own early education at Longhua Temple.

Xu’s curiosity and drive for knowledge led him to encounter Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit missionary, in the southern province of Guangdong.

That encounter triggered Xu’s lifelong commitment to Western science and Christianity. He was baptized, adopted the Christian name Paul and collaborated with Ricci on many works, most notably a translation of Euclid’s “Elements,” which introduced a new scientific methodology to China.

Xu’s tenure as a Ming Dynasty official was characterized by his efforts to apply his vast store of knowledge to practical governance. He advocated for military reform, agricultural progress and the dissemination of scientific knowledge.

His dedication to agricultural experiments, especially in the areas surrounding Xujiahui, helped find practical solutions to rural problems.

Following his death in 1633 and subsequent burial in Xujiahui in 1641, Xu’s legacy became a magnet for the development of communities that thrived on the intermingling of Chinese traditions and Western beliefs.

His role in fostering East-West dialogue laid the groundwork for Shanghai’s haipai culture, celebrated for its openness, innovation and cultural integration.

From a scholar's legacy, East-meets-West culture creates a unique domain
Zheng Xianzhang

The tomb of Xu Guangqi is in Guangqi Park in Xuhui District.

The impact of Jesuit missionaries in shaping Xujiahui is well documented. It led to the establishment of educational and cultural institutions that marked out a new era for Shanghai.

Among its legacies are the founding of the Tushanwan orphanage and the construction of an astronomical observatory, museum, library and school — all built on the concept of integrating Eastern traditions and Western innovations.

Esteemed institutions such as Nanyang Mission College, Aurora University and Fudan University emerged, cementing Xujiahui’s reputation as a major center for learning and creativity.

A pivotal moment for Xujiahui came in 1914, when the area was incorporated into the French Concession.

Beyond just geographical expansion, this inclusion enabled the area to begin a profound modernization. New roads were built, and existing ones were improved. Sophisticated urban planning emphasizing a pleasing environment was introduced.

Xujiahui quickly evolved into a prestigious residential district, with tree-lined streets, garden villas, Western-style apartments and boutique shops. The atmosphere was cosmopolitan, attracting well-to-do residents.

Commercial development blossomed, with foreign companies establishing their presence and contributing to the area’s economic vitality.

In 1986, the State Council, China’s Cabinet, approved a master plan for Shanghai that designated Xujiahui as one of the city’s major sub-centers.

Former Shanghai Mayor Wang Daohan began implementing a grand vision to develop a garden-style urban area on par with New York’s Fifth Avenue, London’s Oxford Street and Paris’s Champs-Elysees.

Consequently, major commercial complexes such as the No. 6 Department Store, Oriental Shopping Center, Pacific Department Store, Grand Gateway and Metro City were completed.

Efforts were also made to further upgrade infrastructure, including transportation networks, utilities and public amenities.

The redevelopment and beautification efforts contributed to an even more attractive, vibrant Xujiahui.

In more than a decade of development, the commercial area grew 60 times larger than it was in 1990.

Today, Xujiahui’s blend of historical charm and economic brio remains a standard of successful urban development. It is home to shopping malls, entertainment venues and business offices. The area’s parks and public spaces lend an air of nature to the urban fabric.

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