City Rumble – Beijing Versus Shanghai

Ni Hou! and it’s time for an all-China face off with two of the biggest Chinese cities there are – the capital Beijing and the metropolis of Shanghai. Both are great destinations, and actually completely different cities. There’s around 1,200 kilometres between these two cities, and it seems a lot more in terms of history.

Beijing arrives in the run-offs without having featured before, but Shanghai was one of the losers of the first round when it was beaten by the Japanese capital of Tokyo. You can see how that went down in City Rumble – Tokyo Versus Shanghai.

Beijing is a huge city, with so many different parts to it. It has a population of over 21 million. That seems like an awful lot until you discover that Shanghai on the other hand has a population of over 24. Both have long histories too, but quite different histories as well.

Mao at Tiananmen Square

Shanghai is by far the more modern city, although modern-day Beijing is growing and spreading both up and outwards at a rate of knots. With its historic centre around the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, surrounded by leafy suburbs at times this part of the city belies the sprawling Beijing, the modern Beijing. It’s a city dating back some three thousand years and has been the seat of power for many a Chinese dynasty.

Walking the Bund, Shanghai.

Turn then to Shanghai, which purportedly has a history of over 1000 years, comparatively a younger city. The one big difference is that Shanghai is a coastal city, which Beijing is not. It’s a port city, in fact – the busiest port city in the entire world! It’s a centre of commerce versus Beijing’s centre of power. It began to be a city of significance during the Qing Dynasty, from the early 1600s to the early 1900s.

See more on Shanghai – Cities on Sunday – Shanghai

It’s also seen influences from Europe, especially Britain. During the first half of the 20th century there were quite a number of Europeans living and doing business in Shanghai. And you can see that influence in the city today. The city boasts a picturesque French Quarter and a number of colonial buildings especially in the Bund area. In the 1920s and 1930s Europeans wielded such power that Shanghai became known as the ‘Paris of the East’. Not just the French and Brits, but also the Americans and other Europeans controlling much of the city.

During World War Two, by which time there was a clear divide between foreign Shanghai and Chinese Shanghai, the European population swelled to around 150,000 when many European Jews moved to the city. But then there was Japanese Occupation. After that came Mao, and ‘economic stagnation’. It wasn’t until 1989 that it became a real powerhouse again and now some 12% of China’s wealth is derived from Shanghai. It boasts shiny buildings, skyscrapers and although there is a somewhat dated feel to some of them, reminiscent of modernism circa the 1970s-1980s, it is undoubtedly the most modern looking place on the Chinese mainland.

Beijing Olympic Flame

The history of Beijing is much longer and much more detailed than Shanghai (a fair effort) but has on and off been the seat of power in China/Manchuria for thousands of years – on and off. 1920s saw a bit of a transformation into a more modern capital. The end of WWII saw Nationalists and Communists at loggerheads with foreigner powers trying to help to keep the peace. This didn’t last though and events led to Moa Tse Tung declaring the birth of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 at Tiananmen Square.

Just doing a little reading to get a paragraph on each city has made me realise how little I know about Chinese history and I really should learn more because it looks very interesting.

Today, Tiananmen Square is more known for the events of 1989 than anything else to foreigners. It’s huge and hard to miss if you’re in the capital. It sits in front of the incredible Forbidden City which is one of the more amazing things you can see in China.

Beijing is also well positioned to visit the Great Wall. You can see pandas in the zoo there too if it takes your fancy – I only saw them in 1986 when conditions were less than ideal, but I believe conditions are much improved these days. There is more to see there including more palaces and such but for your ‘wow’ factor, you can’t go past the Forbidden City and the Great Wall.

Shanghai’s sights include the different parts of the city and exploring places like the Bund and the French Quarter. The Bund Tunnel is one of the world’s more unusual tourist attractions, a sound and light show as you travel on a sort of… underground tram?

The centre for shopping is Nanjing Road, and if you’re looking for a museum with a difference, well look no further than the ‘Propaganda Museum’. The Shanghai Natural History Museum is a really good museum with a lot to check out too. Shanghai also has a range of towers you may be able to go up, including the iconic TV Tower on the far side of the river.

The Old Town area is really cool too to wander around, and you will not want for temples either in Shanghai. Both cities will impress, but Shanghai is great for exploring its streets in certain parts by foot and just getting lost in it.

I encountered scams in both cities – in Beijing I was invited to a tea house and had to buy some expensive drinks for new ‘friends’, in Shanghai I met a group asking for a photo and then asking me to attend a tea ceremony. I had heard of this scam though and declined – I hear you end up having to pay a couple of hundred bucks for them to let you leave or something like that. So be aware.

Neither are the world’s friendliest cities, but people are friendly enough and I met a number of people to chat with in the hostel in Shanghai. Neither are the cheapest of cities either, but they shouldn’t break your bank all the same. Both have decent metro systems along with buses for public transport and naturally, neither is lacking in taxis. Climate? Well Shanghai is on the whole hotter and more humid than Beijing. Beijing gets very cold in the winter but has hot summers, Shanghai’s temperature is more consistent but they also get more rain. I would say I prefer Beijing’s dryer more variable climate, but then – I come from Melbourne!

Across the river lies the future, Shanghai!

To pick a winner here is very hard.  But it has to be done. You’ll have to fight off smog wherever you go, but I will give it by a whisker to Shanghai. I think all in all it’s a more pleasant city and easier to navigate. It’s greener and fresher and is more set up for tourists. It’s better for walking and has a lot of different and interesting parts too it. What do you think? What call would you make? Please comment and let me know!

Thanks again for reading today, take care – and May the Journey Never End!


4 thoughts on “City Rumble – Beijing Versus Shanghai

  1. I would have a preference for Beijing, for its place in the country’s history. It is a pity, however, that many of the old neighbourhoods in the centre of the city have been razed to the ground, there was a local life that went far back in time.

  2. I’ve visited both over a decade ago, and I had more time in Beijing to explore than Shanghai. Due to that, I would say that Beijing takes the cake for me, as it’s both a historic and modern city, full of culture, whereas Shanghai is more international in its regard. That is to say, though, I hope to revisit Shanghai and spend more time exploring town!

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