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Five Things to Know about China’s Links to World’s Fairs and International Expositions

By Susan Fernsebner

The city of Shanghai will be the official host to Expo 2010, an international event celebrating the theme “A Better City, A Better Life,” with an opening celebration next May. As the event’s website and preview videos below reveal, Expo 2010 is intended as an example of a new and shared urban modernity. Visitors will have the opportunity to tour the site personally and, if lacking an opportunity to visit Shanghai next summer, also to take a virtual tour of its grounds online.

As the videos note, Expo 2010 is intended as an event that will fulfill and expand upon the legacy of world expositions while also helping to make the “world feel at home in China.” This endeavor of global exchange amidst the scene of the exposition is one in which China has, in fact, its own lengthy history of participation. An account of important events in this lesser-known history follows…

1. Chinese objects and merchants were both on hand for what is commonly considered the first major exhibition of the modern day. In 1851, a variety of actors displayed Chinese goods at London’s Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations held at the Crystal Palace that summer. While the Qing state did not send an official contingent, at least one Chinese merchant participated alongside Western diplomats and merchants in offering displays of Chinese goods at the grand event, winning a commendation for fine silks.

2. Between 1851 and the First World War, China would participate in at least twenty-eight world’s fairs and expositions including grand events staged at London, Madrid, Paris, Philadelphia, and Vienna, among others.

3. Though originally planning to attend, the Chinese government would withhold official participation in Chicago’s “World’s Columbian Exposition” of 1893 as a protest against the exclusionary Geary Act. The passage of this act in 1892 by the United States Congress renewed restrictions on Chinese immigration and imposed a strict regulation system for Chinese laborers residing in the U.S.

4. In 1904, Prince Pu Lun of the Qing imperial clan would personally attend the St. Louis Exposition and host a grand reception for over three thousand guests at one of the city’s fine hotels that spring. His visit also would be preceded by the reformist critic (and temporary expatriate) Liang Qichao, who toured the exposition grounds during the course of their construction the previous year (this was not the first time Liang Qichao spent time thinking about Expos, as in 1902 he wrote a story that imagined a Chinese international exhibition taking place in Shanghai in the far-off future date of 1962…).

5. China staged its first national fair, the 1910 Nanyang Exposition in the city of Nanjing under the co-sponsorship of the Qing state and independent investors. Intended as an event that would further industrial development and “enlighten the people,” the exposition offered discounted tickets for students and soldiers and included presentations by Japan, the United States, England, and Germany, among other nations. The exposition grounds would also offer multiple theaters, musical arenas, shops, restaurants, and a grand display of over fourteen thousand electric lights. As organizers noted, China had, like other nations around the world, reached a day in which both an education in material things and popular amusement itself was indeed “a certain necessity.”

Susan Fernsebner, an associate professor of history at the University of Mary Washington, is currently completing a book-length study on the history of China’s participation in world’s fairs and expositions.

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Last November, we ran a little preview of the 2010 Shanghai Expo, pointing you to a few readings about this big “coming distraction.” Last week the US finally committed to attend the Expo, prompting a new round of Expo stories around the web.

1. It’s pretty unusual for the U.S. to land on any world list between San Marino and Andorra, but that’s its position on the Expo sign-up sheet, as reported by the AFP:

The United States signed up Friday the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, officials said, making it the last major country with diplomatic ties to China to join the event…

Fundraising difficulties had threatened to prevent the US from building a pavilion for the Expo but organisers said they got a boost from donations in the past two months from Pepsi, General Electric and KFC owner Yum! Brands…

The US is the latest country to sign up after San Marino, the world’s smallest city state.

The Western European principality of Andorra is now the sole Expo holdout among countries with diplomatic relations to China, according to Expo organisers.

2. As the Wall Street Journal notes in their report on the last-minute fundraising for the US pavilion, financial woes wouldn’t serve as a sufficient excuse for an American absence:

Clearly, the global financial crisis hasn’t made it easy for U.S. firms put their hands in their pockets, particularly considering there are better ways to use their advertising budgets. However unintentional, thought, the absence of the world’s largest economy from next year’s event would inevitably be perceived as a slight by the Chinese organizers. “An undercurrent of ill-will” is what Frank Lavin, former commerce department official and chairman of the USA Pavilion steering committee, predicted when he spoke to The Journal back in April.

The concern hasn’t been lost on the Obama administration, with Secretary of State Clinton, in addition to Locke, throwing her weight behind the effort. In a March letter to Amcham in Shanghai, Clinton said U.S. participation is “crucial” and will “demonstrate America’s commitment to…a forward looking, positive relationship with China.”

In an era of instant communications, Expo is in many ways an anachronism. Why do you need a foreign government to come build in your city a projection of how they want you to view their country? But that’s not really what Shanghai 2010 is about. It’s about China projecting itself to the rest of the world. So from the vantage of Shanghai, participation isn’t optional.

3. Access Asia has provided a typically caustic write-up (that makes for delicious reading, as usual) of the American reluctance to commit to the Expo:

Of course, America’s will they/won’t they EXPO shenanigans has been a political issue at heart. The official Sino-American line is that the financial crisis was to blame for the inability of the Americans to raise much funding – US diplomats argue this (in public at least) and the Chinese media is all over this argument, like a cheap suit, backing it up.

But what everyone really knows is that the lack of funding was due to a lack of enthusiasm and interest from American corporates – and who can blame them? They, like most of us, just didn’t see the point of the EXPO. The only winners at EXPO (excepting the Chinese) are the host of shonky PR companies and other liggers who’ve jumped on the bandwagon, knowing a free lunch when they see one, and smaller countries that can use the EXPO to get some “face time” with officials. Of course, come 2010, the other winners will be the plague of politicians and jumped-up petty officials getting a free trip to Shanghai at their respective tax payers’ expense too – we can’t wait for Shanghai to be infested with them! The losers are the larger (in terms of economic investment in China anyways) countries, who have had to cough-up plenty of tax payer money for a non-event they all know they’ll get little to no benefit from.

The US EXPO effort has also been weird, to say the least. That is something that will probably continue, as the job of constructing a pavilion that is not a cause of national embarrassment, despite the depleted budget, still lies before them (this is less of a problem for those of us from declining nations who are now used to this state of affairs – it’s a new sensation to the Yanks)…

And Access Asia also made a point of introducing the made-over Haibao dressed in cowboy hat and jeans (shown above; the focus of the web chatter on this is…well, the Shanghaiist tongue-in-cheek take on the costume, titled “Haibao looks goooood in tight jeans!“, should give you a sense of it). This costume is part of a series of costumes for Haibao, including the image at right and many others here.

4. Meanwhile, China Daily provides a typically enthusiastic take on the announcement:

…the Asian power was earlier worried the world’s biggest economy might skip it as the 1991 American law blocked the nation from using government funding for expo projects. The signing of a participation contract with Chinese organizers last week put an end to the speculation.

“Our pavilion will be among the largest and we want it to be one of the best,” said US Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, who arrived in Shanghai to witness the groundbreaking ceremony. “United States and China enjoy many areas of friendship and cooperation, and we believe our pavilion will deepen that bond.

“It will provide insight into the life and culture of American people, insights that will intrigue millions of visitors expected at the 2010 World Expo, including visitors from China and all around the world,” he added.

He also said the Obama Administration is committed to strengthening the relationship between the two nations’ governments and friendship between the two peoples.

Calling on more US firms to help fund the country’s presence at the mega event, Locke said: “I want to assure you that your commitment to the US Pavilion and building the friendship with China and Chinese people will not be forgotten.”

5. As Adam Mintner points out at Shanghai Scrap, those are pom poms on the shovels used for the groundbreaking of the US pavilion. (Surely these aren’t Haibao’s “favorite things”? *cue the music* “Pom poms on shovels and bids for more sponsors…” We’re still working our way toward an Expo mood around here.)

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A few months ago, we ran an interview with Lisa See about her new novel, Shanghai Girls. The book was released last week and See is in the middle of a series of talks and readings, including one that China Beat is co-sponsoring on June 6 in Corona del Mar.

For those interested in learning more about Shanghai Girls or Lisa See, you can check out this link to a few of her favorite books, an early review of the novel, and an autobiographical piece in this Sunday’s Los Angeles Times.

See talks frequently about the historical research that undergirds her novels. Here are a few of the historians she acknowledged drawing on for Shanghai Girls: Selling Happiness, by Ellen Johnston Laing; Beyond the Neon Lights, by Hanchao Lu; and Old Shanghai: Gangsters in Paradise, by Pan Ling.


Earlier this week, the Washington Post published a fascinating article by Maureen Fan, paired with a very effective video that the same reporter narrates (hat tip to Shanghaiist for bringing both to my attention), that combines architectural and family history. This is because the grandfather of the Post‘s Beijing bureau chief was Robert Fan, a leading local architect who designed, among many other buildings, the one pictured here.

I won’t try to summarize her piece, which is part memoir and part analysis of the fate of buildings her grandfather designed (some of which are shown in the accompanying video), as it is well worth reading in its entirety. I will just note that the video is a nice one to pair with the two-part “Jews in Shanghai” episode from the “Sexy Beijing” series that’s been recommended on this site before (and been lauded by NPR). In this episode, the American filmmaker Anna Sophie Loewenberg (who goes by “Su Fei”) and her father seek out the house in Shanghai that he lived in as a child.

A final note is that there’s a link between the two videocasts provided by the wonderful Shanghai historian Lynn Pan. The “Jews in Shanghai” episode opens with Su Fei shown reading one of Pan’s early books (In Search of Old Shanghai) and Robert Fan’s life and contributions to the city’s built environment are discussed in Pan’s latest publication (Shanghai Style).

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By Gina Anne Russo

In my first post on the “Better City, Better Life” Expo promotion campaign, I focused on the centrality within it of visions of Shanghai as a special sort of distinctively modern and distinctively international Chinese metropolis, but here I’ll emphasize the second half of the slogan, which draws attention to the quality of urban existence. Expo public advertisements don’t just glorify Shanghai’s place in the modern world, they also strive to present Shanghai as a place where good behavior is on display. For example, on the subway one day I ran across a person dressed up as Haibao, and he was surrounded by people in vests that read “Make this city better, be a loveable Shanghaier.” Along with being cute and loveable, however, the most common adjective connected with expected “Expo” behavior is wenming I have been in Shanghai now for nine months, and within those nine months more and more small signs, specifically in very public places, have popped up, telling people how they should be behaving. For example, most escalators now read “stand on the right, walk on the left, use the escalators in a wenming way.” Or, “Don’t spit on buses, be more wenming.”

Wenming is difficult to define. Most dictionaries say it means “civilized,” but this definition carries as many problematic connotations in Chinese as it does in English. Leo Lee, in his book Shanghai Modern, traces the development of this word in modern Chinese. The term was originally borrowed from the Japanese, who used the same characters (pronounced differently of course) in the late nineteenth century to define behavior that was specifically “modern” and “Western,” thus maintaining the same connotations as “civilized” in English. This was picked up by China at the beginning of the twentieth century with similar effect.. The Nationalist government in the 1930s emphasized wenming behavior; it was often used in publications promoting the New Life Movement put forth by Chiang Kai-shek, a movement which encouraged people to be more hygienic and well mannered in terms of clothes, food, behavior, and deportment.. If we look at textbooks affiliated with the drive to improve weisheng (hygiene or health)—another complex term, whose links to visions of urban modernity are the subject of an important recent book by Ruth Rogaski we see them using similar language: calling on readers to raise the level of China’s weisheng by being wenming in the way they use the bathroom, stand in line, and so on.

According to Lee, this word shifted in connotation after 1949 to mean “manners” rather than “Western defined behavior.” However, it seems to me that in today’s usage, the meaning still carries this kind of “civilized” meaning. The term tells people not to do things that are considered uncouth or uncivilized by the international community, and by “international community” the reference remains Europe and North America (with Japan or Singapore getting an occasional look-in as perhaps honorary members of the Western modernity club) In this sense, the Expo is connected with making the lives of Shanghai people better, (hence the “better life”) which is inextricably tied with a population that maintains “modern” and “civilized” behavior.

Other public advertisements emphasize Shanghai’s “coming of age” as it becomes a modern part of the Western world in 2010. At Hongqiao airport, for example, a large mural depicts Shanghai (represented by the Oriental Pearl Tower) as it is connected with the rest of the world. Representations from outside China include the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the Coliseum, and the Empire State Building. A friend from Hong Kong with whom I was traveling bitterly commented, “So I guess Africa and South America don’t count?”

While this may seem a somewhat simplistic way to read these advertisements, representation of the third world are almost always absent in images of the “global community” (and you’ll look in vane in such visual representations for any sign of India, which constitutes ¼ of the global community). And a final illustration of this phenomenon brings us back to one place you see Haibao, which is on the interactive TV screens located in many Shanghai taxis. While riding in these cabs, people can watch sponsored advertisements (including ones for the new Barbie Store) or play “Expo” games, ranging from a Dance-Dance-Revolution-like one featuring a gyrating Haibao to trivia quizzes that test (and thereby try to increase?) your knowledge of the “world,” via answering questions like “What utensils are used to eat pizza?” and “What type of wine is served with fish and spaghetti?” I’ve only seen one non-Western country even mentioned in these games, and it was Japan, and it only figured in one of the many trivia games on offer in the taxis. The message that this sends is that modernity the West, and Shanghai is ready to become a major player in the modern global community. And this will happen with the Expo, the ultimate symbol of Shanghai’s crossover.

With the Expo less than a year away, Shanghai has a lot of preparation still ahead of it (the most pressing of which are the massive building planned in Pudong). But philosophically, Shanghai has been waiting for this opportunity to regain its status as the center of gravity for China’s modernity for decades. To Shanghai people, this has always been Shanghai’s legacy, and current advertisements feed this sentiment by both naming Shanghai as China’s most modern city and tying it to the Western world, creating, in a sense, a two-dimensional modern identity, both national and international. And while these messages include a certain amount of nationalistic fervor, the real star of the show is not China, but China’s most modern city, its gateway to the rest of the world. 

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