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World of French: The Shanghai Concession

Updated: Mar 19

Imperialism in China

Shanghai Concession Map

In the era of colonialism, France was always a predominant figure. From its territories in the Americas to its possessions in Southeast Asia, the nation’s presence was reaching across massive spans. China was no exception. In the mid-1800s, China began to carve out small pieces of land which foreign empires ruled over. These “concessions” were often forced by European empires via treaties. The first foreign concession was given to the United Kingdom by a treaty signed to end the First Opium War. From there, China would be carved out by competing powers looking for a new land market. 

Charles De Montigny

In Shanghai, the city was split between the French and the British. The French controlled a small strip that was bordered in by two rivers, a bridge, and the gates of “The Old City.” Their concession was established on April 6th, 1849, by Charles de Montigny. Officially, the French only occupied this small area, but unofficially, their power extended deep into the state of China. Virtually every foreign concession held claims over roads that extended beyond their official partition. The French built one particularly lengthy and powerful road, connecting their land to the Catholic Church’s stronghold in Zi-ka-wei (modern-day Xujiahui). When France asked China to relinquish military power along this road to their embassy-run government, the Chinese agreed. From that point on, France had full powers of taxation and military along the route. In return, they agreed to remove Chinese revolutionaries from the region. Alongside the addition of an additional strip to the west for the construction of “quai de France,” the area of the French concession had expanded to 15 times its original size by the early 1900s. 

Old Zi-ka-wei

Modern Xujiahui


The Battle of Shanghai, a part of the Sino-Japanese Wars, would see the concession be put under threat for the first time. The land was bombed twice by the Chinese by accident but was never taken by the Japanese. Chinese Shanghai was captured, but the French Vice Admiral Jules le Bigot successfully negotiated with the Japanese to only allow unarmed military equipment through the concession. Throughout the war, Chinese refugees sought shelter in the concession’s boundaries. Here, they were protected by the Bataillon mixte d’infanterie de Chine, a French-formed militia group staffed by Vietnamese soldiers. 

Bataillon mixte d’infanterie de Chine

During WWII, the concession would see its French status come to an end. With mainland France invaded by the Germans, the new struggling French government, known as “Vichy France,” willingly gave up all its Chinese concessions (of which there were four, established at various points throughout the century). Post-WWII, neither Vichy France nor the temporary Chinese government of “Wang Jingwei'' were recognized as legitimate powers. As such, the agreement was voided. A formal treaty between the two new, legitimate, state powers was made to replace this agreement. The Sino-French Accord of 1946 gave China the French concessions in return for China’s withdrawal from French Indochina. This officially marked the French removal from China’s mainland. 

European Culture Wrapped in Chinese Style

While the French were there, the impact which they had was significant. Perhaps the most notably French feature of the concession today is the presence of les platanes communs,

which the Chinese call “French planes.” These trees, pictured below, were abundant in Europe, so the French brought them to their new lands. Modern-day Huaihai street is lined with these trees, though they were replanted after rapid expansion of Shanghai proper caused them to be uprooted for development. In response, many residents of the quarter protested the loss of culture and successfully bargained for new trees to be planted. 

Les platanes communs on Huaihai Street

Avocado Lady

Wukang Lu and Wulumungi Road are two other streets within the former concession’s boundary that provide an excellent introspective into the melding of European and Chinese cultures. Along these streets are outdoor cafés, European restaurants, art deco architecture and fixtures, alongside traditional Chinese monuments, and architectural accents. The style of architecture present throughout the concession came to be known as “Shikumen architecture,” which mixed Western and Chinese styles flawlessly. Some must-see visits in the concession include a store called “The Avocado Lady,” which stocks everything from European chesses to local oils, and the “Normandy Apartments,” an art-deco collection of residential buildings that are famed to be haunted. For more modern-day looks, check out this vlog. Even today, French culture and impacts are widespread across the concession, marking its history of colonial control. 

Written by Kaleb Houle-Lawrence, University Intern

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