Coming back !

I have been musing about my recent tip to Shanghai as a head start for resuming posting on the Virtual Shanghai blog. Last year, I took the resolution to post regularly on the VS blog, but academic (make it bureaucratic academic) took the best of my time this year. Basically, Aix-Marseille University went through the compulsory 5-year assessment exercise with the Ministry of Higher Education. While this is good for research, on the side of teaching and degrees it is much like reinventing the wheel every five years. Being in charge of an M.A. program unfortunately put me on the front line. And this took away tens of hours of precious time, devoted to filling multiple repetitive but uncoordinated forms and struggling with unfinished and impractical online applications. Time lost to research and actual enhancement of teaching. And altogether a big miss on the unavoidable and forceful impact of the on-going digital transformation.

But let’s go back to Shanghai ! I was there for a short week to give a talk at — an invitation by my former student Jiang Jie (蔣杰), currently assistant professor at SNU — and to attend the 7th World Forum on China Studies devoted the year to extolling President Xi Jinping’s main themes (One road, one belt, China dream, New era, etc.). Fortunately, the organizers left some room for a “Special panel on China studies” where I delivered a paper on “From map to database. Cadasters in Modern Shanghai”. The paper  took the cadastral system established in the foreign settlements of Shanghai as a prime example of how power relations over the management of land and the construction of a Western apparatus of land registration and measurement defined the spatial distribution of real estate and what impact it had on foreign and Chinese ownership. It is based on a unique database covering the entire 1855-1941 period with more than 60,000 records. It examined the process of change in land value, of splitting/merging and it  explored the spatial correlation with the distribution of population and commercial activities. The use of a data-enriched historical cadasters offers a unique vantage point to understand the spatial and economic dynamics at work in the foreign settlements of Shanghai. The establishment of cadasters laid the ground for the institutionalization of the thriving real estate market that dominated the economy of the city until 1949.

Although the Chinese imperial state had designed its own system of land registration, based on pre-modern techniques of mapping, the establishment of foreign settlements in Shanghai brought a new challenge. One the one hand, while foreigners were allowed to settle on Chinese land, land was to remain in Chinese hands. Namely, foreigners could only rent the land in perpetuity with the Chinese state as the ultimate owner. This gave rise to a complex system of double registration of all land transactions and deeds. On the other hand, while Western “renters” initially relied on the documents of the Imperial Land Bureau, it appeared very quickly that for the two foreign municipal administrations in charge of managing the settlements, the Chinese documents were not just technically unreliable. They implied the persistence of a form of control on land that the foreign authorities aimed to get rid of. Eventually the first full-fledged cadaster of the International Settlement came into being in 1865, while that of the French Concession was completed only in 1877. The study of the cadasters of the foreign settlements in Shanghai is entering a new phase with the near completion of the current database with the addition of new materials (although we hope to gather more in the future) and the production of a flurry of maps. It is being conducted in close collaboration with Dr. Mou Zhenyu at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (Institute of history), a historian trained in historical geography at Fudan University. Our research on the land cadasters of the foreign settlements has benefited from the generous support from the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation.


Cite this blog post
Christian Henriot (2017, December 16). Coming back ! Blog Virtual Shanghai. Retrieved April 18, 2024, from

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