The Struggle for Memory on the Bund

By Lewis Tatt.

With reference to the Tokyo war crimes trials that followed Japan’s defeat in World War II, historian Carol Gluck claimed that the trials “also put history on trial” and constituted “an invasion of one country’s history by another”. The struggle for history, however, does not just take place in the courtroom, in the textbook or in the classroom. The battle for historical ownership takes place in the physical space around us, and few places display this battle better than the Bund in Shanghai.

The Bund (外滩) is an area that runs along the eastern bank of Shanghai’S Hunagpu River. This area was formerly part of an international concession carved out when the city was opened as a treaty port in 1842, following the First Opium War. Now, nineteenth and early twentieth century colonial architecture overlook the super-tall skyscrapers of the Pudong financial district on the opposite side of the river – this creates a stark visual contrast between a semi-colonial past and the success of China’s rapid economic development and imminent rise to super-power status.

These narratives of past and present are not as separate as they may at first seem. The rise of Shanghai as a world financial centre, at least up until the 1930s, was mostly a result of the foreign trade and investment which followed the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing. This fact creates a tension, between a national historical narrative that sees foreign encroachments upon China’s sovereignty from 1842 onwards as a national humiliation (国耻), and a local Shanghai-centric narrative in which foreign encroachment has brought economic prosperity.

The Oriental Pearl Television Tower (东方明珠电视塔), constructed in 1994, is the cornerstone of the development of Shanghai’s Pudong area. Upon completion it was China’s tallest man-made structure at 468 metres. It has since been joined by other super-tall structures but remains a symbol of China’s post-opening and reform development. At the base of the tower is the Shanghai History Museum, which narrates the history of Shanghai’s development from the 1840s to the 1930s.

Conflicting narratives of national humiliation and Shanghai’s urban development which was the result of foreign encroachment are reflected in the museum exhibits. A display depicting the 1842 battle of Wusong, in which the British Navy swept aside Shanghai’s costal defences, describes the Qing naval commander Chen Huacheng as having died heroically in battle (英勇阵亡). This is immediately followed by a display of the Bund, economically prosperous with foreign ships sailing down the Huangpu River. This potentially creates a misleading association between the prosperity of the Bund and the heroic death of Chen Huacheng. The fact is there is a clear difficulty in combining the first display’s narrative of foreign imperialist aggression against China with the second display’s narrative of prosperity resulting from that aggression.

This struggle for ownership of history is also evident in the fact that the physical composition of the Bund is not exactly as it was in the 1930s. Although the foreign architecture of the banks lining the Bund remains in place as a historical reminder, it is easy to forget what is no longer there. Various monuments and statues erected in the former foreign concession are conspicuously missing. In their place are monuments erected under the present day People’s Republic of China (PRC), such as a statue to Chen Yi, the first mayor of Shanghai after the PRC was established in 1949.


The most prominent monument that no longer exists is a large Word War I memorial, formerly situated at the end of what is now East Yanan Road. The history of this monument in particular is testament to how one country’s history can invade another. This is not only reflected in the fact that the monument’s construction can be interpreted as an imposition of European history upon China, but also that the dismantling of the monument was not carried out by the PRC. The statue was removed by the Japanese occupation forces after the outbreak of the Pacific war in 1941.

The dismantling of the World War I monument, along with other symbols of Western influence, was taking place whist Japanese occupation forces propagated a historical narrative that portrayed China as the victim of Western imperialism and the Opium Wars as a national humiliation. The reshaping of the Bund’s physical landscape in the form of the dismantling foreign monuments could therefore be interpreted as being part of a propaganda drive attempting to re-shape Chinese history and to garner support for a Japanese led pan-Asia war.


The most notable memorial at the Bund today is arguably the large white obelisk (see above) the style makes it easily identifiable as a monument to China’s revolutionary martyrs. Such memorials are present across China and, along with revolutionary martyrs’ memorial halls, are an important part of China’s present day patriotic education. A statement of intent is made quite clearly in the Bund History Museum located just below the monument. The opening information board says that the Bund is “evidence of Shanghai’s modernisation” (上海城市近代化的明证) but stresses that “the Bund, after all, belongs to China” (外滩毕竟是中国外滩)

The museum makes it clear that the Bund and the present day prosperity of Shanghai belong to China. By implication, the history of the Bund also belongs to China. The people of Shanghai are looking to the future, but they cannot escape the physical reminders of a past that is still very much relevant to the present day. For the historian, what is no longer at the bund is as significant as what is there when it comes to understanding how historical narratives have been and continue to be shaped.

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