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Last updated : Nov 2009
Shanghai Culture Guide
Shanghai Culture Guide - TravelPuppy.com
Resulting from Western influences and unparalleled economic growth, pre-war Shanghai was the nursery of several modern developments in Chinese culture. Lu Xun led the growth of modern Chinese literature while he was here and literature by Shanghainese writers followed his example. The graphic arts and prints of the period are rightly revered as significant cultural manifestos for modern artistic styles and fashions. Shanghai cinema likewise was a powerful catalyst for China’s cultural evolution. All of this came to an end with the war and the Communist government has since kept tight reins on cultural and other activities. Cultural exploration that has occurred since has been more or less controlled.

Well backed ensembles, such as the Shanghai Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra, Shanghai Ballet Company, the Shanghai Municipal Performance Company, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra, keep Shanghai at the centre of official culture. Common prejudice has it that Beijing is home to the intellectuals and artists, and Shanghai has the wealth creators – but such easy categories fly in the face of Shanghai’s contemporary cultural importance. Shanghai is also smart and sophisticated and that implicates a cultural gloss.

There is no central ticketing agency located in Shanghai, however, because there are so many events at the Shanghai Grand Theatre (see below), this venue serves, in some respects, as a de facto agency for important cultural events. Information on cultural and artistic events can be found in That’s Shanghai and City Walker listings magazines.


The Shanghai Concert Hall, 523 Yan’an Dong Lu (tel: (21) 6386 9153), is the main vehicle for classical concerts. The Shanghai Municipal Performance Company is associated with both it and the Majestic Theatre, 1700 Beijing Xi Lu (tel: (21) 6217 4409). The Shanghai Grand Theatre, 1376 Nanjing Xi Lu (tel: (21) 6372 8701), is a popular venue for music concerts, and theatrical performances. The Shanghai Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra performs here. The Jing An Hotel, 370 Huashan Lu (tel: (21) 6437 1888), has a fine series of chamber music concerts performed by various local and touring ensembles.

Opera is naturally a Shanghainese favourite, especially the Chinese variety. The Shanghai Grand Theatre and the Majestic Theatre hosts frequent traditional and modern Chinese operas but the purist’s venue is Yifu Theatre, 701 Fuzhou Lu (tel: (21) 6351 4668).


Despite official censorship and propaganda productions, theatre aficionados are splendidly served in Shanghai, with many high-class venues. Shanghai Grand Theatre (see above) stages official prestige productions by visiting ensembles, including Chinese opera. The Dramatic Arts Centre Theatre, 201 Anfu Lu (tel: (21) 6473 4567), is more purely dramatic, eschewing operatic and musical productions. The Experimental Theatre of the Shanghai Theatre Academy, 670 Huashan Lu (tel: (21) 6248 2920 ext. 3040), offers more experimental student productions.


The Shanghai Grand Theatre (see above) hosts both the National Ballet of China and the Shanghai Ballet Company, as well as visiting ensembles. To see traditional acrobatic dance, the Shanghai Acrobatics Troupe offers regular performances at the Shanghai Centre Theatre, 1376 Nanjing Xi Lu (tel: (21) 6279 8663; fax: (21) 6279 8610).


Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and its like may have proved to the outside world that China has a dynamic film culture but the government enforces a maximum of ten foreign films per year – soon to rise to 20, following China’s acceptance to the WTO in 2001. For locals, the staggering number of pirated VCDs and DVDs in circulation make a mockery of the film limits, however cinema-going in China is inevitably poorer for them.

Classic Hollywood films like Josef von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture (1941) or Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai (1948) may have played extensively to the Western notion of Shanghai as the ultimate Oriental flesh pot of vice. Nevertheless native film culture of the time was much more sophisticated and diverse, with the current global hits debuting almost the same time they hit American screens. Post-war, Shanghainese film has been as dull and sparse as general cultural events in the PRC. Shanghai Triad (1995) by Zhang Yimou, the wunderkind of modern Chinese cinema, only slightly touches on the glamour of 1930s Shanghai at its infancy, despite its title.

Movie houses are the Studio City at the Westgate Mall, 1038 Nanjing Xi Lu (tel: (21) 6218 2173) and Golden Cinema Haixing, in the Haixing Plaza in Ruijin Nan Lu (tel: (21) 6418 7034). The Shanghai Film Art Centre, 106 Xin Hua Lu (tel: (21) 6280 4088), is Sanghai's closest approximation to an arts cinema. The Shanghai International Film Festival is the city’s prestige film event.

Cultural events

The Chinese New Year, which occurs either in late January or early February, is the most important annual festival. The preperation anticipation is as frantic as Christmas is in the West, with parties, gift exchanging, and houses and streets decorated with lights. Most Chinese celebrate the beginning of the New Year with their families. The Mid-Autumn Festival, in September or early October, is celebrated by displaying lanterns of different shapes, such as animals, and by eating traditional moon cakes made of ground lotus, sesame and egg.

Literary Notes

 The creator of modern Chinese literature, Lu Xun (1881-1936), is omnipresent in Shanghai. The house at Shangying Lu, where he spent the last 4 years of his life, is a museum to the writer, while Hongkou Park contains his tomb. However, his writings offer little in the way of a key to the city itself.

 For a fictional story of Shanghai in its worst crisis, there is Shanghai ’37 (1939) by Vicky Baum, which covers the run-up to the horrific bombing of the city by the Chinese Nationalist air force in 1937.

 J G Ballard provided a surrealist sensibility to the depiction of wartime Shanghai, which had been shaped by his own childhood there. His Empire of the Sun (1987) is one of only a few works to do it justice.

 Man’s Fate (1933), by André Malraux, is the French novelist and politician’s story of Communist revolutionaries in Shanghai during the 1920s, based on his own experiences.

 Shanghai Baby (2001) by Wei Hui is a much more current guide to modern Shanghainese mores and sensibilities.
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