Abernethy Grant

The Shanghai Woman: Her Navigation of the Twentieth-Century French Semi-Colonial Space.” Awarded for independent archival research in Shanghai on French influence on Shanghainese women and femininity in the early 20th century. (Summer 2019)


After living in Shanghai for thirteen years and constantly hearing of the popularly valorized “Shanghai woman,” I aimed to gain a deeper understanding of Shanghainese women and the emergence of the “New Woman” in the early 20th century. Prior to my research, I understood that the Shanghai woman had undergone a Westernization and modernization following the semi-colonial rule of Shanghai—making, for example, the traditional Chinese Qipao increasingly popular and sexualized. However, I did not know many of the details and the scale of Western influence. Since I frequent and adore the former French concession in Shanghai without a full understanding of its historical context, I was interested in specifically French influence upon Shanghainese women.

My interests in the Westernization of Shanghainese women and its manifestations in gender roles, feminism, and fashion also stem from my own background as a third culture kid.

Thus, my research question asked: how did the semi-colonial presence of the French in the late 19th and early 20th centuries propagate a new understanding of Shanghainese women and femininity? This branches off to other questions regarding how women were perceived, how they performed themselves (fashion, entertainment, societal roles and occupations), changes in gender relations and female relations to the city, and how the occupation and dividing up of Shanghai itself feminized the city.


My research was mainly archival based. I visited the Shanghai Library and studied hardcopies and microfilms of newspapers, magazines, and short stories from the early twentieth century. I also browsed virtual maps of Shanghai to get a better understanding of the expansion of the French concession, in relation to other foreign influences. During the summer, Shanghai also had an art exhibition, “Pioneering: Chinese Artists Abroad in France and Chinese Modern Art,” which I visited.

Cai Chusheng’s 1935 film “New Women,” about a woman who aspires to be an author but is pushed to prostitution in order to save her ill daughter, also helped visualize and demonstrate what the life of a modern Shanghainese woman may be like. While most of my research involved primary texts, I also read secondary historical texts as well as fictional writings to help root my findings in historical context.


French influence was first introduced to Shanghai after the defeat of the Qing Army and officialized through the 1844 Treaty of Whampoa, creating the French concession in Shanghai (1862-1946). The Western-dominant concessions imposed by the Shanghai International Settlement became “cosmopolitan playground[s],”[1] in which locals could experiment with more liberal and material ways of life, and thereby evolved Shanghai into “the first multicultural modern city in China.”

In a 1927 piece by 兵予 submitted to《幻州》magazine and titled 《我眼孔中的上海女人》 (“Shanghainese Women in My Eyes”), he visits Shanghai and searches for the widely talked about Shanghainese woman, only to find them nowhere despite his week-long stay. Finally, his friend informs him that the Shanghainese women—of all classes and ages—have left to the concessions and changed their looks. He finally gets a look at Shanghainese women. The specific term he uses to describe them is “野鸡化;” when directly translated, it means a gradual transformation into wild chickens, but the term “wild chicken” is equated to a prostitute. He even goes further to claim that through their sexualization and men’s need for them, women have gained the “right to be in bed”—a right they did not even have before—but encourages women to continue gaining more rights and to become ultimately independent of men.

The emergence of the modern Shanghainese woman included a rise in feminist thought. In her 1938 piece, 《新女性底行准》(“The New Woman’s Standards” ), 复真 calls for a reform in gender roles, a removal of traditional ways and artificiality in female beauty standards. She demands that women work upon their inner rather than outer selves, in order to move into the new society as economically independent women. The emphasis upon female financial independence is tied to the creation of schools for girls in Shanghai and the proliferation of the female entertainment industry—prostitutes, sing-song girls, dancers amongst others. Similarly, the emphasis upon education and Westernization led to Chinese students studying abroad during the twentieth century, especially the artists who studied in France and redefined modern Chinese art with the blending of Chinese and French impressionistic traditions. Of the large amount of artists presented in the “Pioneering: Chinese Artists Abroad in France and Chinese Modern Art” exhibition, many were female artists with backgrounds ranging from drawing, painting, sculpture, to music.

While prostitution was commonplace everywhere and emerged much earlier, it was even more concentrated within the foreign concessions. 行盾 describes all the popular roads for sex work—like Fuzhou Rd and Zhejiang Rd—and the different “classes” of prostitutes found locally in his 1938 report《出卖灵肉的女人在上海》(“The Women Who Sell Their Souls and Flesh Are in Shanghai”). One of these locations is the French concession’s Gongguan Rd, where women attended to mainly foreign sailors; at Gongguan Rd, the standards for prostitutes were higher, and so was the pay. In《上海租界妓女统计》(“Shanghai Concession’s Prostitute Census”), it is reported that 10% of the female population within concessions are prostitutes. Specifically, within the French concession, there are 390 official whorehouses and approximately 1,100 unofficial prostitutes out of the 277,300 females there. The report also goes into specific numbers for varying types of prostitutes—those working in big companies, on the streets, pulling customers on public transportation, in dance halls, in spas.

While I was able to find many accounts of the New Woman and her appearance—seemingly upper class regardless of actual economic backgrounds, curled hair, high heels and silk tights that would cost two months of wages, increasingly revealing clothing, wearing corsets to emphasize the breasts, made up with lipstick and mascara, and walking so that they flaunted their hips—it was challenging to find direct connections to the West, and even more so the French, as a cause within the time my research took place. I was able to find a piece titled 《世界标准美人造型》(“Global Standards for Beautiful Women”), in which a short excerpt was accompanied by images of Western female celebrities and a bubble saying “Famous artist’s IDEAL GIRL.” The excerpt calls for women to appear elegantly beautiful and also healthy and strong and details each characteristic of five celebrities—Jean Harlow, Marleane Dietrich, Jean Blondell, Janet Gaynor, and Joan Crowford—that Shanghainese women should manifest. In a piece titled 《上海的女人》(“Shanghai’s Woman”), the author described the attitudes towards and fashion and makeup of Shanghainese women. The influence of Western beauty standards could be attested to in the Western products suggested, like Cleminate to make one’s skin glow and be less tough. Another article, 《妇女之留发运动》(“Women with Their Hair Down”), even critiqued the Westernization of female beauty and the increase in women curling their hair and/or letting their hair down; instead, the author insisted upon the enforcement of a social code banning such hairstyles.


[1]  “Shanghai Love,” University of Washington Press, 2016, accessed November 30, 2018, www.washington.edu/uwpress/search/books/YEHSHA.html#contents.