China Musings #10: Shanghai vs. Beijing


Ever since I embarked on my journey to China, I got to spend a lot of time in between Beijing and Shanghai. With about ~24M citizens, each of these cities is about the size of Australia. Yet the cities couldn’t be more different from another in their character and vibe. The following is my take on Beijing and Shanghai based on experiences I have had this past year. 

Beijing – think of it as the ultimate Chinese city. With all government offices located there, it is the seat of power and politics. It’s also all about culture and history: the city has an extremely long and glorious history with Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, The Great Wall and The Summer Palace. Beijing people live and love the history of their ancient city and are kind of set in their ways and lifestyles. They have almost an imperial love and facility with bureaucracy, politics and process. Because of that, Beijing people are people of the past and it’s “old money” that rules – also, it’s a city of relationships more than anything. With the best universities located in Beijing (think of Stanford, Harvard, etc. being in the same city), there is a massive output of talent and with that, entrepreneurship and start-ups. 

Shanghai – the ultimate cosmopolitan city. In a culture which stresses thousand years of continuous history, Shanghai is an aberration among Chinese cities. Development occurred almost entirely within the past 150 years from fishing village to a global modern city. Shanghai people love modernity and are proud of their rapid ascent. They adopt and embrace the change, thus making the city a hotbed for radical ideas, fashion, and money. It’s a financial hub with ultra modern state of the art infrastructure, excellent public transportation system, a stunning skyline and endless subway lines. Consequently, Shanghai is the city of “new money” and people are rather bottom-line-oriented. 

In my experience, foreigners who go to Beijing are very serious about China (language, culture, experience), whereas the foreigners that go to Shanghai are more cosmopolitan. It’s reflected somehow in the distribution of embassies (mostly in Beijing) and MNCs (mostly in Shanghai). Further, a major difference is the layout of the cities: Beijing is landlocked, while Shanghai is adjacent to the ocean. And while Beijing is dominated by highways cutting through it (there are six “ring roads” that circle around Beijing and people refer to those roads when they share their address “I live close to 3rd ring road North East exit..”), Shanghai’s highways are elevated and thus allow for easier mobility throughout the city. 

For me personally, my time in between both cities has taught me how your surroundings can bring out different sides of you. I feel different when I am in Shanghai compared to when I am in Beijing – measured in energy levels, creativity, lebenslust.

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