The Shanghai Mind8 min read

Arthur Ransome and the Origin of the Shanghai Mind – Paul French


People have long talked about Shanghai being different from the rest of China. Beijing scholars in the 1920s coined the term haipai (Shanghai style) to criticize Shanghai’s self-obsessive modernity. Shanghai was a “bubble,” “a bastard child,” somehow not fully China.

It is true that Shanghai’s history is distinctly different to that of other Chinese cities. It was not a Crown Colony, a Dominion, a Commonwealth, a Raj or a Federated State, but Shanghai was that other product of British imperialism – a Treaty Port. From 1842 until 1941, Shanghai was one of initially five settlements forced from China after the First Opium War (1839-1842) and based on the notion of extraterritoriality, which meant that foreigners were exempted from the jurisdiction of local Chinese law.

The Japanese invasion of Shanghai’s foreign concessions after Pearl Harbour in 1941 meant the cancellation of the treaty port’s lavish plans for its centenary celebrations. The Shanghai treaty port died at 99½ years old. Of all the treaty ports in China, none were as large, rich and cosmopolitan as Shanghai. Not even close. Between the world wars, Shanghai was consistently the fourth or fifth largest city globally (after London, New York, Paris and, sometimes, Berlin), with approximately three and a half to four million people, and by far the most densely populated of them. Things were different in Shanghai; people thought differently in Shanghai. Or so it was said.


The idea of a “Shanghai mind” was perhaps first and best quantified by the English author and journalist Arthur Ransome, who turned up in the city in January 1927 reporting for the Manchester Guardian and the Baltimore Sun. The legendary editor of the Guardian, C.P. Scott, had had the idea to send Ransome. He travelled out by ship in December 1926, and would return across the Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian Railway six months later. His newspaper reports and articles on China appeared between January and August 1927, and covered the infamous Shanghai massacre of the Communists and other Leftist groups by Chiang Kai-shek’s right-wing Kuomintang in April that year. Inevitably, as a journalist, Ransome got a book out his sojourn in China (some things never change!): The Chinese Puzzle, published in 1927.

Today, Ransome is best remembered as the author of the much-loved Swallows and Amazons series of children’s books – and only really in Britain. Few remember that Ransome left his wife and children in 1913 to study Russian folklore in Moscow, worked as a foreign correspondent in World War One, and covered the Bolshevik Revolution becoming sympathetic to the communist cause and growing close to both Lenin and Trotsky. In Moscow, Ransome met the woman who would become his second wife, Evgenia Shelepina, who was Trotsky’s personal secretary. He was nearly forty; Evegenia was a decade younger and towered over her new beau at 6’3”. For a journalist trying to understand Russia in 1917, embarking on a love affair with Trotsky’s secretary was the definition of access. But it was a genuine relationship, and they married in 1924 in England.

In Memoirs of a British Agent, the British diplomat and intelligence officer R.H. Bruce Lockhart, who worked hard to destabilise the fledgling Bolshevik government, described Ransome as “a Don Quixote with a walrus moustache, a sentimentalist who could always be relied upon to champion the underdog, and a visionary whose imagination had been fired by the Russian revolution.” They were exciting times. Ransome shared intelligence with London, but he was also considered to be a little close to the Bolsheviks for decent society. Evgenia, travelling with Ransome to London, was suspected by British Intelligence (suspicions that seem to be confirmed by more recently declassified Soviet Intelligence files) of smuggling diamonds to various Comintern agents in Europe. London ultimately decided Ransome was probably loyal, if a little misguided in his politics and love life.

Arthur Ransome began writing his phenomenally successful Swallows and Amazons series shortly after his return from China. They made him quite rich, and able to indulge his passion for yachts. In 1941 he wrote a Swallows and Amazons adventure entitled Missee Lee, set in 1930s China, where the children encounter Chinese pirates. He died in 1967 in London; Evgenia died a few years later. They lived most of their lives together at Low Ludderburn, just east of Lake Windermere in the Lake District.

Yet the Ransome who arrived in Shanghai in 1927 was not yet the lovable yachtsman who wrote exciting adventure tales for children. Rather, he was a still-passionate socialist not overly well disposed to the freebooting capitalists of the Shanghai International Settlement.


The five months or so during which Ransome observed the city led him to his observations of the “Shanghai mind.” Describing the readership of the local English language newspaper, the North-China Daily News, he wrote in the Manchester Guardian on May 2nd 1927: “The Chinese naturally turn to these papers and judge England and England’s policy by what they find there. It is impossible to persuade them that what they find is an expression not of the British but of the Shanghai mind.”

Ransome was quite clear about where Shanghailander (as Europeans and Americans living in the city were known) loyalties lay: “The Shanghailanders hold that loyalty begins at home and that their primary allegiance is to Shanghai. … Shanghailanders of English extraction belong, if they belong to England at all, to an England that no longer exists.”

The idea that Shanghai and its community of Shanghailanders were somehow apart from both China and their home countries was echoed at around the same time by the Sinologist and former Chinese Maritime Customs Officer L.A. Lyall:

The British residents in Shanghai are the spoilt children of the Empire. They pay no taxes to China, except that landowners pay a very small land tax, and no taxes to England. Judges and consuls are provided for them; they are protected by the British fleet, and for several years they have had in addition a British army to defend them; and for all this expenditure the British taxpayer pays.

In his memoir The Chinese Puzzle, Ransome expanded on the term “Shanghai mind,” referring to the International Settlement and its inhabitants as a “hermetically sealed glass case.” He made the very good point that China was often misguided on official British policy towards the country because it listened to the British Shanghailander opinion and confused the two. It was also the case, as some critics of The Chinese Puzzle pointed out, that Bolshevik-loving, Red-leaning, patriotism-questionable Ransome was not exactly in tune with official British foreign policy either. Still, it is hard not to draw parallels between the Shanghailanders that Ransome encountered and today’s cadre of multinational “China Experts” in Shanghai (and in Beijing, and elsewhere) who express a variety of opinions on China that may, or more likely may not, represent the views of the foreign offices of their home nations and in so doing muddy the waters for those reading their op-eds.

All in all, The Chinese Puzzle is – like many journalist books out of China – a slightly enlarged gathering of his China reportage. Former Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who was out of office but still leader of the Liberal Party, had enjoyed Ransome’s China reporting and suggested the collection. He even offered to write a foreword, which Ransome jumped on as a very good idea to help sales. Ransome wanted to get the book out as soon as possible, while his China travels and the bloody events of spring 1927 were still fresh in readers’ minds. Unfortunately, Lloyd George refused to write the foreword until he had read the final proofs, which delayed publication, and Ransome missed the boat when the situation in China moved remorselessly on with Chiang Kai-shek’s suppression of the warlords, and the successful Northern Campaign to unify China. While Chiang had been the villain of 1927, he was now the good General crushing bandit armies and bringing China together as one nation under a single Nationalist government. When it finally appeared, the book sold very poorly.

Nor did Shanghailanders didn’t take Ransome’s characterisation of their psychology lying down. The Guardian was flooded with letters and telegrams. It reprinted a few rejoinders, most of which were of the “Chinese don’t understand concepts of law and order” and “London has been far too indulgent of the Nationalist government” variety. Still, while Ransome essentially had Shanghailanders nailed, one has to have a certain sympathy for one letter writer, Mr John Tallents Wynyard Brooke of Bowdon, Cheshire (who had recently returned to England after twenty years as an architect in Shanghai) who pointed out that:

We in Shanghai are becoming accustomed to the attacks of touring journalists who spend a month or two in China, and perhaps a day in Shanghai, and then go home to write books on China.

One thing everyone agreed on was that Shanghai was unique, and critical to the trading success of the wider Yangtze Delta and China’s vast hinterlands. That hasn’t changed. It’s also true that contemporary Shanghailanders and Shanghainese feel that their port is China’s most advanced, modern and stylish city – while the capital city to the north continues to either sneer down its scholarly nose at vulgar Shanghai, or to be concerned that Shanghai is not as Party-respectful as the Beijing bosses would like.

The “Shanghai mind” didn’t die with the treaty port, and nor did Shanghai’s special status in China. In the 80s, Deng Xiaoping put Shanghai at the back of the queue for Reform and Opening Up. He knew what happens when you open the cage door on a ravenous tiger. ∎


Header image: Nanjing Road in a 1930s poster of Shanghai, courtesy of the private collection of Vince Ungvary in Sydney, with additional thanks to Claire Chao.