Scythe and the City
A Social History of Death in Shanghai
Christian Henriot



Scythe and the City: The Measure of Death

Who died in Shanghai? What were the dynamics of mortality in the city? This chapter seeks to take the measure of death, to examine how death struck across age and social status and what caused people to die. The first difficulty in assessing what death meant in Shanghai is our ignorance of how many people lived in the city at any point in time. While the Chinese imperial administration had a long history of population count, the territorial unit in the premodern censuses—the county, not the city—encompassed both urban and rural areas. The main issue, however, was the absence of municipal administration and the loss of most archives during the rebellions of the nineteenth century. The situation in the foreign settlements was much better, even if actual population censuses started only in 1865. Yet the population in these areas represented only a small part of the total population until the turn of the century, when the settlements came at par with the Chinese-administered city. Moreover, the authorities in the two settlements conducted their population census independently and with different criteria and age groups. This chapter thus attempts to reconstruct the demography of the city to assess how many died in the city and to examine what managing death meant in such a large urban center.

Numbers, however, do not tell the whole story. This chapter also explores such issues as the levels of mortality and the life expectancy of Shanghai residents to highlight the social distribution of death. Of course, reaching old age with generations of children and grandchildren was a strongly shared social ideal in Chinese society. Living in a city with modern amenities, medical infrastructure, and a higher standard of living should have created the conditions for a better and longer life. In the case of Shanghai, however, as in many other Chinese cities, other factors affected the life chances of the population, in particular epidemics that hit the city on a regular basis. Modern techniques of vaccination helped curb the death toll, but epidemics often left many dead on their trail for lack of access to proper medicine. The issue of infectious diseases became a matter of serious concern by the authorities that collected, albeit unsystematically, crucial data on the sanitary conditions in the city and on the health of the population. Wars and social disorders contributed their share of premature deaths, but diseases, especially the “diseases of poverty,” cut short the life of most people in large numbers and across the whole spectrum of age.

Let us say it once and for all. We shall never know how many people actually lived and died in Shanghai. There is only a very dim hope that a complete set of statistical and demographic data will be dug up from some buried archives, especially for the nineteenth century, when archives were destroyed by fire. The historian needs to make do with this reality and work with the available series, which in spite of their inconsistencies shed enough light on the demographic transformation of the city to unveil several fascinating facets of the dark side of life and death in Shanghai.

Population Change in Shanghai

Over a period of 120 years, Shanghai experienced a dramatic population growth. In 1845, when the first foreigners moved into Shanghai, the city was a thriving and vibrant regional commercial center. Yet it was still a long way from the three-million international metropolis it became by the 1930s, a formidable demographic dynamic that went on after 1949. According to the post-1949 censuses, the Shanghai municipality had 6.15 million inhabitants in 1953 and 10.86 million in 1964, of which 5.35 million and 6.42 million lived in urban areas, respectively.1 This astonishing growth had serious implications on the demand for services to dispose of the dead.

The Demography of Shanghai: A Preliminary Assessment

The demographic history of Shanghai is associated with Zou Yiren (1908–1993). His study of population change in Shanghai before 1949 remains the classic work on which generations of historians have relied.2 Zou’s work, completed in 1962, presents a compilation of demographic data gathered from published sources. As a result, the tables and figures on population form more a patchwork of available series than a systematic study of demographic sources.3 Zou’s difficulty in reconstructing the population data of Shanghai before 1949, however, could not be solved even with a full access to archival materials. My repeated forays in the collections of the Shanghai Municipal Archives have convinced me that crucial documents were lost or destroyed.4 Although the surveys were made with detailed forms, these primary documents were not preserved or remain locked in archives to which scholars do not have access.5

In studying population change in Shanghai, the historian has to confront yet another difficulty: the heterogeneity of available data due to the existence of three separate administrative jurisdictions. After the establishment of foreign settlements in the city—International Settlement and French Concession—in the mid-nineteenth century, Shanghai developed under three different administrations, the Shanghai Municipal Council (International Settlement), the French Municipal Council (French Concession), and successive administrative bodies in the Chinese-administered districts before the creation of a modern municipality in 1927 (see Map 1.1).6 In the foreign settlements, the administrations carried out a population census every five years, with the last population count in 1942.7 Yet the two foreign administrations did not bother to coordinate their census practice until 1930. From 1865 to 1930, they used different statistical categories for age, sex, and so on. What they mostly cared about for a long time was simply to know how many people lived in their territory. They cared even less about how many died beyond crude statistics. It was not until 1937 that the issue of Chinese deaths became a matter of bureaucratic concern. In the Chinese-administered districts, the imperial administration made surveys of the population at the level of the county, not the city proper. Moreover, this population count was rather approximate and no archives from the nineteenth century have survived. The Shanghai Municipal Government (Shanghai Shi Zhengfu) carried out its first modern census in 1929, which thereafter it updated through the periodic registration of the population.8

MAP 1.1. General map of Shanghai. Source: Virtual Shanghai

The demographic history of Shanghai became blurry again with the war with Japan, both in 1932 and 1937. On the one hand, there were massive movements of population within the city and displacement out of the city. After 1941, because of food shortages, the Japanese military enforced a deliberate policy of evacuation to the countryside. After 1945, the city finally came under a single municipal administration that resumed the previous practice of systematic population registration. After 1949 and the takeover of the city by the Communist regime, the People’s Government strove to establish its administration on a serious basis. Both for political and economic reasons, it was essential for the new authorities to know how many people inhabited the city. For many years to come, the country would be placed under a rationing system that required the registration of all residents. Even if this was never fully accomplished—spontaneous migration interfered with a complete registration—the municipality definitely had a better grasp of its population count. Nationwide, a census was carried out in 1953, then again in 1964.

Finally, one of the major stumbling blocks for a full comprehension of the demographic dynamics in Shanghai is the powerful flows of population that rushed into the city at times of disaster, resulting often from natural elements such as floods, but more frequently from conflicts and violence in the neighboring provinces. In the same way as people came, they left in high numbers once the crisis was over. The sudden influx of migrant population is especially relevant for our study of death in the city as these temporary residents increased the general mortality, sometimes substantially. Yet it is very difficult to estimate the number of people who moved in as they most often fell through the net of an inadequate registration system. It is even more difficult to assess how much they added to the mortality rate in the city. In the foreign settlements, the authorities introduced a system of death certificate for foreigners in 1870, but they failed to enforce this measure for the Chinese population.9 In the Chinese municipality it became compulsory after February 1928, but migrants and even permanent residents would simply evade these formalities.10 In 1942, the superintendent of the Shanghai Municipal Police stated that approximately 40 percent of deaths in the International Settlement occurred without medical attention, therefore without the issuance of a death certificate.11 The generalization of death certificates was not in place until 1945, but even then the lower classes mostly did not bother with official documents.12 As late as 1951, more than 40,000 exposed corpses were collected in the streets of Shanghai.13

In its original spatial configuration until 1845, Shanghai consisted of the walled city and its commercial and port suburbs along the Huangpu River. Zou Yiren assessed the population in 1850 at 544,413, but this figure clearly included more than just the residents of the walled city and its suburbs.14 It encompassed the whole Shanghai County. The successive editions of the Shanghai County Gazetteer (Shanghai xian zhi) provided population estimates that ranged from 527,472 in 1810 to 544,413 in 1852. Linda Johnston, in her study of pre-1842 Shanghai, placed the level of urban population in the early 1840s at about 250,000 adults, which a decade later must have been closer to 300,000.15 It increased steadily with the opening of the city to foreign trade as commercial opportunities drew thousands of new migrants from South China along with Westerners or lured them to Shanghai by the promise of jobs and trade opportunities. The 17-month-long rebellion of the Small Sword Society in 1853–1855 caused a serious setback, as thousands fled or died in the hands of the rebels. When the imperial forces regained control of the city, they carried out a merciless and indiscriminate repression, with entire neighborhoods burnt to the ground. Thousands of people were killed in the bloody conquest.

There was no further massive massacre of population until the next century. On the opposite, the city received hundreds of thousands of refugees from the areas under the control of the Taiping armies.16 The total population was said to have reached 1.1 to 1.2 million living in extremely crowded conditions.17 While the largest part found their home behind the relative protection of the city walls, large numbers settled in the foreign settlements under the protection of extraterritoriality and foreign gunboats and soldiers. The momentum of sharp population increase lasted until the mid-1860s when the Taiping Rebellion eventually collapsed under the final assault of the imperial armies. With the return to peace and stability, the former residents of the main Lower Yangzi cities hailed back to their hometowns. Nevertheless, the Taiping Rebellion had left an enduring legacy of destruction that, combined with the expansion of foreign trade, definitely displaced the urban and commercial center of gravity in the Lower Yangzi area from Suzhou and Nanjing to Shanghai. The relative depression of the late 1860s made way for a renewed and steady increase of the population in the various districts of the city. An entirely new neighborhood emerged north of the International Settlement across Soochow Creek. Zhabei was on its way to becoming one of the most vibrant districts of Shanghai and, more tragically, one of the main purveyors of civilian casualties when war knocked twice on its doorstep in 1932 and 1937.

For most of the nineteenth century, there is no population record to speak of in the Chinese-administered districts. From the 300,000 inhabitants of the 1850s, the walled city, its suburbs, and the new northern addition of Zhabei slowly grew to about 600,000 in 1910. With the development of modern industry after 1895, the population surged to 1,173,653 inhabitants by 1915. The first census in 1929 recorded 1,516,092 residents, but this included all the rural districts. In the city proper, the population stood at 961,846.18 At the time of the next census in 1935, the increase was formidable, as the population had passed the 2.0 million ceiling, with 1.3 million people in the urban districts. The Sino-Japanese War completely disrupted the distribution of the population as all the Zhabei residents left en masse to seek refuge in the foreign settlements and the residents of the southern districts proceeded likewise, though not entirely. In 1942, under a combination of political pressure and economic duress, the urban population decreased to slightly more than one million people.

Demographic change in the foreign settlements was much better recorded. During the first decade of its existence, the British settlement had only a tiny population of a couple hundred to five hundred. During the Taiping Rebellion, however, the rule of exclusive residence by foreigners in the settlements was abandoned and the foreign settlements came to be populated by Chinese, hence the rapid growth from about 20,000 in 1855 to 92,000 in 1865. There was a slight depression until the mid-1870s, but in 1890, the figure had doubled from 1876 (97,335) and in 1905 it had more than tripled from the 1890 figure (171,950). Thereafter, a few benchmarks will highlight the constant progress: 500,000 in 1910, 1 million in 1930, and 1.2 million in 1937. The French Concession experienced a very slow development with only a few thousand residents before the Taiping Rebellion. There was a strong upsurge as reflected in the 1865 census, but the 55,925 recorded residents dropped to 33,460 in 1876. The area regained its 1865 population only thirty years later. In 1910, the population had doubled, but it took another fifteen years to triple to about 300,000, and then flirted with the 500,000 ceiling throughout the 1930s.

There was an enormous population increase in both settlements after the outbreak of hostilities between China and Japan when nearly one million former residents of Zhabei and Nanshi sought refuge in the foreign areas. Even in 1942 when the population had decreased due to voluntary or forced repatriation to the countryside, the two settlements were home to 1,585,673 and 854,380 residents, respectively. Economic difficulties in the latter part of the war induced many inhabitants to leave the city. In 1945, the total population of the city had dropped to 3.3 million for the whole municipality, a loss of more than half a million since 1942. The civil war, however, soon pushed the figure upward. In 1946, the city had returned to its 1942 level, and in 1947, the police recorded a total of 4.2 million residents.19 In March 1949, on the eve of the Communist takeover, it had passed the 5.5 million ceiling.20 The new regime implemented a policy of evacuation of the population to decrease the pressure on jobs and food supply. Yet economic difficulties in the countryside again brought in large numbers of impoverished migrants.21 In July 1950, one year after the takeover, the total population stood at 4.8 million and by June 1951 it had gained 400,000 new residents.22 The introduction of hukou and a food-rationing system succeeded in reining in the fast demographic upsurge of the postwar period. At the first general census in 1953, the total population in the urban districts stood at 5.35 million. A decade later, the next census revealed an increase to 6.43 million.23

The demographic trajectory of Shanghai is impressive, although compared to London the growth may seem moderate—the population of London increased from 1 million in 1800 to 4.5 million in 1881 and 7 million in 1911.24 Both cities met with similar issues of housing supply, deteriorating public hygiene, litter in the streets, and polluted drinking water. Yet London’s built-up area kept expanding by swallowing rural land, while Shanghai’s remained much more concentrated, which resulted in much higher population densities. London’s highest density in 1941 was not even half the density in the Central District of the International Settlement. The experience of Shanghai resembles much more that of Bombay in the same time period.25 Moreover, Shanghai experienced sudden swings of population that placed considerable pressure on the city’s infrastructure. The much more hostile natural environment, renewed military conflicts, and lack of a unified municipal authority made the urban experience in Shanghai a bigger challenge which took its toll on the population.


1. Shanghai Shi Tongjiju, Shanghai tongji nianjian 1999 [Shanghai statistical yearbook] (Beijing: Zhongguo Tongji Chubanshe, 1999), 369.

2. Zou Yiren, Jiu shanghai renkou bianqian de yanjiu [Population change in old Shanghai] (Shanghai: Shanghai Renmin Chubanshe, 1980).

3. Personal interview, May 1985. See also “Zou Yiren (1908–1993),” Shanghai Kexue Zhi,

4. I proceeded myself to reconstruct the demographic series for Shanghai based on systematic research and compilation in archival and published sources. Pending their publication, these series will be available on the Virtual Shanghai platform (

5. Mary Kilbourne Matossian, “Death in London, 1750–1909,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 16, no. 2 (1985): 183–97; Jean-Luc Pinol, Les mobilités de la grande ville: Lyon fin XIXe–début XXe (Paris: Presses de la Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, 1991); Maurice Garden, Lyon et les Lyonnais au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1970); Marie-Noèl Hatt-Diener, Jean-Luc Pinol, and Bernard Vogler, Strasbourg et strasbourgeois à la croisée des chemins: Mobilités urbaines 1810–1840 (Strasbourg, France: Presses Universitaires de Strasbourg, 2004); Roger Finlay, Population and Metropolis: The Demography of London, 1580–1650 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); Olivier Faron, La ville des destins croisés: Recherches sur la société milanaise du XIXe siècle (1811–1860) (Rome: École Française de Rome, 1997); Ira Rosenwaike, Population History of New York City (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1972).

6. On Chinese-administered districts, see Mark Elvin, “The Administration of Shanghai, 1905–1914,” in The Chinese City between Two Worlds, ed. Mark Elvin and William Skinner (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1974), 239–62; Mark Elvin, “The Gentry Democracy in Shanghai, 1905–1914,” in Modern China’s Search for a Political Form, ed. Jack Gray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 41–65; Christian Henriot, Shanghai, 1927–1937: Municipal Power, Locality, and Modernization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993). On the International Settlement, see Isabella Ellen Jackson, “Managing Shanghai: The International Settlement Administration and the Development of the City, 1900–1943” (Ph.D. diss., University of Bristol, 2012).

7. Technically, the 1942 count was not a real census, but it provided consistent data with a view to establish a rationing system for cereals and other essentials goods under the baojia system. Christian Henriot, “Rice, Power and People: The Politics of Food Supply in Wartime Shanghai (1937–1945),” Twentieth-Century China 26, no. 1 (n.d.): 41–84; Frederic E. Wakeman, “Shanghai Smuggling,” in In the Shadow of the Rising Sun: Shanghai under Japanese Occupation, ed. Christian Henriot and Wen-hsin Yeh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 116–55.

8. Unfortunately, the archives of the Shanghai Municipal Government during the Nanjing Decade seem to have evaporated. To this day, this period represents a black hole in the collections of the Shanghai Municipal Archives.

9. Shanghai Municipal Council, Report for the Year 1873 (Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh, 1873), 61–62 (hereafter cited as Annual Report, [year]).

10. Zhang Mingdao, Shanghai weisheng zhi [Shanghai public health gazetteer] (Shanghai: Shanghai Shehui Kexueyuan Chubanshe, 1998),; “Regulation of Crematorium,” Municipal notification 4433, Municipal Gazette, 11 January 1934; “Modification,” 15 May 1936, U1-4-712, SMA.

11. Letter, Superintendent SMP to PHD, 23 October 1942, U1-16-2530, SMA.

12. “Shanghai shi li ge gongmu ji huozangchang guanli guize,” Shizhenghui, 23rd session, n.d. [1946–1948], S440-1-16-11, SMA.

13. “Shengming tongji zong baogao,” July 1950–June 1951 (1), B242-1-255-1, SMA.

14. Zou, Jiu shanghai renkou bianqian.

15. Linda Cooke Johnson, Shanghai: From Market Town to Treaty Port, 1074–1858 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995), 55, 120–21.

16. Ch. L. Maxime Durand-Fardel, La Chine et les conditions sanitaires des ports ouverts au commerce étranger (Paris: J. B. Baillière, 1877), 106.

17. Kerrie L. Macpherson, A Wilderness of Marshes: The Origins of Public Health in Shanghai, 1843–1893 (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1987), 156; Johnson, Shanghai, 343–44.

18. Shanghai tebie shi gong’anju yewu baogao 1928–1929 [Report of the Public Security Bureau of the Special Municipality of Shanghai] (Shanghai: Shanghai Tebie Shi Gong’anju, 1928), n.p.

19. “Shanghai shi renkou chusheng lü siwang lü ji xing bili,” 1947, Q400-1-1537, SMA.

20. Zou, Jiu shanghai renkou bianqian, 91.

21. Janet Y. Chen, Guilty of Indigence: The Urban Poor in China, 1900–1953 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 206–10.

22. “Shengming tongji zong baogao,” July 1950–June 1951, 21, B242-1-255-1, SMA.

23. Shanghai tongji nianjian 1986, 61 (Shanghai tongji nianjian 1999, 369). In the 1986 yearbook, the population in the rural districts was given as 3.3 million, but as 799,800 in the statistical yearbooks after 1959. All population figures before 1959, including the urban districts, were revised substantially downward.

24. Roy Porter, London: A Social History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 205.

25. Ira Klein, “Urban Development and Death: Bombay City, 1870–1914,” Modern Asian Studies 20, no. 4 (1986): 725–54.