Beijing vs. Shanghai

China's Two Biggest Cities Have a Fierce Rivalry

Chinese History: Tiananmen
Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Lintao Zhang / Getty Images

Beijing and Shanghai are arguably China’s two most famous and most important cities. One is the center of government, the other the center of modern commerce. One is steeped in history, the other is a glittering tribute to modernity. You might imagine that the two fit together like yin and yang, complimenting each other, and maybe that’s true...but they also hate each other. Beijing and Shanghai have a fierce rivalry that’s been going on for decades, and it’s fascinating.

What Shanghai Thinks of Beijing and Vice Versa

In Shanghai, people will tell you Beijing ren (北京人, “Beijingers”) are arrogant and uncouth. Although the city is host to more than 20 million people, Shanghai’s denizens will tell you they act like peasants -- friendly, perhaps, but blustery and uncultured. Certainly not as refined and fashionable as Shanghaiers! “They [Beijingers] smell like garlic,” one Shanghai resident told the LA Times in an article on the rivalry.

In Beijing, on the other hand, they’ll tell you that Shanghai people only care about money; they’re unfriendly to outsiders and selfish even among themselves. Shanghai men are said to place too much importance on business while being impotent pushovers at home; Shanghai women are supposedly bossy dragon ladies who push their men around whenever they’re not too busy spending their money shopping. “All they care for is themselves and their money,” a Beijinger told the LA Times.

When Did the Rivalry Originate?

Although China has dozens of huge cities these days, Beijing and Shanghai have played a major role in China’s culture for centuries. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Shanghai clearly had the upper hand -- it was the center of Chinese fashion, the “Paris of the East”, and Westerners flocked to the cosmopolitan city.

After the revolution in 1949, though, Beijing became the center of China’s political and cultural power, and Shanghai’s influence waned.

When China’s economy was opened up following the Cultural Revolution, Shanghai’s influence began to rise again, and the city became the heart of Chinese finance (and fashion).

Of course, it’s not all macroeconomics and geopolitics. Although denizens of both cities would like to believe their cities are more influential, there is also a grain of truth to the stereotypes and jokes that get passed around; Shanghai and Beijing do have very different cultures, and the cities look and feel different.

The Rivalry Today

These days, Beijing and Shanghai are considered mainland China’s two greatest cities, and although the government being located in Beijing means that Beijing will probably have the upper hand for the foreseeable future, but that hasn’t stopped the two from competing. The Beijing Olympics in 2008, followed by Shanghai’s World Expo in 2010, have been a great source of fodder for comparative arguments about the virtues and faults of the two cities, and denizens of both will argue it was their city that put on the better show when they were on the world stage.

Of course, the rivalry also plays out in professional sports. In basketball, a match between the Beijing Ducks and the Shanghai Sharks can be counted on to be contentious, and both teams are among the best in the league historically, though it has been more than a decade since the Sharks made an appearance in the finals. In soccer, Beijing Guoan and Shanghai Shenhua duke it out for bragging rights each year (though again, Beijing has had more recent success than Shanghai in the league).

It’s unlikely that Beijingers and Shanghaiers will ever see totally eye to eye. It’s worth noting that the Beijing versus Shanghai feud sometimes even extends the ​city’s expatriate communities, so if you’re looking for a Chinese city to live in, choose wisely.