How Shanghai Got Its Name

Things to Do — By Lauren Johnson on April 22, 2011 at 6:00 am

Dating back to the 11th Century Song Dynasty, the name Shanghai refers to two characters that imply the name “Above the Sea” or “The Upper Sea”although historians and etymologists don’t seem to agree on which meaning is the intended Song Dynasty one. Some speculate that Shanghai was literally on the ocean at one point before the oceans receded somewhat, leaving the Huangpu River and Suzhou Creek, and revealing the marsh of Pudong Island, which was once under water. If this is the geological truth of the area around Shanghai than the name most likely means ‘On the Sea’ which the town literally would have been.

Still other historians think that the changing nature of the area means the town was called Shanghai for its transient nature, and ‘The Upper Sea’ meant the sea would move to and fro above the town. This is a more romantic and observant name for the town, and however fascinating is somewhat less likely to be factually true. The image (left) shows the relatively high water table around Shanghai (the city center is located around the area where the Huangpu River juts out to the West).

Finally, most locals explain the name to mean ‘Above the Sea’ which is a closer translation to the actual characters that comprise the name Shang (Above) and Hai (Ocean or Sea). Thus, above the sea could indicate that part of the town is under the sea, or that the town was situated exactly where it was to remain above the sea, aka- not to fall into it. Pudong protects the city of Shanghai from the ravages of the ocean, and it has remained relatively safe, removed from the ocean’s rough waves, and the dangerous temper of the Seas around this area.

In recent historical texts we find many references to Pudong as a marsh. Pudong is the area of the East of the Huangpu River, and today is full of the most famous sky scrapers in the city. The center of Pudong business is Lujiazui, the area on the Eastern side of the jutted out part of the Huangpu River.

Pudong was a marsh land when the Japanese invaded, they set up camps there and found their soldiers becoming sick from the constant exposure to water. Even today, experts say the island of Pudong is sinking from the weight, and from the lack of firmness in the earth. Still, the island is being built up and a new Disney World will be constructed on the fringes of the city in coming years.

The meaning of Pudong is East (dong) of the River (Pu). The area West of the river is called Puxi, (xi meaning West, Pu meaning River).

Tags: huangpu, pudong, puxi, shang hai, shanghai name