From the Great Exhibition to Expo 2010 Shanghai

From: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2011-09-20 10:35
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 Now is a good time to review the historical development of world expositions and the spirit of the exhibition as we approach the date for Expo 2010 Shanghai. It is also a good time to review and reflect on China’s participation in past exhibitions and the dream of the Chinese people to host an exposition. In particular, it is extremely important that we better understand the theme of the Shanghai World Expo, namely “Better City, Better Life,” so we can pool the strength and resources of the entire country to ensure the Shanghai World Expo is a success. 

 The 160-year History of World Exhibitions

 People first began holding expositions of this sort with the exhibitions beyond market fairs held in ancient Persia in the 5th century C.E. With the development of the industrial revolution and advances in science and technology in Western Europe at the end of the 18th century, people began yearning for a large-scale exposition featuring a wide variety of products and technologies. Influenced by the Enlightenment and the tide of the French Revolution, France was the first to hold national industrial expositions, staging eleven such events in Paris between 1798 and 1849. These expositions showcased the technological achievements of France and had a great impact on the rest of the world. Great Britain, as the birthplace of the industrial revolution and “the empire on which the sun never sets,” naturally did not want to fall behind its major competitor France, so it decided to hold a world exposition that would bring together the best of everything the world had to offer. Therefore, the Great Exhibition (The Great Exhibition of Industries of All Nations) made its debut on May 1, 1851, marking the birth of world expositions. 

 World exhibitions have been continuously evolving with the times over the past 160 years, and the spirit of such exhibitions gradually became one of exchange, learning, and innovation, thus playing an important role in promoting the development and progress of human society. 

 First of all, world exhibitions provided a platform for exchange among people from around the world. When the Great Exhibition was held, the host country built the well-known Crystal Palace to showcase the achievements of the Industrial Revolution. Adopting an encyclopedic system of presentation, the Great Exhibition afforded visitors an opportunity to see with their own eyes the world’s most advanced technologies and products. As the world became ever more interconnected, people began to change from only being interested in the finest achievements of other countries to considering some of the universal issues confronting all human beings, issues that were not only related to science and technology but to culture and ideology as well. Gradually, a thematic system of presentation emerged, and grand buildings like the Crystal Palace were replaced by theme-based pavilions representing individual nations, regions and corporations, as well as other types of theme pavilions or theme parks, which ultimately led to the formation of world expo sites. The fast-evolving and highly-developed media technology of today’s information society has greatly expanded the space and fields for exchange in world exhibitions and significantly enhanced the quality and efficiency of communication, thus making world exhibitions an ideal platform for people to present themselves to the world as well as the fastest way to acquire the most information they need from others. 

 World exhibitions are also forums and schools where people can learn from each other and benefit from each other’s knowledge. By the end of the 19th century, world exhibitions had gradually evolved from a platform for exhibitions and exchange to forums for discussion and learning, with a special focus on some universal issues affecting the development of humankind and the future of the world. Between 1867, when lectures were first offered in the Paris World Expo, and the 20th century, more and more lectures and seminars were put on the agenda of world expositions, with 426 seminars on offer at the 1958 Brussels World Expo. World expositions in the 21st century have become a grand forum where a diverse array of ideas and beliefs, lifestyles, social engineering programs, research plans and advanced technologies clash and intermingle, a forum where people can improve themselves by learning from others and engaging in lively debates. Cultural diversity is one of the fundamental characteristics of human society in this kaleidoscopic world. Civilizations improve themselves by competing with and comparing themselves with other civilizations and promote their own development when they seek common ground while putting aside differences, and this is what drives progress in human societies. In a certain sense it could be said that world expositions are a dynamic manifestation of the basic characteristics and driving force for the development of human society.

  March 21, 2010, testing the lights at the site of the Expo 2010 Shanghai. / Photo by Xinhua reporter Pei Xin

 World expositions are stages and sites for promoting exploration and innovation as well. Early world expositions paid a fair amount of attention to microscopic exploration and invention, mainly focusing on the development and improvement of new products and new technologies. Later world expositions paid more and more attention to exploration and innovation in macroscopic issues such as the future development of human society and the natural world and innovations in ways of thinking and cultural concepts. World expositions always astonish their audiences with many eye-opening “world firsts.” Technologies and products such as steam engines, telephones, telegraphs, motion pictures, radios, color photographic film, automobiles, televisions, computers, robots and spacecraft have brought continuous improvement to the quality of people’s lives. New ideas and concepts, such as environmental protection, energy conservation, sustainable development, global governance, public health security and harmonious society are an expression of the human spirit in the pursuit of excellence and constant innovation. From the beginning world exhibitions have been a platform for intense competition in which countries are constantly working to keep up with each other. 

 Exchange, learning and innovation are the inherent factors responsible for the long history and constant improvement of world expositions, as well as the reasons for their unique charm and eternal value. 

 The Chinese Dream of Hosting a World Exposition

 Beginning with the Great Exhibition, most world expositions have been held in developed countries, either in Western Europe or Northern America, with the exceptions of the very few that were held in the former British Colony of Australia and in Japan, the only developed country in Asia. Despite their active participation in world expositions, the developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America have long been denied the chance to host a world exposition. 

  The earliest written record discovered concerning Chinese awareness of a world exposition was written by Wang Tao, a political reformer in the late Qing Dynasty. He wrote Notes from Sightseeing Travels, in which he described his visit to the Paris World Expo in 1867. Descriptions about a few later world expositions have also been found in the diaries or literary works of some Chinese diplomats stationed in Europe and America in the Qing Dynasty such as those of Guo Songtao, Ma Jianzhong, Li Shuchang, Zhang Yinhuan and Chen Jitong. Li Gui’s work, A New Account of a Trip around the Globe, published in 1878 was the first book to give Chinese people a fairly comprehensive understanding of the grand scale and wide variety of exhibitions at world expositions and allowed Chinese people to get a glimpse of the “advances and novelties” of the Western world. Li Hongzhang, a leading statesman in the late Qing Dynasty, wrote a preface for the book expressing his great appreciation for world expositions as a form of international exchange, noting that they “brought significant and profound benefits to the country.” 

 Chinese participation in world expositions can be traced back to the Great Exhibition of 1851, when Xu Rongcun was awarded a silver prize and a gold prize from Queen Victoria for his own brand of silk, Yung Kee Huzhou Silk. According to the Report of the Awards Committee of the First Exhibition in London published by the Royal Society, the awards committee decided to award the prizes to Yung Kee Huzhou Silk from Shanghai, China for its popularity and highly acclaimed quality. The first Chinese official to participate in a world exposition was Li Gui, the author of the book A New Account of a Trip around the Globe. As Secretary of Customs in Zhejiang, China, Li Gui represented the Chinese government at the 1876 Philadelphia Expo in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of American independence. In his book, Li Gui depicted in great detail the Chinese exhibits at the Philadelphia Expo, including local specialties and handicrafts such as silk cloth, tea, porcelain, and cloisonné articles, items that were very popular and in short supply. He also acknowledged that the inexperienced Chinese merchants sent more goods than could be accommodated in the reserved exhibiting areas. In addition, Li Gui also recorded a historically significant event, the participation of the 113 Chinese adolescents sent to the U.S., who met with Ulysses S. Grant, the current president of the U.S.. According to the Encyclopedia of China, China actively participated in the 1904 St. Louis Expo where Chinese exhibitors exhibited a model of the Summer Palace in Beijing. At later world expositions, nearly one hundred of the items exhibited won prizes, including Moutai and Wuliangye (famous types of clear liquor), Suzhou embroidery, Peking snuff bottles, Huzhou brush pens, Qingtian stone carvings, Changzhou combs and Changyu Brandy. 

 As more and more Chinese people came to learn about, appreciate and look forward to world exhibitions, some thinkers and cultural workers began proposing holding a world exhibition in China. Most of their world expo dreams were expressed in the form of science fiction or a novel and some even predicted that a world expo would be held in Shanghai. Wu Jianren, a novelist in the late Qing Dynasty, was perhaps the first person to describe such a fantasy. In his science fiction novel, The New Story of the Stone, Jia Baoyu returns to Earth to visit a world expo being held in Shanghai. The author also said in the novel, “The expo site was right outside my door, where the participating countries had set up their pavilions around the site to exhibit a variety of items. Chinese provinces also set up their own exhibition pavilions, which were hives of activity displaying a variety of exotic articles, too many to count.” Liang Qichao, the famous reformist statesman, in his book, The Future of New China (1902) also imagined the scene at an exhibition that would be held by the Huangpu River in Shanghai 60 years in the future. He wrote that “forums were set up all over the site for daily seminars and the expo site covered a wide area of Shanghai, including the area north of the river, Wusongkou and Chongming County.” Zheng Guanying, another reformist, also mentioned a world expo in Shanghai in his representative work, Words of Warning in Times of Prosperity. “The first choice for an exhibition in China must be Shanghai.” Lu Shie, a writer from Qingpu, Shanghai, described in his book, China Forty Years in the Future (1910), his dream vision of an “Exposition of Ten Thousand Countries” in Pudong, Shanghai, writing that for the exposition, “a huge iron bridge was built over the Huangpu River to reach Pudong on the other side.” In addition, he envisioned that Pudong (meaning east of the Huangpu River) had already become as thriving as Puxi (west of the river). This must have all seemed like wild dreams and predictions at the time, but they have all pretty much become reality today, showing the wisdom and foresight of these scholars and writers.

  In retrospect, the past dreams about world expos in China actually were a manifestation of the hope that China would one day carry out reform and opening to the outside world, save and strengthen the country and rejuvenate the nation on the part of insightful people in the late Qing Dynasty and early years of the Republic. They couldn’t have dreamed that, almost a century later, China would set out on a road of reform and opening up, grow stronger and stronger and actually bid in 2002 to host the World Expo and that Shanghai would actually win the right to host the 2010 World Expo, making China the first developing country outside of the US and Europe to hold a world expo. China’s dream of hosting a world expo is at last coming true!

 Better City, Better Life

 The theme of a world exposition is the soul of the entire exposition, and the entire process of staging the exhibition is a process of interpreting the theme. The themes of past world expositions usually reflected the concerns of the people and the state of social development at the time and were characterized by a blend of the traditions of the host country and the modern world. The theme of the Shanghai World Expo – “Better City, Better Life” – has profound significance.

  Only 2% of the world’s population was living in cities at the end of the 18th century. This figure rose to 29% in the mid-20th century, and going into the 21st century, half of the world’s population lived in cities. A UN report estimates that, by 2010, city dwellers will account for 55% of the world’s total population. During this mushrooming process of urbanization, however, people living in cities are being confronted with a series of challenges that grow more acute by the day. People must deal with competition for limited space, traffic congestion, increased crime, cultural friction, shortage of resources and environmental pollution. Without scientific management, the disorderly expansion of cities will erode their vitality and lower the quality of city life. 

 It was pointed out in the Istanbul Declaration on Human Settlements (1996) issued by the United Nations Human Settlements Program that “our cities must be places where human beings lead fulfilling lives in dignity, good health, safety, happiness and hope.” The various challenges confronting the development of cities all stem from imbalances in the relationship between people and nature, relationships among people, and the relationship between spiritual and material needs. Concepts such as “harmonious living,” “harmonious cities” and sustainable urban development have been proposed since the 1980s to address these problems. National governments and municipal authorities have all proposed strategies for urban development, basically all centering on the theme of achieving harmony between people and the city and between people and the nature, and ultimately realizing sustainable urban development. Everyone knows that harmony has always been an important value concept in Chinese civilization, and it is also a social ideal that has been constantly pursued by the Chinese Communist Party. Chinese scholars have carried out a great deal of exploration and study to determine how to achieve “harmonious cities.” They proposed that “harmonious cities” should feature different cultures coexisting in harmony, harmonious economic development, harmonious living in the era of high technology, harmonious operation of community systems and harmonious interaction between urban and rural areas. 

 It was just this kind of combining of the ideals of the age with the wisdom of humankind that led to the formation of the theme for Expo 2010 Shanghai– “Better City, Better Life,” which has great practical significance for China’s urbanization process. The theme covers five sub-themes: “Blending of Diverse Cultures in the City,” “Economic Prosperity in the City,” “Innovations of Science and Technology in the City,” “Remodeling of Communities in the City,” and “Interactions between Urban and Rural Areas.” The Theme Pavilion includes five sub-pavilions, “Urban Dwellers,” “Urban Beings,” “Urban Planet,” “Urban Future” and “Urban Civilization,” which offer specific interpretations of the general theme. In summary, Shanghai World Expo will express man’s pursuit of the ideal of “Better City, Better Life” through the concept of harmonious cities. It will focus on three issues: First, what kind of city will offer better and more harmonious living? Second, what kind of lifestyle will make cities better and more harmonious? And third, what kind of urban development pattern will lead to a better and more harmonious Earth?

 Expo 2010 Shanghai will also include a variety of summit forums, theme forums and public forums to provide platforms for public participation. You can be sure that the Shanghai World Expo will be a platform of unprecedented scale where the wisdom and best ideas from around the globe will be gathered, a place where people can exhibit and learn about the latest advances and innovations in the management and operation of cities. Through this platform, people from around the world and all over China will be able to learn from each other and exchange views on successful practices in urban development. It will strongly promote exchange and cooperation between China and the other countries of the world in the field of urban development and further stimulate harmonious urbanization in China as well as the rest of the world. 

(From Qiushi in Chinese No. 21, 2009)

Note:  Author: Chairman of the Shanghai World History Association and a research fellow in the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

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