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Life On The Outskirts Of Shanghai

Traveling the liminal zones of Shanghai.

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If I was to tell you that a large portion of Shanghai is farms, small villages, and meager towns you may not believe me. The images that this city conjure up are those of big city congestion, traffic, smog, and subway cars overflowing with humans– it’s the most populous city on the planet after all. These images are the truth . . . for half of Shanghai. The other half is much more hidden. There is another Shanghai that rings the city center like a fat inner-tube. It’s a place full of wide open spaces, factories, farms, run down villages, and people who appear as if the economic reform period hasn’t even hit yet. Shanghai is one of the most rapidly expanding cities on earth, but much of it is currently urban in name alone.

In China, the term “city” (chengshi) is an administrative designation that indicates what political level presides over a given area as well as an indicator of what the land can be used for. In practice, the political divvying up of land is akin to zoning. China is divided up into two main administrative spheres: urban and rural. There are strict rules about what industries and initiatives can flourish in each. Urban land is far more valuable than rural land, and more and more of China is being rezoned as cities, as the reach of China’s municipalities grow and grow. This has led to China having “cities” that contain hundreds to thousands of square kilometers of farms, villages, small towns — sometimes even mountains and forests — within their domains. So you can be way out in what appears to be the countryside while still technically being in the city, which is something that drastically skews the population counts of China’s metropolises.

This also leads to some very diverse urban spheres. One of the aspects about China I like most is that you can go from an uber-modern cityscape of skyscrapers and shopping malls and McDonalds with a vibrant consumer culture to one of old brick houses and winding alleys that are full of old China culture just by turning a corner. In Shanghai this transition is at its most extreme: in one city you have some of China’s richest, its most modern and fashionable, along with peasants hoeing bok choy with an old stick, living on farms that lack even the slightest remnants of the past two decades. To find this other side of Shanghai, all you need to do is pick a metro line and ride it out to its end.

Over the past year I’ve spent more time out in Shanghai’s distant suburbs than any sense-satiating traveler ever should. My reasons for being out there — and you generally need a reason for going out to places so unvisitable — is that I took up an interest in China’s new cities and towns a couple of years ago, and I’ve been going all around the country visiting and writing about them. Though for all intents and purposes I didn’t really ever need to leave Shanghai, as what’s cooking in this city’s rural / industrial outer ring is an extreme representation of what’s happening all over the country. In the process of this project I got to know Shanghai’s hinterlands pretty well:








China reboots the well worn adage that there are no longer any new places to discover, as they are building new places with fervor. A new city presents a new opportunity.


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Filed under: China, New Cities

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3717 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City