Shanghai Homes as Private Domestic Spaces

Following the end of the Opium War, the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 symbolised the opening of treaty ports. Shanghai’s opening welcomed an influx in  Western traders as well as foreign settlers. The influence of such foreign settlers was apparent across broad swathes of the Chinese community. Such influence was clearly recognisable through the development of architecture in Shanghai. Such an exchange between western modernity and traditional Chinese emerged within Shanghai’s neighbourhoods, in particularly Shanghai’s lilong residences.[1]The rise in Shikumen style housing, which made up a significant proportion of lilong residences, by 1930, serve as insightful spaces of historical artefact, in which Jie Li, has examined thoroughly within her work on Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life (2015). Through maintaining an interdisciplinary approach to the comparison of two shikumen style houses, in which both Jie Li’s paternal and maternal grandparents and family subsequently lived from 1930, through the combination of ethnography and microhistory Li creates her own approach to the subject of such housing in Shanghai as palimpsests, through her approach “Excavate Where I Stand.”[2] Thus through the analysis of the private and domestic space, witnessed with Jie Li’s work the author reclaims the importance of such domestic spaces, and reclaims the space of Shanghai alleyways in history as “Shanghai alleyways.. a palimpsests of voices and noises, past and present.”[3]


Despite critiques of microhistory, which focus on its limited scope, the strength here within Li’s work shows the role of microhistory as facilitating the ‘excavation’ of details, within the private domestic space, which overall serve to contribute to the readers understanding on the topic of enquiry as a whole. By expressing that whilst “a microhistory is not the last nail on the coffin of its subject matter, but rather an invitation to examine similarly obscured lives and to open up the Pandora’s box of a past era.”[4]


Moreover, the approach through its focus on ethnology additionally succeeds in transforming the role of local gossip into a tool, for the use of the historian. As “the private narratives of the past form gossip and family lore.. an undercurrent of private interests, voices and beliefs.”[5] Thus, through this approach historians are able to gain access to otherwise lost oral narratives of a private closed spaces. Which may be viewed as particularly crucial in the case of reconstructing narratives of the private space within Shanghai alleyway homes throughout the early twentieth century. This is summarised accordingly by Li as, “the history of any alleyway should be written as an anthology of gossip exchanged among its residents.”[6]


The importance of the private domestic space in this instance of understanding Shanghai Homes within the period, is reclaimed through the deployment of Li’s ethnographical and micro historical approach, which succeeds in light of sceptics views of microhistory. Let us hope that Jie Li’s insightful approach may be adopted as an alternative approach to examining otherwise unavailable private domestic spaces by historians in the future.





Li, Jie, Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life. (New York:, 2015).

Yang Xianoneng, ‘Shanghai Alleyways: Situating Jinahua Gong’s Shanghai Alleyways’, Cross-Currents East Asian History and Culture Review, Volume No.2, March 2010.


[1] Lilong, is a term used to describe a street, sometimes interconnected where Shikumen housing would be found.

[2] Jie Li, Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Lives, (New York, 2015) p.11.

[3] Ibid.,p.12.

[4] Ibid.,p.14.

[5] Ibid.,p.23.

[6] Ibid., p.142

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