The Soul in Shanghai’s Labyrinth

In The Art of Travel Fall 2017, 4. The Spirit of Place, Shanghai by Brooke1 Comment

“The great thing is to try and travel with the eyes of the spirit wide open, and not too much factual information. To tune in, without reverence, idly—but with real inward attention. It is to be had for the feeling, that mysterious sense of rapport, of identity with the ground”—Lawrence Durrell, “Landscape and Character”.

I can not tell you the exact spirit of Shanghai. Although the city encompasses 25 million people and is one of the most homogenous metropolitan cities in the world, I believe each individual has a distinctive experience here. In my opinion, your experience of Shanghai is in large part shaped by your “inward attention.” Having to stutter out a full sentence in Chinese in order to find a subway stop could be seen as an enthusing challenge or a debilitating obstacle. Being asked to be in photos and being pointed at because you’re an American could seem invasive or gratifying. Shanghai is a city that will expose you to behavior, and cultural norms you were oblivious even existed and how you perceive the city is dependent on your reaction.

My own perception of Shanghai’s spirit is undergoing a metamorphosis. I initially couldn’t quite find a place for myself here. The local citizens felt a bit unwelcoming and cold. I felt out of place among a population filled with women with petite statures, even receiving dirty looks when I would wear lower cut tops. I was frustrated with the confusing streets, and how completely spread out the city was. I didn’t feel like I could make a home for myself in the city.

However, I am starting to feel differently about the essence of this city. I’m seeing aspects of the city I was blind to previously. The vibrancy of the city is hidden in the corners of the city. Initially, Shanghai seems almost robotic with a glossy, modern exterior but lacking a soul. However, this soul is very much present it just doesn’t scream at you as it does in some cities. It’s found in the alleyway fruit and vegetable markets with people still using wooden wheelbarrows to transport the fresh produce. It’s in the group of aging Shanghai citizens who come out on Century Avenue at 7 p.m. on Tuesdays to perform an organized dance routine. It’s in the skyline views that no amount of smog could make any less beautiful. It’s also not as sleek and clean as the reflective skyscrapers make it out to be. There is constantly a chaotic mess happening no matter where you look. I, myself, being a mess, find comfort that I don’t have to feel perfect.

As I said in the beginning of this piece, however, this is just how I see the spirit of Shanghai. One of the most prominent aspects of this city is the visible dichotomy of class. On one street, I have seen a man in tattered clothing carrying goods in a clothed bag on a stick while also seeing a woman in a Calvin Klein dress, holding two iPhones. I feel as though each person, depending on their living and class situation sees the spirit of Shanghai differently and the perspectives of each street differ vastly based on each individual’s past. I think, in a sense, that makes it very similar to New York. In both of these messy metropolises, everyone finds something different to take with them. There is something these cities offer for everyone, making the quintessence difficult to pin down and express tangibly.


  1. Hi Brooke,
    I really like your approach to spirit. Your experience in a particular place has a lot to do with your own personal opinions, preferences, and judgements. It also has a lot to do with what you’re used to. For example, someone coming from New York may find the city of Jackson, Mississippi to be quaint, small, and tamed, whereas someone from rural Mississippi sees it as the big city where so much is happening. It seems that you’ve been aware of some major cultural and societal differences that make your view of the spirit of Shanghai different from, say, a person born and raised there. I love that you recognize the necessity to embrace differences and transform uncomfortable situations into learning experiences. I hope your future experiences help shape a positive and wholesome spirit of Shanghai for you!

Leave a Comment