The Muddy Origins of China’s First Public Parks

Although landscaping and gardening have occupied an important place in Chinese culture for millennia, the concept of parks as we know them today is quite new.

Prior to the mid-19th century, what we think of as parks were mostly private gardens built by wealthy literati and businessmen in the courtyards of their homes. The most famous of these were in the Jiangnan region of eastern China, an area that includes the cities of Shanghai, Suzhou, and Hangzhou. Featuring ponds, manmade hills, and lush lawns, their proprietors entertained themselves by emulating the pursuits of ancient literati: admiring the scenery, fishing from decorative bridges, and playing chess under the shade of trees. Some even constructed studies in their gardens so that they could indulge in solitary intellectual pursuits while feeling at one with the environment.

In other words, these private gardens were places where people of high social and economic standing could retreat from the tribulations of society and find inner peace — not communal gathering grounds for urban residents.

That’s not to say there was no place for urban recreation in Chinese cities. As Shanghai grew beginning in the 18th century, the gardens of religious cultural venues like the town god temples of Shanghai County and nearby Qibao Town, together with the Ruizhugong Taoist Temple, became places of leisure and relaxation for residents.

Like their private counterparts, these gardens were mostly constructed according to China’s classical landscaping tradition. Unlike private gardens, they were open to the public and provided locals with a place to go and spend their free time. For example, temple grounds regularly offered visitors concession services like tea and snacks, while on major occasions, such as Mid-Autumn Festival, they might organize special events like moon-gazing or prayers to the Big Dipper.

The modern city park only truly began to emerge in China beginning in the mid-1800s. Following the opening of Shanghai’s port to foreign trade in 1843, a wave of European and American merchants swept into the city, bringing with them, among many other things, the notion that a city ought to have a public park.

An illustration of the Public Garden from 1884, published in “The Great View of Shenjiang.” Courtesy of the author

Fittingly for a booming treaty port, the first park in Shanghai arose, not from social considerations, but territorial and economic ones. Not long after the takeover, Shanghai-based merchants made plans to alter the Huangpu River to make it more easily navigable. In the 1860s, the Municipal Council, which oversaw Shanghai’s British Concession, conducted a study of the plan that found the main obstacle to transportation on the city’s waterways was a whirlpool formed at the confluence of the Suzhou Creek and Huangpu River. As a solution, the Council proposed a “starling-shaped” embankment at this point to redirect the flow of the water.

The confluence was outside the Council’s jurisdiction, however, meaning it wouldn’t be able carry out the plan without authorization from the local Chinese authorities. The British therefore began negotiations with the Circuit Intendant of Shanghai to turn part of the waterfront into a public park — one that would coincidentally achieve the same effect as the original starling-shaped embankment. Pleased by the idea of ​​a public space of respite in the city that residents could enjoy free of charge, the Chinese authorities approved the plan.

On Aug. 8, 1868, a grand opening ceremony was held for Shanghai’s first public park. Though little more than a lawn dotted with some bushes and a single small porter’s lodge, its construction allowed the British Concession to gain rights to an important part of the Suzhou River waterfront while facilitating shipping on the Huangpu River.

Illustration of foreigners playing cricket in Shanghai, from “Dianshizhai Pictorial,” 1910. Courtesy of the author

Illustration of foreigners playing cricket in Shanghai, from “Dianshizhai Pictorial,” 1910. Courtesy of the author

In the ensuing years, park construction became an important tool by which Shanghai’s concession areas expanded their territory. And as the small city continued its transformation into a metropolis, the needs of its growing urban population for recreational space further fueled their expansion.

In some cases, the relationship between parks and urban development was straightforward. As people’s understanding of public health advanced, inner-city landfills and swamps were recognized as sources of disease. In the interests of public welfare and safety, the Shanghai Municipal Council filled in a number of these pits and transformed them into parks.

Meanwhile, as residents looked for ways to add a bit of excitement to the monotony of life in 19th century Shanghai, parks became a venue for physical exercise and sport. The athletic activities introduced by Europeans and Americans, including cricket, soccer, tennis, and swimming, soon morphed into a citywide fad, and sports facilities were installed at the Recreation Ground and Hongkew Park.

The emergence of these sports grounds helped change Shanghai residents’ understanding of the value of physical exercise. Exercise was no longer simply a way to kill the time — it was now an essential activity with a multitude of benefits, including strengthening one’s physique, honey one’s spirit, and facilitating social interactions.

View of Hongkew Park's “baby garden,” published in “The New Map of Shanghai City,” 1908. Courtesy of the author

View of Hongkew Park’s “baby garden,” published in “The New Map of Shanghai City,” 1908. Courtesy of the author

Each sport promised its own benefits. For instance, contemporary accounts suggest residents believed that playing tennis “trained the mind and conferred wisdom,” while swimming could “stimulate muscle development and reinforce the skin.” By the early 20th century, residents were campaigning for more such facilities, eventually driving the Municipal Council to build cricket, soccer, tennis, and croquet grounds at Hongkew Park in 1903, a move that was later imitated at parks citywide.

Another key side effect of Shanghai’s growing park construction program was the emergence of dedicated places for children to play. Facilities specifically catering to children were built in many Shanghai parks, from the women and children’s changing room at the Public Garden — also known as Bund Park — in 1894 to swings and seesaws at Hongkew Park in the early 20th century. As the number of children at parks increased, the Shanghai Municipal Council decided to construct exclusive play areas for children, including a “baby garden” in Hongkew Park. These “baby gardens” not only gave children room to have fun, but also ensured that they didn’t negatively affect the experience of other visitors.

Some conservative Chinese elites worried parks would create space for ‘obscene affairs’ such as dates with members of the opposite sex.

Not everyone was thrilled by the emergence of Western-style public parks in the city, however. For example, the Chinese-language Shen Pao newspaper fretted in 1910 that, as residents spent more time and money in parks, the local economy would be harmed, and that foreigners who didn’t follow the curfew might intervene in domestic affairs. The article’s author also expressed concern that allowing parks to stay open into the evening might turn them into havens for muggers and thieves.

And as more women started to appear in public spaces, some conservative Chinese elites worried parks would create space for “obscene affairs” such as dates with members of the opposite sex. In another Shen Pao article, this one from 1908, the author denounced any women who visited in the city’s parks as prostitutes.

These concerns proliferated even though the European and Chinese authorities tightly restricted the access of Shanghai’s Chinese population to the city’s ostensibly public parks. The Municipal Council opened parks like the Public Garden and Hongkew Park only to foreign residents and Chinese elites — specifically those deemed to be of high “character,” or suzhi — and aligned their opening hours to comply with local custom. Other Chinese could only access a separate park, creatively named the Chinese Garden, which was developed in 1890 as an exclusive Chinese playfield.

It would not be until the 1920s that Chinese, energized by that decade’s patriotic upswell, would win the right to enter any park they pleased. By then, the idea — and ideal — of parks as public spaces that should be open and accessible to all had become firmly entrenched. No longer private playgrounds, they were truly public assets.

Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.

(Header image: A Shanghai Municipal Council planning document shows the design for what was to become Hongkew Park, 1903. The park’s croquet, tennis, cricket, and football grounds can be seen in the blueprint. Courtesy of the author)

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