The 19th century American theologian Theodore Parker, a man whose words inspired both Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, said of cities, that they “have always been the fireplaces of civilization, whence light and heat radiated out into the dark.”
In many ways the urban community is a hallmark of civilization itself. Civilization means an advanced stage of human social development, and our cities — imperfect though they may be — are the showcases for man's greatest achievements. This magnificent city and its spectacular Expo offer a crystal clear illustration of this.
For thousands of years, cities have been the world's laboratories, workshops, music halls and gathering places. The evolution of cities — starting, some 6,000 years ago — has many origins, but sociologists and archeologists cite the need for social contact as a powerful catalyst in development of metropolitan communities. From the beginning, humans have sought each other's company, for companionship, common defense and the exchange of ideas, goods and services.
Historians debate whether it was man's desire to trade that promoted the creation and growth of cities or whether it was the development of the cities that triggered the growth of trade. Likewise, sociologists and anthropologists argue over whether growing trade has been beneficial or detrimental to cities and their people. But in many ways, these questions are moot because many of our most famous cities would never have come into existence were it not for trade.
Cities have always provided the infrastructure which facilitates exchange. The market, the centre for trade in its many manifestations, has long been at the centre of the city. The place where people have come together — to do business, yes, but also to catch up on the news, to share a joke, to learn from others. The organization of cities and the pursuit of trade share a common fabric, man's desire to reach out to others, socially and commercially.
But there are other similarities between the development of trade and the growth of cities. The roots of both lie in the development of technology. Technological advances permitting greater agricultural productivity gave rise to surplus production which freed many people from the need to farm to survive. Occupational specialization created the conditions for city life and for the exchange of goods and services.
Technology that spurred trade in turn gave rise to new and larger cities. As ships became stronger, trade routes grew longer and populations that had gathered along the banks of rivers like the Tigris, the Nile and the Huang He (Yellow River) ventured to coastal regions and established settlements there. This led to the development of urban areas in Egypt, Phoenicia, Greece and North Africa.
During the Han dynasty in China, traders felt new-found security and in the second century BC, caravans left China for Persia, creating along the way, the famous Silk Route.
The notion of order has been essential to trade and the rise of great empires, from the Roman to the British, have also had trade as an important underpinning.
This great city of Shanghai is, of course, a Merchant City. And its history is as varied and colourful as that of any city in the world. The citizens of Shanghai have seen upheaval and stability, prosperity and hard times. Across the centuries, they have seen great projects, foreign occupation and seismic shifts in political and economic fortunes.
But in the nearly one thousand years that have passed since Shanghai was upgraded from a village to a market town , one common thread has run through the city's history — trade. Trade is a central theme in Shanghai's rise and development. Key decisions taken by Emperors and other leaders have bolstered Shanghai's claim as one of the world's great Merchant Cities. In 1684, Emperor Kangxi lifted a 150 year ban on ocean going vessels, enabling ships from abroad to call in Shanghai, while local merchants could seek markets in foreign lands. Then in 1732, Emperor Yongzheng established that Shanghai be the customs office for Jiangsu province — extending to the growing city total control over duty collection for all foreign trade transactions in the province.
From its origins as a fishing and textile town, Shanghai had become, by the 19th century, the commercial capital of China. By the early 20th century, Shanghai had become China's window on the world. At the start of the 21st century Shanghai is a key world financial centre and the world's largest port in terms of volume of cargo, handling more containers than any port save for Singapore and Hong Kong.
The centrality of trade in Shanghai's development is by no means unique. Shanghai's accomplishments are both unique and common. Unique in that no other city in the last century can quite claim such an astonishing rebound in so short a period of time. But the centrality of trade in Shanghai's development is something it shares with a great many other cities over the centuries.
Throughout history cities have risen to wealth and prominence in large measure because they were Merchant cities. The many trade corridors that comprised the Silk Routes date back nearly 3,000 years and served to linking Greek, Chinese, Indian, Egyptian, Persian, Arabian and Roman civilisations. Established 200 years before the birth of Christ, the Silk Route ran from the Yangtze River Valley to the Mediterranean Sea. Traders transported silk, spices, jewellery and perfumes along the route. But more than goods was transported along these routes, ideas, technology and the great religions all spread as result of the growing trade through these corridors.
Some of the great cities established along these routes — Susa, Smyrna, Antioch, Palmyra and Kansu — have been lost to invasion and sacking or to the sands of time, sometimes quite literally as they were swallowed up by the desert. Yet others like Mumbai, Damascus, Samarkand and Xi'an continue to thrive today.
In the 15th century, at a time of intense economic competition from nations seeking wealth from the establishment of trade routes, Christopher Columbus embarked on a trip that would lead him to the American continent. He was searching for a shorter route to the Indies and thus enter the spices trade, but he ended up in the New World, setting up new trade routes.
Trade had led to great alliances like the Hanseatic League of trading cities across the Baltic and North Seas. Among the first regional trade agreements, Hanseatic League members sought to facilitate trade in timber, furs, wheat, metals and cloth through reduced import duties and common protection against pirates. Lubeck, Hamburg, Bremen, Stockholm, Bergen, Bruges and London were among the 100 or so members of the league. Amsterdam, a relatively young Dutch city, was founded in the early 14th century and flourished almost immediately as a result of trade with the League.
While trade has largely served to unite different cities, regions and peoples, it has also exacerbated tensions. The league was shaken by conflicts in the Baltic when invading monarchs seized important towns and changed the nature of trade. A group of cities dedicated to open trade, turned insular and protectionist. The result was the gradual decline of the region.
Wars over trade have erupted as well between rival cities seeking to gain the upper hand in controlling trade routes. Venice and Genoa, two great trading cities, fought three wars in the 14th century.
While great trading cities like Shanghai, Alexandria or Mumbai date back hundreds if not thousands of years many of the world's great merchant cities have only recently become trading powers. In the new world, Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires were established as trading centres in the late 16th century. New York was established, as New Amsterdam, by the Dutch in 1624 who used the city and its deep natural harbour as a commercial trading post in the new world. Cape Town was actually founded by the Dutch East India Company as a way station for ships leaving Europe bound for Asia.
In the 19th century, Singapore and Hong Kong and Seattle were small coastal communities concerned largely with fishing, timber and minerals. By the start of the 21st century, Singapore and Hong Kong were the first and second largest container ports in the world. Both practise the open trade doctrine as enthusiastically as any regions in the world having eliminated tariffs and created the most efficient ports and customs operations in the world.
Centuries of evidence tell us cities that trade well become prosperous and those that don't can suffer. But prosperity can be a double edged sword. Throughout history, merchant cities have been viewed jealously by foreign leaders and have often been targets of attack from those seeking to attain their treasure. Less dramatically, the rapid population growth that has accompanied material wealth in many cities goes hand in hand with problems common in many parts of the world — overcrowding, air pollution, gaps between rich and poor and rising social tension.
It seems evident that in the main trade has served most cities well. The open cities, the trade centres, have certainly generated great monetary wealth. But the wealth of the great Merchant Cities extends far beyond money. As cities which are open to trade and traders, these communities have been centres for the exchange of ideas and culture as well as goods and services. These cities are home to great artists, intellectuals, scientists and athletes as well as business leaders and financiers. This rich tapestry of diversity and innovation makes these cities far more than merchant cities alone. To quote Parker once again, they are truly “the fireplaces of civilization” enlightening and enriching our planet.
Thank you for your attention.