Its perimeters defined by the city’s main arteries – Xizang, Nanjing and Yan’an roads – Renmin Square, or People’s Square (人民广场, rénmín guăngchăng), is the modern heart of Shanghai. The area of Renmin Square was originally the site of the Shanghai racecourse, built by the British in 1862. The races became so popular among the foreign population that most businesses closed for the ten-day periods of the twice-yearly meets. They soon caught on with the Chinese, too, so that by the 1920s the Shanghai Race Club was the third-wealthiest foreign corporation in China. It was converted into a sports arena in 1941 by Chiang Kai-shek, who thought gambling immoral. During World War II the stadium served as a holding camp for prisoners and as a temporary mortuary; afterwards, most of it was levelled, and while the north part was landscaped to create Renmin Park, the rest was paved to form a dusty concrete parade ground for political rallies. Only the racecourse’s clubhouse survives, as the venue for the Shanghai Art Museum.
There’s an impressive clutch of sights, with the Shanghai Museum, Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, Shanghai Art Museum and little Museum of Contemporary Art all within walking distance of each other. Add to that an unexpectedly peaceful park, and you have one of Shanghai’s most rewarding destinations.Read More
The unmistakeable pot-shaped Shanghai Museum (上海博物馆, shànghăi bówùguăn) is one of the city’s highlights, with a fantastic, well-presented collection. On the ground floor, the gallery of ancient bronzes holds cooking vessels, containers and weapons, many covered with intricate geometrical designs that reference animal shapes – check out the cowrie container from the Western Han dynasty, with handles shaped like stalking tigers. Most of the exhibits in the sculpture gallery next door are of religious figures – boggle-eyed temple guardians, serene Buddhas and the like, including a row of huge, fearsome Tang-dynasty heads. Tang-dynasty figurines again steal the show in the first-floor ceramics gallery, in the form of multicoloured ferocious-looking beasties placed to guard tombs.
On the second floor, skip the calligraphy and carved seals unless you have a special interest and investigate the painting gallery, which shows some amazingly naturalistic Ming-dynasty images of animals. The colourful top-floor exhibition dedicated to Chinese minority peoples is the museum highlight. One wall is lined with spooky lacquered masks from Tibet and Guizhou, while nearby are colourfully decorated boats from the Taiwanese minority, the Gaoshan. The silver ceremonial headdresses of southwest China’s Miao people are breathtaking for their intricacy, if rather impractical to wear. Elaborate abstract designs turn the Dai lacquered tableware into art. In the section on traditional costumes, look out for the fish-skin suit made by the Hezhen people of Dongbei, in the far north.
Just east of the Art Museum is the north gate to lovely Renmin Park (人民公园, rénmín gōngyuán). It’s surprisingly quiet, with rocky paths winding between shady groves and alongside ponds – the only sign that you are in the heart of a modern city is the view of skyscrapers looming above the treetops. Crossing the lotus pond brings you to the glass-walled Museum of Contemporary Art (上海当代, 艺术馆 shànghăi dāngdài yìshùguăn). This attractive, privately funded museum has no permanent collection but its themed shows are imaginatively curated, and the museum holds regular talks and tours; check the website for details.