I’ve lived in all three places (OK Beijing was only for about six months total, but Taipei was for four years, and Shanghai for 2 years so far).
I would say Taipei beats Beijing or Shanghai in overall quality of life. The people in Taipei are a million times nicer. The place is also cleaner, with better access to nature, less pollution, a relaxed vibe, some excellent food, and plenty more.
That said, Beijing and Shanghai do have their charms. I live in Shanghai, but funnily enough I would probably say I prefer Beijing.
Shanghai is probably easier to get used to comming from Taipei, since in some ways it is similar to Taipei (crowded, dense, convenient, somewhat similar way of speaking Mandarin, and hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese living here too!).
Beijing is very different from Taipei. People behave totally differently, they talk differently (they always sound sort of like they are permanently chewing a couple of dumplings), the place is incredibly dry, cold and dusty.
Mix of good and bad for both places. . .
Good points of Shanghai:
- Convenient (i.e. convenience stores all over the place, well set up for doing business, lots of amenities like gyms etc.)
- Tons of decent western food, much of it quite reasonably priced
- Very dense (you can literally walk around the more interesting and foreigner friendly parts of town)
- Exciting vibe, with lots of changes going on etc (wears thin after a while though)
- Plenty of interesting spots to explore nearby (Suzhou, Hangzhou, Nanjing are all within a couple of hours travel)
- The nice old architecture is something you appreciate immediately comming from Taipei, but after a few months it just kind of fades into the background.
Bad points of Shanghai:
- The locals are arseholes. They have all the bad features of Taiwanese (i.e. obsessive focus on work and money) without any of the nice features (i.e. friendliness). The guys are rather wimpy (many of them work a full time job and then go home to cook and clean while the wife gambles their savings away with her majong buddies). Meanwhile, the women tend to be useless gold digging types intent on hooking up with some poor sap and leeching off him until death ends his misery.
- Local Shanghainese food isn’t the greatest. Fortunately you have a great choice of restaurants with food from other countries and other parts of China. Unfortunately, the quality of the regional Chinese food is probably a little lower in Shanghai than in Beijing.
- The crowds, the noise, the general filth, and the air pollution can all get to you. However, Pudong (the newly developed area east of the river) is infinitely better in this regard than Puxi (the old town on the west of the river). But then Puxi is where 90% of the good restaurants etc. are.
- For me the place is just lacking in any soul.
Good points of Beijing:
- Interesting and friendly people. They can really get on your tits at time, and I hate the way they speak, but underneath it all they are far more interesting than the Shanghainese. More likely to have lives outside of work.
- Space! The roads are massively wide and you won’t feel at all crowded in most parts of town. The parks are also huge and lovely. Of course the downside to so much space is that you can forget about walking anywhere much.
- Tons of cultural stuff to see and do. . . Lots of museums, exhibitions, historical sites, galleries etc. You shouldn’t get too bored.
- Great food. The local Beijing food is a bit heavy on the MSG, but it is tasty and portions are MASSIVE. The regional Chinese food is better quality than in Shanghai. Sichuan and Xinjiang food are particularly good. Cantonese is less good but still very adequate. Non-Chinese food situation is similar to Shanghai. At any rate you shouldn’t go hungry here.
- Plenty of interesting bars, coffee shops, etc to hang around in.
- Nightlife is a little more ‘genuine’ than in Shanghai. Shanghai is all about going out to the most expensive spot you can find and posing. Beijing is more about actually socializing with people.
- Relatively easy access to countryside compared to Shanghai. Good hiking spots around the Great Wall and other places.
Bad points of Beijing:
- The weather can get to you I guess. I’ve mostly been there over winter. It gets very cold with freezing winds. Apartments are well heated though. In April there are dust storms with a very inconvenient. You might want to use some moistereiser or something on your skin because the air is incredibly dry.
- The distances involved in getting around the city can be daunting, meaning you might get out less than you should.
- People can be a little ‘political’. You may end up having awkward conversations about Taiwan.
- The ‘northern culture’ might not be your thing. I appreciate alot of things about northerners, but I feel a bit more distance when dealing with them than I do with southerners. Just an individual thing I guess.
And in both Beijing and Shanghai you get the normal Mainland China nuisances: beggars, filth, dishonest shopkeepers, prostitutes accosting you and chasing you down the street as you leave a five star hotel late at night, screaming at you “Hey Cowboy! Hey Sailor!”, prostitutes who want to learn English so they can broaden their client base accosting you in the street and asking for English lessons, idiots screaming ‘hello’ at you in the street, etc.