History of Guangzhou

Mother Earth Travel > China > Guangzhou > History

Also known to many westerners as Canton, Guangzhou has long been one of South Chinas principal cities. Its position as a local power base and financial and commercial hub stretches back over two millennia, while the area has been inhabited since Neolithic times. Throughout history, it functioned, willingly or otherwise, as a point of contact between China and the outside world, making it a breeding ground for new ideas, dissent and revolution. After neglect in the early days of the founding of the Peoples Republic of China, the city has recently re-established itself as an important national base for industry and trade.

Like any city with a sense of history, Guangzhou has its very own foundation myth. Legend has it that five gods descended from heaven astride goats, bringing with them five ears of corn to save the local population from starvation. Whatever the truth in this tale, it at least helps to explain one of the old names for the city: "Goat Town."

Folk tales aside, archaeological remains indicate that humans lived in the region now occupied by Guangzhou as long ago as 5000BC. Settlers from the Yang Tze River valley first introduced agriculture in 8th century BC. In 214BC, following his campaign of conquest and unification, Chinas first emperor, Qin Shi Hang, created the prefecture (an old administrative area) of Nan Hai, with Guangzhou as its administrative seat. By then, the city was already an important river and sea port. With this official recognition, it grew rapidly into a major regional center.

During the Tang Dynasty (618-609BC), many foreign visitors to China made their first stop in Guangzhou, and trade soon developed with Arab, Indian and Persian merchants. In particular, the Islamic population flourished, and by the end of the first millennium, the city had a foreign population of about 10,000. The first Europeans arrived in the early 16th century, with the Portuguese gaining a trade monopoly in 1511. The British broke this monopoly in the 17th century, and they were closely followed by the Dutch and the French, all seeking their share in the lucrative trade of tea, porcelain and silk. After 1760, all foreign trade in China was restricted to Guangzhou. In effect, the city had a virtual monopoly.

The popularity of foreign trade (and the foreigners' hunger to profit from it) sowed the seeds of decline for Guangzhou and eventually for all of imperial China. As early as the 1770s, the British, alarmed at an increasing trade deficit, started importing Indian opium through Guangzhou. This had the desired effect of redressing the balance of trade and slowing the flow of silver into Chinese hands, but caused widespread social problems inside China. Worried by these developments, the Qing government banned the opium trade, a decision British merchants chose to ignore.

In 1839, the Imperial High Commissioner, Lin Ze Xu, started an anti-opium campaign, impounding and destroying thousands of tons of the drug in Guangzhou. The British military used this as a pretext to dispatch a fleet, and the situation rapidly deteriorated into the conflict known as the "Opium War." In 1842, the two countries signed the Treaty of Nanjing (the first of many so-called "agreements" forced upon the Chinese by foreign powers), under which the island of Hong Kong was ceded to the British, and Guangzhou became one of five "treaty ports" open to unrestricted foreign trade.

During this period, Guangzhou established its reputation as a hotbed of radicalism and rebellion. Hong Xiu Quan, the leader of the extraordinarily bloody pseudo-Christian, anti-Qing "Tai Ping Rebellion" of the 1850s was a Guangzhou local. He conducted early revolutionary activities in the city. Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Chinese Nationalist Party, was also born nearby, and he launched several failed coup attempts from Guangzhou. He eventually triggered the protests that resulted in the collapse of the Qing Dynasty and the formation of the Republic of China in 1911.

During the early 1920s, Guangzhou retained this rebellious streak, The city saw a number of protests led by students and workers against the continued foreign presence. Some of these demonstrations were met with violence from foreign troops, and more strikes were called in retaliation. Guangzhou even acquired the nickname "Red City" among some observers, an uncanny omen since one of the first communes in China was established here (albeit briefly) under Soviet guidance in 1927.

Guangzhous modern history continued to be turbulent. The city emerged as an important industrial base during the 1930s, but it was seized by Japanese marines in 1938 and remained under Japanese control druing the war. After the Japanese, Chiang Kai-sheks Nationalist forces occupied Guangzhou. In 1949, ruling powers changed hands once more. This time, the city fell to Communist troops under Lin Biao. Due to its strategic vulnerability, it was largely ignored in the central policy written up by Mao Ze Dong. However, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Guangzhou was one of the first cities earmarked for open market reforms under Deng Xiao Pings economic reform policies. Since then, Guangzhou has reclaimed its place as one of Chinas most prosperous and thriving cities.

Text by Cindy Liu; translated by Gao Hai Ping

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