2013
09.20

History of Guangzhou

Also known to many westerners as Canton, Guangzhou has long been one of South China’s 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 lambs, 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: "lambs city" .

Folk tales aside, archaeological remains indicate that humans lived in the region now occupied by Guangzhou as long ago as 5000BC. Settlers from the Yangtze River valley first introduced agriculture in 8th century BC. In 214BC, following his campaign of conquest and unification, China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Hang, created the prefecture (an old administrative area) of Nanhai, with Guangzhou as its administrative seat. By then, the city was already an important river and seaport. 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.

Guangzhou’s 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 during the war. After the Japanese, Jiang Jie Shi 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 Ping’s economic reform policies. Since then, Guangzhou has reclaimed its place as one of China’s most prosperous and thriving cities.

It is believed that the first city built at the site of Guangzhou was Panyu (番禺; the locals pronounced this in Cantonese as Poon Yu) founded in 214 BC. The city has been continuously occupied since that time. Panyu was expanded when it became the capital of the Nanyue Kingdom (南越) in 206 BC.

The Han Dynasty annexed Nanyue in 111 BC, and Panyu became a provincial capital and remains so until this day. In 226 AD, the city became the seat of the Guang Prefecture (廣州; Guangzhou). Therefore, "Guangzhou" was the name of the prefecture, not of the city. However, people grew accustomed to calling the city Guangzhou, instead of Panyu.

Arabs and Persians sacked Guangzhou (known to them as Sin-Kalan) in AD 758, ² according to a local Guangzhou government report on October 30 758, which corresponded to the day of Guisi (癸巳) of the ninth lunar month in the first year of the Qianyuan era of Emperor Suzong of the Tang Dynasty.

During the Northern Song Dynasty, a celebrated poet called Su Shi visited Guangzhou’s Baozhuangyan Temple and wrote the inscription "Liu Rong" (Six Banyan Trees) because of the six banyan trees he saw there. It has since been called the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. In 1711, the British East India Company established a trading post in Guangzhou. The Qianlong Emperor restricted foreign traders to a district in Guangzhou under the Canton System in 1760.

Guangzhou was one of the five Chinese treaty ports opened by the Treaty of Nanking (signed in 1842) at the end of the First Opium War between United Kingdom and China. The other ports were Fuzhou, Xiamen, Ningbo and Shanghai. In 1918, "Guangzhou" became the official name of the city, when an urban council was established in Guangzhou. Panyu became a county’s name south of Guangzhou. In both 1930 and 1953, Guangzhou was promoted to the status of a Municipality, but each promotion was cancelled within the year. Japanese troops occupied Guangzhou between October 12, 1938 and September 16, 1945.

After the communist take-over, urban renewal projects in the city improved the lives of many residents. New housing on the shores of the Pearl River provided homes for the poor boat people. Reforms by Deng Xiaoping, who came to power in the late 1970s, led to rapid economic growth due to the city’s close proximity to Hong Kong and access to the Pearl River. As labor costs increased in Hong Kong, manufacturers opened new plants in the cities of Guangdong including Guangzhou. As the largest city in one of China’s wealthiest provinces, Guangzhou attracts farmers from the countryside looking for factory work. Cantonese links to overseas Chinese and beneficial tax reforms of the 1990s have aided the city’s rapid growth. In 2000, Huadu and Panyu were merged into Guangzhou as districts, and Conghua and Zengcheng became county-level cities of Guangzhou.

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