Guangzhou has been China’s window to the world for two millennia

25 April 2014

Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, is one of the great metropolises of China, a centre of industry, trade and enterprise. It has held this title not only in the modern era but for more than two millennia.

During the Tang dynasty (AD 618–907), it was home to more than 100,000 foreign merchants and their families. The site of China’s first mosque, it was a centre of worship as well a place full of meeting venues of different kinds.

In the mid-18th century, it was one of the world’s great trading ports and the only city in the country where foreigners were allowed to live. It retained this monopoly on foreign trade until the First Opium War of 1839, which led to the opening of other cities in China.

In the modern era, following the start of the reform and open-door policy of 1978, it has again become a major economic centre, attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign investment and becoming home to thousands of foreigners from the four corners of the world.

Maritime silk road

Guangzhou has a history spanning more than 2,000 years. Its records begin with the conquest of the area by the armies of the Qin dynasty (221–207 BC). It was then called Panyu, after two mountains nearby named Pan and Yu. The city grew when it became the capital of the Nanyue Kingdom in 206 BC; its territory included what is now Vietnam.

Archaeologists have found African ivory and Persian silver boxes from the Nanyue period, evidence of its trading even at such an early date.

In 111 BC, the Han dynasty conquered the Nanyue Kingdom and the city became the capital of the province of Guang, hence the name Guangzhou. It has remained the capital of Guangdong province ever since. Panyu remains the name of a southern district of the city.

During the Tang dynasty, China was the richest and most technologically advanced nation on earth and a major exporter of silk, lacquerware and porcelain.

Guangzhou was the centre of a ‘maritime silk road’, the sea equivalent of the land routes across Central Asia that took Chinese goods, like ceramics and silk, to the Middle East and Europe. Chinese and foreign ships transported these products to Southeast and South Asia, Mesopotamia, the Middle East, the Arabian Peninsula, Ethiopia, and Somalia.

The ships carried them to Siraf on the northern shore of the Persian Gulf and from there to the Middle East and Europe.

Guangzhou was home to over 100,000 foreign merchants, including Persians, Arabs, Hindu Indians, Malays, Sinhalese, Khmers, Cham, Jews and Nestorian Christians from the Near East.

In 748, Jian Zhen, the Chinese monk who would take Buddhism to Japan, described Guangzhou as a bustling mercantile centre with large ships from Borneo, Persia and Java filled with “spices, pearls and jade piled as high as a mountain”.

A member of the tribe of the Prophet Muhammad sailed from Ethiopia to Guangzhou with a copy of the Koran and established China’s first mosque there. The city had a large foreign quarter, where the visitors lived with their families and had their own restaurants, meeting places and places of worship.

Since 2000, history has repeated itself. The city is again home to tens of thousands of foreigners, including Asians, Arabs, Africans and Caucasians. Like the Persians and Malays of the Tang dynasty, they have come because of its reputation as the “factory of the world”. Most make their living using goods made in Guangdong and other parts of southern China.

Arrival of the Portuguese

The seven voyages of Admiral Zheng He to Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean from 1405 to 1433 promoted overseas trade and created many trading communities abroad. They stimulated the growth of private trade, with Chinese joining with Muslims to develop long-distance trade between China and the Arab countries of the Middle East and Mediterranean Europe. This was one of the main factors that coaxed the Europeans to travel beyond the Cape of Good Hope in search of sought-after products.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive by sea, in 1514. By 1517 they had set up a monopoly on foreign trade. Later they were expelled from the city and in 1557 granted the use of Macao as a place for trade. They kept a near monopoly on foreign trade in the region until the arrival of the Dutch in the early 17th century.

Regional trade became inter-continental trade. The founding of Manila by the Spaniards in the 1570s allowed a greater inflow of silver from Peru and Mexico into the trading system, adding to the silver from Japan. Silver became the international medium of exchange that integrated China and the east and west economies in the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean.

Two triangular trade circles emerged: Malacca – Macao – Nagasaki, and Manila – Macao – Nagasaki, dominated first by the Portuguese and Spaniards and later joined by the Dutch.

The centre of the two circles was in fact not Macao, but Guangzhou, which integrated the domestic economy of China through the trade routes. From 1579, the government started to hold a trade fair for foreign merchants twice a year – the predecessor of the famous Canton Trade Fair that started in 1957. Macao was the outer port for Guangzhou; the foreign areas of Guangzhou continued to host foreign merchants and ships from afar.

Wealth of Guangzhou

The great prosperity of Guangzhou’s foreign trade may be measured by the disproportionate burden of taxation imposed by the central government. In the 1570s, Guangzhou plus Macao had to pay 200,000 taels of silver every year, while the provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang each delivered only 50,000 taels.

The great demand for exports transformed the neighbouring areas of Guangzhou into a large industrial region for the production and processing of silk, tea, chinaware, sugar, cotton cloth, ironware and salt.

Just west of the new walled city outside the old foreign quarters was a commercial area for foreign merchants, with piers connecting the rivers to Macao and Nantou/Tuen Mun in the present day Shenzhen and Hong Kong; it was on the main route from the estuary to the South China Sea.

The imperial government called this area the ‘Thirteen Factories’ where foreign companies, mainly from Europe, were allowed to establish warehouses and offices. It was the only place in China where foreigners were permitted to live.

The Pearl River Delta region had evolved into a hinterland for Guangzhou for production and processing of commodities for export. Guangzhou remained the central city dominating the industrial hinterland as well as being the largest domestic market of China, with export supplies of chinaware from Jiangxi and silk products and cotton textiles from Jiangsu and Zhejiang as well as tea from localities in southern China.

In return, there was demand for imported spices, cotton and, most importantly, silver. In 1640, half of the imports of Manila in terms of value came from Macao, originating from Guangzhou.

Guangzhou had not only become the largest foreign trade port for China and Asia – the Pearl River Delta region had also become one of the most developed economic regions of the nation and an essential link in international trade networks that spanned continents around the world.

Opium War

The Opium War (1839–1842), responsible for the treaty port system in China and Asia, was a disaster for Guangzhou and Macao. Hong Kong replaced Macao as the outer port for Guangzhou and other treaty cities along the coast and the Yangtze River diverted foreign trade away from Guangzhou. In addition, smuggling and the free-trade port of Hong Kong shifted exports and imports from Guangzhou to Hong Kong.

Shanghai became a treaty port in 1843 and the first British concession was set up in 1845. By 1852, the foreign trade volume going through Shanghai surpassed Guangzhou; this made Shanghai the largest trading port of China and Asia. From 1860 to 1900, the national share of China’s foreign trade passing through Shanghai averaged over 50 percent for exports and over 60 percent for imports.

The national share of Guangzhou dropped to around 25 percent in the 1860s and continued to fall in subsequent years.

It lost more than simply the trade along the coast and downstream of the Yangtze River. With the setting up of Hankou as a treaty port in the 1860s, even trade in its traditional hinterland – upstream of the Yangtze River and Jiangxi and Hunan provinces – went east from Hankou to Shanghai.

The position of Guangzhou and the Pearl River Delta region, as well as Macao, declined steadily in the years of trade liberalisation in China. The vast inland hinterland that had been dominated by Guangzhou/Macao for 1,000 years was taken over by Shanghai and a group of treaty ports in Asia, including Hong Kong and those in Japan and Korea.

A major contributing factor to the rapid rise of Shanghai since the 1840s was the migration of merchants and investors from Guangdong and Fujian; they provided Shanghai with funds, knowledge and foreign connections.

Cradle of revolution

History gave Guangzhou and Guangdong province a unique position in China. Its citizens had more contact with the outside world than their compatriots in the rest of the country; as a result, many understood the language, culture and customs of the ‘big-noses’.

More than other Chinese, the people of Guangdong travelled, studied and emigrated abroad, learnt English, French and other foreign languages, converted to Christianity, mastered the skills of foreign trade and accepted foreign ideas like democracy, freedom and modernisation.

So Guangdong became the cradle of the Chinese revolution against the Qing dynasty. Cantonese who had studied in Japan and the United States returned home, inspired by what they had seen, and determined to reform their country as it slipped further and further behind the West.

Dr Sun Yat-sen, the father of the revolution, was a native of Zhongshan who studied in Hawaii and Hong Kong and worked as the first Chinese doctor of Western medicine in Macao. Guangzhou was the main centre of the revolutionary movement within China, where activists and reformers worked to modernise and improve their regions. It was the site of several failed uprisings against the Qing dynasty.

Fall of dynasty

After the overthrow of the dynasty in 1911, Guangzhou became a centre of national political power, as different parties and warlords fought for control of the country. The Nationalist party set up the Whampoa Military Academy there, where it trained officers for a new national army.

In July 1926, Chiang Kai-shek gave a lecture at the academy; it was the start of the Northern Expedition which succeeded in uniting most of China and enabled the party to set up a new capital at Nanjing.

After that, the political importance of Guangzhou declined; the centre of the country moved north. During World War II, the city was occupied by the Japanese army between 1938 and 1945.

Guangdong was spared the worst fighting of the civil war between the Nationalist government and the Communists, which occurred in North and Central China. In April 1949, after the capital Nanjing fell to the Communists, the acting president relocated to Guangzhou.

But he could not resist the Communist forces; they entered the city on 14 October 1949. A new era had begun. (Macao Magazine-Prof.Thomas Chan, Hong Kong Polytechnic University)