Capital of Guangdong province, Guangzhou is the main industrial centre of south China. A thriving economic and trade centre, the city—still sometimes referred to by its old English name Canton—lies north of Hong Kong and about 145 km (90 miles) from the open sea. The tropical climate means that flowers are in bloom all year, giving Guangzhou its name ‘City of Flowers’.
Guangzhou has been a gateway for trade with China for more than 1,700 years and it was the first port through which European merchants traded with the Chinese. The site has been occupied for more than 3,000 years. The city was the centre of a small state founded by the Shan people and was not finally absorbed into China until the second century AD. By the sixth century AD, the city was walled and had become an important centre of commerce, the home of Arab and Indian traders. Further growth and increasing prosperity in the eleventh century led to the construction of new walls to encompass a greatly expanded city.
Chinese explorers and traders sailed from Guangzhou in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, opening up lucrative trade routes throughout Southeast Asia, and the Mongol invasion of northern China in the thirteenth century saw an influx of migrants from the north into the city. Guangzhou flourished under the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) and, because of the city’s expansion, yet more walls had to be built. By the dawn of the sixteenth century the domination of Arab traders in the region had waned and the Portuguese arrived. In the next 100 years, Dutch and English merchants followed. The British East India Company made Guangzhou the centre of its operations in China at the end of the seventeenth century. More than a dozen ‘factories’—trading posts established by different European countries—were built in the city’s port.
Relations between the Chinese and the traders deteriorated early in the nineteenth century as the European and American traders found restrictions irksome. The Chinese, on their side, resented the illegal importation of opium by the foreigners via Guangzhou. In 1839 Chinese authorities destroyed a major haul of drugs imported by the British. In the resulting First Opium War (1839–42), Chinese forces were routed and Guangzhou only escaped destruction by paying what was effectively ‘protection money’ to the British. Under the terms of the Treaty of Nanjing (1842), Britain obtained free access to the port. France and the US gained similar trading concessions in Guangzhou 2 years later. Chinese resentment of these concessions—and of the use of foreign flags for protection by pirates—led to the Second Opium War (1856–60). Franco-British forces briefly occupied Guangzhou in 1861.
Sun Yat-sen, the great nationalist leader, was a native of Guangzhou. He began his campaign to oust the Manchu dynasty in the city and led an uprising there in 1911. Although unsuccessful, the uprising was the spark that lit the national uprising against the imperial system later that year. Sun made Guangzhou the headquarters of his Kuomintang (Nationalist) Party, but after his death the city saw a power struggle between Communists and Nationalists. Guangzhou was occupied by the Japanese from 1938 to 1945 and, after the war, was under Nationalist control until the Communists took over in 1949.
The city’s industries include electric and electronic engineering (including household appliances and computers) as well as shipbuilding, machinery, textiles and many light industries. Foreign investment has been an important feature of the city’s recent economic development. Guangzhou lies at the centre of a hub of road and railway routes and has an international airport. The 600-metre high Canton Tower, completed in 2010, is China’s second tallest structure (after the Shanghai Tower) and the fifth tallest freestanding structure in the world. After Hong Kong, Guangzhou is China’s principal centre for foreign trade.
Places of Interest
Yuexiu Park, which has several large artificial lakes, contains a fourteenth-century red-coloured pagoda that now holds the municipal museum. Other notable historic buildings are the Huaishen mosque, which dates from the sixth century and is thought to be the oldest in China, and the ornate Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. The China Export Commodities fair, held every spring and autumn, attracts many visitors.