Complete History of Guangzhou

The jade burial suit of Zhao Mo in Guangzhou's Nanyue King Museum

Guangzhou, also known as Canto, is the capital and most populous city of Guangdong province in southern China.

Situated on the Pearl River about 75 mi (120 km) north-northwest of Hong Kong and 90 mi (145 km) north of Macau, Guangzhou has a history of over 2,500 years and was a central terminus of the Marine Silk Road, and continues to serve as a transportation hub and major port, as well as one of China’s three biggest cities. Long the only Chinese port available to most international traders, Guangzhou was occupied by the British during the First Opium War. No longer holding a monopoly after the war, it lost trade to other ports such as Shanghai and Hong Kong but continued to serve as a significant transshipment port. Due to a huge urban population and high volumes of port traffic, Guangzhou is categorized as a Large-Port Megacity, the most extensive kind of port-city in the world.

Guangzhou Prehistory – Nanyue

Formerly known as Panyu, Guangzhou was founded on the Pearl River’s eastern bank in 214 BCE. It was the Qin Empire’s Nanhai Commandery’s capital and served as a home for the first invasion of the Baiyue lands in China. Historical accounts claimed that the Panyu soldiers were so watchful that they did not remove their armed armor for three years. Upon the Qin’s eventual fall, General Zhao Tuo founded the kingdom of Nanyue and made Panyu the capital in 204 BCE. It remained autonomous throughout the Chu-Han Contention, although Zhao mediated recognition of his independence in exchange for his formal submission to the Han in 196 BCE.

Archeological data shows that Panyu was an extensive commercial center: in addition to items from central China, archeologists have discovered remains originating from India, Southeast Asia, and even parts of Africa. Zhao Mo succeeded zhao Tuo and then Zhao Yingqi. Upon Zhao Yingqi’s death in 115 BEC, his younger child Zhao Xing was named his heir in violation of Chinese primogeniture. By 113 BCE, his Chinese mother, the Empress Dowager Jiu, took upon him to submit Nanyue as an official part of the Han Empire. The constitutional prime minister Lü Jia (呂嘉) launched a coup, killing Han ambassadors and the king, his supporters, and his mother.

A successful ambush then demolished a Han force that had been sent to arrest him. Emperor Wu took offense and started a large river- and seaborne war: six armies under Yang Pu and Lu Bode took Panyu and conquered Nanyue by the end of 111 BCE.

A Qing-era portrait of the Grotto of the Five Immortals, the Taoist temple around the five stones which gave Guangzhou its nickname “The City of Rams”.

Imperial China

Added into the Han Dynasty, Panyu became a rural capital. In 226 CE, it became Guang Prefecture’s seat, which gave it its current name. The Old Book of Tang covered Guangzhou as an influential port in southern China.

Amid the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms that followed the Tang dynasty’s collapse, the Later Liang governor Liu Yan employed his base at Panyu to build a “Southern Han” or “Great Yue” empire, which lasted from 917 CE to 971 CE. The region enjoyed significant economic and cultural success in this era. From the 10th to 12th century CE, there are reports that the large immigrant communities were not exclusively male but included “Persian women.”

According to the authentic Odoric of Pordenone, Guangzhou was as large as three Venices in terms of area and matched all of Italy in the number of crafts produced. He also noted many gingers available and large snakes and geese.

Guangzhou was visited by the famous Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta during his 14th-century journey worldwide; he described how the Chinese built their large ships in the port’s shipyards.

The Thirteen Factories c. 1805, displaying the flags of Denmark, Spain, the United States, Sweden, Britain, and the Netherlands

The Portuguese landed in Guangzhou in 1517, followed by the Dutch, the Spaniards, French, and British. With all these invaders, the harbor grew larger. The East India Company relocated its headquarters in 1684 here to gain control of its opium trade, which they carried over from India. Imperial High Commissioner Lin Zexu burnt the 1,185 tons of opium in 1839. It was demolished in Humen, a small village in Canton, thus starting opium wars between Britain and China. Numerous uprisings began at the start of the 20th century by C Sun Yat-sen. Modernization began in 1918. Wide streets were laid out, shacks were torn down, canals were filled in, and the town walls were taken down. Years later, in the 1950s, Guangzhou became an important center for foreign and industry trade with products sold such as foodstuffs, steel, textiles, and chemicals.

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