Feisty, rebellious Guǎngdōng is China’s fastest-developing province and also one of the richest. For centuries it was isolated from the rest of China by its mountainous topography, forcing the Cantonese to rely on their own pragmatism and innovation for survival.
Situated in the fertile Pearl River Delta on the South China Sea, the Cantonese have always looked outward to the sea for their livelihood. It was along Guǎngdōng’s 800km coastline that foreign merchants first made contact with China and the ancient Maritime Silk Road had its beginnings. Guǎngdōng’s exposure to the outside world and the independent nature of the Cantonese has often been a thorn in the side of the authorities. In early times, Guǎngdōng was thought to be inhabited by barbarians; it was where disgraced officials from the north were sent into exile.
Guǎngdōng was an economic backwater until Deng Xiaoping’s ‘open door policy’ opened up the province to development. With the establishment of the three Special Economic Zones and trading links to Hong Kong, economic activity in the province took off like wildfire and hasn’t slowed down yet. The once subtropical landscape is now hidden under a sprawl of smoke-spewing factories. Here you’ll witness the future of modern China close up, warts and all.
Even with all the development, there are still some worthwhile places to visit. Guǎngzhōu, the capital, may be chaotic and polluted but it’s also world-renowned for its Cantonese cuisine. Close to Guǎngzhōu is Kāipíng, famous for its unique watchtowers, and a journey downriver from Qīngyuǎn to see the ancient temples of Fēilái and Fēixiá is truly a one-of-a-kind experience.
As China’s southern gateway, Guǎngdōng has had contact with the outside world for over a millennium. Among the first outsiders to make their way here were the Romans, who appeared as early as the 2nd century AD. By the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD), Arab merchants were visiting regularly and a sizeable trade with the Middle East and Southeast Asia had developed.
The first Europeans to settle here were the Portuguese in 1557, who set up base downriver at Macau. They were followed by the Jesuits in 1582, who established themselves at Zhàoqìng, west of Guǎngzhōu. The British came along in the 17th century and by 1685 merchant ships from the East India Company were calling at Guǎngzhōu. In 1757 an imperial edict gave the cohong, a local merchants’ guild, a monopoly on China’s trade with foreigners, who were restricted to Shamian Island. Trade remained in China’s favour until 1773 when the British shifted the balance by unloading 1000 chests of Bengal opium at Guǎngzhōu. Addiction swept China like wildfire, eventually leading to the Opium War.
Guǎngdōng was a hotbed of revolt in the 19th century. The Taiping Rebellion (1848–64), led by the enigmatic Hong Xiuquan, who claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ, tried to establish his own ‘Kingdom of Heavenly Peace’ and recruit members to overthrow the dynasty. The rebellion was crushed with the help of foreign powers.
Twentieth-century Guǎngdōng saw its share of hardships and successes, being the headquarters of both the Nationalist and Communist parties and enduring untold suffering during the Cultural Revolution. After 1978, with the rise of Deng Xiaoping and the decision to adopt an ‘open door’ economic policy, Guǎngdōng became the first province to experience firsthand the effects of economic reforms, with Shēnzhèn, Zhūhǎi and Shàntóu set up as Special Economic Zones. Guǎngdōng’s continued economic success has made it a leading export centre for computers, clothing and household items.